Teaching Technology

September 1, 2007

I started teaching this semester using moodle. I am pretty happy with it. I think there is a lot of potential to make teaching more productive. In the process I got really interested in the whole issue of technology and teaching. Last week there was an article in the Washington post on the issue describing how education technology is becoming a fast-growing business. At the very end it mentions Moodle as a free (open source) alternative to Blackboard and how UCLA has decided to switch to using it. I find this a significant move; UCLA is not exactly a small college, we are talking about a pretty big operation. I look forward to seeing how things go.

A quick search uncovered this interview with Ruth Sabean, the assistant vice provost for educational technology at UCLA, where she discusses the decision. It is interesting and so is the posted discussion with readers at the end. In particular, I was led to this insightful post at e-Learning, a blog by Michael Feldstein from Oracle, who claims that “The monolithic closed source LMS [Learning Management Operating System] is dead meat.”

Incidentally, UT uses Blackboard, which according to the Washington Post article “was founded in 1997 by a few 20-somethings who quit comfortable jobs to start the company. The dot-com boom swept up Blackboard, and it weathered the subsequent bust before going public. Last year, it had sales of $180 million.”

Dead meat or not the question for me is: are we really improving the way we teach? or are we just using new tools to make the usual easier? We all know that writing a paper in TeX (and who doesn’t?) does nothing to its content, neither does giving a powerpoint talk.

On a related topic what I would really like to see is a web environment for collaboration in Mathematics. There are a number of systems out there that could be adapted for this purpose but I have yet to find one I am really satisfied with. Sakai looked promising but it doesn’t seem quite ready for what I have in mind yet.

I’d love to have something like this: a browser based interface (so that one could login from anywhere, whatever the operating system is) that allows one to up/down-load files, keeps an easy-to-use history of the files as they evolve, create webpages, link to documents, etc. It should have a broad array of communication tools: voice, video, whiteboard, chat, forums, etc. For mathematics the chat should have an automatic TeX formatting filter that would allow people to type formulas in TeX while talking via Skype, say. Finally, a powerful and smart search feature (within the system as well as the archive, numdam, JSTOR, GDZ, etc.) including, if they so allow it, other people discussions.

It seems to me that if technology is going to take us to a higher level of doing research it will only do so by increasing the opportunities for the random associations that fuel it. Powerful and smart searching is crucial for this. Am I the only one annoyed by, say, the searching capabilities of mathscinet? Unless you know an author’s name exactly chances are you’ll never find the paper you’re looking for.

As an example, the following funny thing happened to me recently. I was looking for material on a few integrals that have value a rational multiple of pi squared, which Coxeter talks about in the preface to his book “Twelve geometrical essays”. These arose from some volume calculations and are in one of his earliest papers. I quickly found the paper by Wagner, Peter, “Solution to a problem posed by H. S. M. Coxeter”, C. R. Math. Rep. Acad. Sci. Canada 18 (1996), no. 6, 273–277 (related to a different integral actually). The review in Mathscinet has the phrase: ” The method seems to be due to Tortellini in Crelle’s Journal 34 and is explained in Dirichlet’s Bestimmte Integrale.”

I was intrigued both by the alluded method and the name of its author, Tortellini. I had never heard of a mathematician of that name (of any era). A search in mathscinet with the author’s name gave nothing. At least the reviewer, H. W. Guggenheimer, had included the reference to Crelle’s Journal volume 34. A search in GDZ (not that straightforward either actually, I searched for Crelle in title, then clicked on the Journal’s actual name “Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik”) yielded the table of contents of volume 34 showing a paper by Barnaba Tortolini! Talk about a Freudian slip.

Actually, who was Barnaba Tortolini?

I find myself spending a lot of time searching for something (on the web, my hard disk or my office), which I know I have found before… (For example, I had to reconstruct the above Tortellini/Tortolini story all over again.) I could, of course, be more organized but wouldn’t it be great to have your computer help you out?