Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Teaching Math Online

Online education is a huge concern for me because I’m teaching my first online class this spring. Even more than that, I’m interested in taking a number of our other classes online. There are significant challenges for math online that primarily text-based disciplines like English and History don’t have to contend with. Technology is catching up quick though. One cool thing about Amatyc was that all the publishers and companies working on technical solutions were there. I got to see a lot of very promising gadgets and apps. One thing that came up between myself and my colleagues was the desire for a publisher platform that taught the students well and gave the teachers great tools to conduct a course. At Tunxis, Sue and I have been using MyMathLab in our on ground classes. This has worked very well for us. It gives us good tools to manage the course, good technical support, and most important, MML is rapidly improving its services. The problem using MML for online courses is that its instructional materials do very little to take advantage of the online environment. A MML course is effectively a regular text book available as a PDF online. Pearson also gives instructors power points, and videos of lessons, but none of the materials is interactive.

At Amatyc I was looking for something that “taught” students better. Plato/Academic Systems has exactly this reputation. I attended a focus group with a bunch of experienced Plato users to find out more about the product. What is agreed: Plato really teaches. They have figured out how to make each lesson interactive. They have chunked learning, so that students look (and interact) with screens not pages. (Read, no scrolling endlessly through a PDF). Students also work practice problems at increasing stages of independence until the concept is learned.

Okay, so what’s bad about Plato? Course administration. Everything MML does well, Plato is woefully ill-equipped for. Furthermore I don’t get the sense that Plato is moving as fast to improve its products. There was a lot of frustration in the room on the part of longtime users. The most promising thing I heard all evening was that Plato reps seemed to hint that they are considering abandoning their course management system altogether and just writing e-books for Blackboard, Vista, Angel, and other course management systems. This seemed like a good idea. Do what you do well, and partner with somebody else to handle the other stuff.

I also attended a MML workshop on online teaching. There were a lot of feature requests from the audience in the question period. One question I asked was why Pearson isn’t having authors develop math modules instead of texts. That is, why their authors don’t write for the screen. I was told that material of this sort is set to be released this January. The two people sitting next to me had even been reviewers for it. This sounds very promising. I’m going to try and get a look at it. I’ll definitely post on that if I can get access.

The good news is that whoever gets there first, these companies, and I expect others, understand how important it is to integrate powerful efficient course management with materials developed for the online student. The good news is we’re getting closer!

(more old school computer pics)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

AMATYC or bust!

Sue and I headed down to Washington on the Amtrack with our Naugatuck buddies. Your seeing Sue and Sandy in the picture. It was a long ride, but very comfortable. I graded tests the whole way. I'll post some more after I attend some of the breakout sessions. I'm looking for good problems and tips on conducting math courses online.

Friday, November 14, 2008

the quiddler massacre

This is a little belated, but I couldn't help it. Sue and I played her family game, Quiddler, at the Barnes Seminar last May. Guess who won.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Math ^ Love Poems = Getting Dumped

Sue clued me into a new book on its way from A K Peters of mathematically informed love poems. With a description like that, it is bound to be either great or terrible.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Personal Statistics

Graphic Designer Nicholas Felton has a project to take a personal accounting of each year. Here is a page from his 2007 Annual Report. This ought to do any statistics teacher proud. Blow up the image or follow the link to see what kind of info he kept track of the whole year. Of course, there aren't many of us that could make our stats look this visually interesting.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Why Frenchmen speak French

This is two Mark Twain posts in very close proximity. But I heard this excerpt from chapter 14 of Huckleberry Finn coming into work this morning. It cleverly points out the difference between reason and education. Chapter 14 has Huck trying to explain to Jim some of the things he learns at school. One of these things is that the French speak a different language to each other than Americans do. This astounds Jim.

"Why, Huck, doan' de French people talk de same way we does?"

"No, Jim; you couldn't understand a word they said- not a single word."

"Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?"

"I don't know; but it's so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. Spose a man was to come to you and say 'Polly-voo-franzy'- what would you think?"

"I wouldn't think nuff'n; I'd take en bust him over de head. Dat is, if he warn't white. I wouldn't 'low no nigger to call me dat."

"Shucks, it ain't calling you anything. It's only saying do you know how to talk French."

"Well, den, why couldn't he say it?"

"Why, he is a-saying it. That's a Frenchman's way of saying it."

"Well, it's a blame' ridicklous way, en I doan' want to hear no mo' 'bout it. Dey ain' no sense in it."

We are made to laugh at Jim. But the tables quickly turn as Huck tries to prove to Jim that it would make sense for different nations to speak different languages.

"Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?"

"No, a cat don't."

"Well, does a cow?"

"No, a cow don't, nuther."

"Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?"

"No, dey don't."

"It's natural and right for 'em to talk different from each other, ain't it?"


"And ain't it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from us?"

"Why, mos' sholy it is."

"Well, then, why ain't it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? You answer me that."

"Is a cat a man, Huck?"


"Well, den, dey ain't no sense in a cat talkin' like a man. Is a cow a man?- er is a cow a cat?"

"No, she ain't either of them."

"Well, den, she ain' got no business to talk like either one or the yuther of 'em. Is a Frenchman a man?"

"Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan' he talk like a man? You answer me dat!"

Huck's mistake in reasoning is that his examples generalize to make the following argument:
if x and y are of different species,
then x and y do not speak the same language.
Jim points out of course that a French man and American man are the same species, so Huck hasn't met the premise. Jim also notes that American men and French men are of the same species and therefore should speak the same, which is his own little mistake. This is one of the most common mistakes in ordinary reasoning: equating a conditional with its inverse. (p then q implies -p then -q).

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Geek of the Week: Barack Obama

This seemed really timely. The Freaking News is running a photoshop contest for the best photoshop doctored photo's in a geek-wise manner. There are some really funny ones. Unfortunately, there' no McCain photo. Here's an old friend though.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Free Education?

Ran into two more great education links on the delicious hotlist. First, TeachMate is a site similar to WizIQ, a place for teachers and learners to find each other online. The difference is that WizIQ is a little more professionaly oriented. Students seek tutor/teachers and vice versa. TeachMate is cool though because everyone is both a teacher and learner. You start at the site by listing the things you can teach and the things you want to learn. The site then sets you up with a complement. Unlike WizIQ, there are no resources to conduct the teaching/learning session. This has to be negotiated by the pair.

I also found a great orientation to the world of online lectures in the Boston Globe. It discusses the difference between TED, Bigthink, Fora.tv, and Edge. Now, I want the website that creates more time, so I can put it all in my head.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jack London, Sled Dogs, and The Evil DRT

I pulled this one out of The Moscow Puzzles.

Jack London's Journey

Jack London tells how he raced from Skagway in a sled pulled by 5 huskies to reach the camp where a comrade was dying.
For 24 hours the huskies pulled the sled at full speed. Then 2 dogs ran off with a pack of wolves. London, left with 3 dogs, was slowed down proportionally. He reached camp 48 hours later than he had planned. If the runaway huskies had stayed in harness for 50 more miles, London writes, he would have been only 24 hours late. How far is the camp from Skagway?