Meet Dr. Fatimah, who uses rich multimedia storytelling to teach math online

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From the earliest cave paintings to the evolution of modern language, stories have been told, re-told, and passed down through generations. Storytelling is human nature, and its widespread appeal means that it is also an important element in how we learn.

One such storyteller is Dr. Fatimah Abdul Razak, an OpenLearning Ambassador and Associate Professor of Mathematics at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. She believes in telling stories with mathematics, as to her, it is the most beautiful language of them all. 

In this post, we spoke with Dr. Fatimah to find out how she became interested in math education and how she shares her knowledge with others online.

The journey so far

Dr Fatimah developed an interest in mathematics early on, recalling that she felt it was a logical subject and something that does not require rote memorization. 

Soon after her undergraduate degree in 2006 at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), she began tutoring at IIUM and later secured a teaching job at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). Since then, she has taught Linear Algebra, History of Mathematics and Network Science, earned a PhD in Mathematics, and conducted multi-disciplinary research on using mathematical approaches to tell stories from data.

Recently, when Malaysia went into lockdown, Dr. Fatimah started making explanatory videos to highlight how mathematics could help to explain the spread of COVID-19. She channeled her passion for data storytelling into video competitions organised by her favourite YouTubers (3b1b and Veritasium) and was awarded first place in a national competition for her video on flattening the curve of the pandemic, delivered in Bahasa Malaysia. 

👉 Watch now: Dr. Fatimah’s YouTube videos explaining the spread of COVID-19.
💡 Read more: Who are the superspreaders? Article by Dr. Fatimah Abdul Razak.

These experiences set the stage for her journey into online courses. Amidst the widespread effort to move teaching and learning online during the pandemic, Dr. Fatimah also began experimenting with the OpenLearning platform. 

“The OpenLearning Ambassador Program came at the right time,” she tells us, referring to the five guided workshops and courses for educators to build their skills in online course design, assessments, and facilitation. “I was learning all I could about how to teach and present mathematics online. It was an eye-opener.”

Given time and the opportunity, Dr. Fatimah shares that she would like to create more videos that use mathematical storytelling to convey information to the public. 

“I see that the OpenLearning platform complements YouTube videos quite nicely,” she says, adding that she has created a course around such videos. “The short course is called ‘Networks’, and my students are loving it. It’s free to learn and I welcome any feedback.”

Course teaser video for ‘Networks’: Why does social media seem to know more about you than yourself? How did Cambridge Analytica use Facebook data so successfully? Network analysis is the key. This course introduces concepts of networks in real life.

🔎 Join the course: ’Networks’ by Dr. Fatimah Abdul Razak
🌟 Tutorial: How to create an online course with resources you already have

Getting started with learning design

For Dr. Fatimah, the learning design process begins with the end in mind: “I will usually envision what I want the output to be and an ideal situation of what I want the students to learn. When I get demotivated (who doesn’t?) I try to picture the satisfaction of knowing that I will teach someone something that can change their lives.”

When she began conducting maths lessons online, it became clear that some learners may not feel comfortable speaking up in an online setting.

“In a synchronous online class, if the size of the class is not too big I will call out the students one by one (or by group) to have them answer various questions. The questions will not be too difficult and I will as much as possible guide each student to answer the question with hints and probes. It is my hope to build their confidence so that they will volunteer to answer questions in future.”

💡 Read more: Envisioning the output of your course with learning outcomes
👉 Read more: Facilitating a live synchronous online class

Dr Fatimah’s advice for other course creators?

1. Different students learn differently. 

“Some prefer online and some don’t. Barbara Oakley’s MOOC: Learning How to Learn is one of the most popular MOOCs in the world because she explains this very well. It highlights how some people are fast learners or slow learners and the various techniques that can help both types learn and retain more information.”

2. We all learn at different paces. 

“When I was at Cambridge, I failed one of the subjects I took, however I did manage to pass the others. So it was both a failure and an achievement as it showed me that given time I can learn difficult subjects. That one failure may have needed more time. It serves as a reminder to be patient with my students, as we all learn at different paces. The online platform usually allows students to learn at their own pace.”

3. Try taking an online course yourself.

“First, try taking an online course yourself—perhaps on the OpenLearning platform. There are a lot of free and useful courses. It changed the way I teach online. I find the OpenLearning platform to be user friendly both for students and creators. It is a good place to start experimenting with online learning and teaching.”

Where to go next:



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