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Meet the Pittsburgh professor making math as cool as TikTok

On the online instruction platform Live, high school math stars livestream math classes to middle school students. The high schoolers receiving coaching from actors and comedians to make the sessions more entertaining.
On the online instruction platform Live, high school math stars livestream classes to middle school students. The high-schoolers receive coaching from actors and comedians to make the sessions more entertaining.

Students grew accustomed to remote learning earlier in the pandemic, but to Carnegie Mellon University math professor Po-Shen Loh, it was an imperfect substitute for in-person instruction. So a year ago, he launched online courses modeled on popular video-sharing apps such as TikTok, Instagram, and Twitch.

“I'd seen what everyone else was doing with Zoom classes, and I found them completely boring,” he said. “I'm not blaming the teachers: I was one of them too. … It's not our fault. The problem was that the Zoom platform was just not designed to engage people.”

TikTok, YouTube and a host of other video platforms, by contrast, can be addictively engaging, and Loh wants students who use his site, Live, to have the same level of fun.

“They're not the kind of classes that a parent would just have to force their kid to go and watch,” he said. “They're designed to use the same techniques that an entertainer uses to suck you in.”

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On Live, two high school math whizzes teach hour-long sessions to middle-schoolers. They livestream the classes, meaning they can respond in real time to students’ comments, which float onto the screen as they do on Instagram Live and Twitter Live. The instructors write math solutions that instantly appear in front of them in the video. And they illuminate their rooms in different colors to channel livestream gamer vibes.

The teachers develop their individual personas, too, with coaching from actors and comedians.

“What makes our experience novel is that … it is not just one person talking to the class. It is two highly energetic, well-spoken, interesting people who are about your age. They're smiling, and they're geniuses. And these people are teaching you how to think about math,” Loh said.

The Carnegie Mellon professor has served as the national coach of the U.S. International Math Olympiad since 2014, and he said for now, Live aims to supplement the education of high-performing math students.

“Whenever you teach a class, you can teach the middle 80% pretty well. But then, it's difficult to also have enough time and resources to cover the top 10% and the bottom 10%,” he said.

But he added, “We're trying to significantly increase the number of people who are in this top 10% group. Once that number is bigger, we'll have even more facilitators who can help to teach even more people.”

Since founding Live in December 2021, Loh has trained 100 advanced high school math students from around the country to be instructors. They first had to survive a thorough vetting process that required each of them to write a statement explaining their interest and qualifications, teach math problems, submit an audition video and complete an interview.

The job pays $10 or more an hour, and Loh said the drama coaching helps the high-schoolers to improve their communication skills and prepare for college admissions interviews. Today, Live employs several actors and comedians and pays them between $20 and $30 per hour, according to Loh.

Close to 1,000 middle school students in the U.S., China, and Saudi Arabia have signed up for Live courses so far, he said, and some schools in Baltimore and Trenton, N.J., plan to offer the program as an extracurricular activity for top students. Loh said he is exploring similar opportunities in Miami and New York City, with the support of philanthropists who subsidize the cost of instruction.

The full cost is $20 per hour, but students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches may be charged as little as $2 per hour or less. Each course consists of 20 one-hour classes.