Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Make: Mathematics

:: OST annual meeting ::

I'm in a presentation by Scott Gray, O'Reilly School of Technology (OST), regarding his ground-breaking Make: Mathematics program.

The conceptual model is a cube with paired opposite faces representing Tools, Content and Learning Management. Opposite Tools is Making, opposite Content is Learning, and opposite Learning Management is Feedback.

In a past era, a "maker cube" was actually an apprenticeship, a hands-on, integrated approach to learning a trade, with mentoring. Assembly line education broke up this model to manage the exponential growth curves. With the advent of electronic communications, Scott thinks we're ready to restore the apprenticeship model in some areas.

Scott has an interesting story. He was born into a coal mining subculture in Appalachia. He was struggling academically in a mediocre school, until he encountered a college math teacher who helped him flip on the lights. He suddenly discovered his inner brilliance and went on to become a luminary in the distance education world, having grappled with many a STEM curriculum.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity drove his curiosity in several dimensions.

The story behind OST has a lot to do with the University of Illinois in Champagne / Urbana. I'm still putting the puzzle pieces together in my own mind, as I get to meet the key people. Several have flown here for the annual meeting.

The late Jerry Uhl was the early pioneer in this picture and his curriculum writing is still a backbone of the Make: Math curriculum. I'd been tracking him through the Math Forum and knew of his stature. Many of the people at this meeting knew him personally, were among his closest friends and co-workers.

Make: Mathematics is designed to be sharable for a fee. The product allows professors to customize their own course content and syndicate it over the web, using Scott's team's cloud service. Wolfram has licensed Mathematica to run on their back end.

Students get to interact with a web page that's a lot like a Mathematica Notebook, implemented in HTML and JavaScript (Bruce has been coding the back end). UI enrollees get to actively author content in a personal sandbox, while switching between native Mathematica syntax and typeset views, provided by the server as images.

Hilbert has built in workflow that allows students to hand in work-in-progress to a teacher (e.g. Bruce), who then gets to make comments and hand it back. Color coded text areas distinguish between student and mentor comments. The team sought our feedback on the color scheme.

This is not simple-minded low end learning management system (LMS). Students have access to free form cells accepting Mathematica code. They can change code on the fly, look at 2D and 3D graphics with a slider that changes the viewpoint -- all in a web page (AJAX by Joel).

The mathfuture group should have some interest in this technology. "Learn Math by Making Math" (OST's motto) is a lot like "Make Math Your Own" (Maria's tag line).