The Reflective Educator

Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

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Day: September 13, 2010

What is Wolfram Alpha?

These are just some brief notes on the Wolfram Alpha presentation I attended today. Here’s the entire presentation if you want to download it (no audio, just slides) and here if you want to view it online.

  • Search engine layered on top of Mathematica
  • Computation driven so much different than Google
  • App for Smartphones, very useful as a mobile device
  • Widget builder (Beta phase, launch in October?)
  • Wolfram Alpha API (used in Bing for example)
  • Uses in education:
    1. Visual aid
    2. Walk students through solution
    3. Compare, combine, correlate data
    4. Focus students on a particular concept using widgets
    5. Promotes Socratic learning
    6. Interdiscplinary lessons are easier because of internal mapping to other disciplines
    7. See examples here: http://www.wolframalpha.com/examples/
    8. Chemistry, biology, geography, every discipline has an example query in Wolfram Alpha.

Wolfram Alpha is going to change how we teach mathematics as it gains wide spread adoption. We won’t be able to ask questions at lower order thinking when students have access to it because students will be able to query the Wolfram Alpha computational database and have the complete solutions to the problems given to them. We will need to focus on higher order thinking skills instead.

 

Using Glass in Education

Update: It looks like Glass has been discontinued.

 

Glass is a new web service which is opening up by invite only at this point. I just discovered it today, and I’m thrilled with the possibilities. Think of Glass as social bookmarking combined with a discussion forum embedded on every website you visit. You can share text comments, links to other websites, even videos on any web page.

Glass also allows you to create groups of users, and share a particular resource with a group. These groups could be useful as you could create a group of your students, and share a discussion about an online resource with an entire group of students.

The potential for collaboration and discussion using Glass is amazing. I wouldn’t use it to replace discussions that you can easily have in person, but it could be a great homework assignment. It can also be a way for students to ask questions with you about a website, and the comments themselves can be embedded within the context of the page as you can specify the location on the page you want the comment to be.

Teachers could use this to evaluate common resources and discuss ideas they have around a particular piece of content available on the web. Students could work in groups and comment on videos in a more private fashion as each comment is available only to the person that is part of the group.

It only works in Google Chrome or Firefox. Check out this video below for more details and here’s another post that discusses Glass in more detail.

Revamping Mathematics Curriculum

What if we revamped the mathematics curriculum to match the style of teaching Dan Meyer recommends? What would that look like? Watch the @ddmeyer video below from his TED talk, and then let’s look at how we can make specific changes to our own teaching practice, and talk about whether or not these are changes worth making.

I’m sure we are all guilty of creating problems for our students which are too well defined. I know I have. I’m trying to change how I do my own teaching practice, but it is always helpful to do this with a team of other people. Does anyone want to jump in and help take a set of math curriculum and turn it into something which is more useful for our students’ learning? Let’s create a problem forming curriculum instead of a strict problem solving curriculum?

I’m putting the call out to collaborators here (or for anyone to point me at a similar project with which I can join efforts). Please check out http://mathtransformation.wikispaces.com/ and ask for an invite to the wiki if you are interested in helping with the mathematics curriculum revamp.

The Public Education Monopoly

Currently public education holds a virtual monopoly in most countries around the world. The problem is that each school district is the sole provider for education for all students who cannot afford much more expensive private education. Worse, students are often forced to go to the school which is geographically closest to them which often forces them into bad schools. This kind of monopoly is exactly what we try to avoid in business, and many high profile cases have happened over the past decade have demonstrated how concerned our judicial systems are with breaking up monopolies.

This argument has been used to allow other types of schools to open, like charter schools for example. Charter schools are examples of public funding being used to open a different kind of school and provide some choice for public school students. They don’t seem to be having much success in actually boosting scores of students however and recent studies have shown that charter schools are no more or less capable of educating our kids.

Some school districts have tried to allow vouchers so that students can use their tax dollars (or a portion of them) and send them to whatever school they choose to attend. This would allow some measure of choice for the students, and the hope is that this would force the schools in question to improve, or potentially close because of a "lack of clients".

Neither of these alternatives to public education has shown signs of success. Charter school results have been ambivalent and most of the voucher systems have been failures. In fact, almost all education reform efforts have made very little progress in improving graduation rates and recent improvements in some large school districts (think NYC) have been shown to be false progress.

So what is the problem then if allowing more choice for schools hasn’t worked in improving the quality of education? The issue lies in the fact that almost all of these solutions have been subject to the ultimate authority, that of standardized tests meant to measure the success of the schools. We haven’t actually been offering more choice when we require schools to fall within a small set of standard norms. Some charter schools have been exempt from standardized testing, but of course the progress of these schools have been so difficult to measure that we do not know yet if just exempting a school from standardized testing has any impact on the student learning in those buildings.

So long as we require every school to meet a set of standard norms and tie their funding to their success in meeting these norms, then we should expect all schools to become more similar to each other. This negates the effect of more choice when all schools have to meet the same objectives, and generally rely on the same flawed learning methods to achieve their goals.

The solution is to throw away the cheap standardized tests as measures of school success and look at more expensive measures. There are lots of other options to standardized tests, including portfolio assessment, individual education plans for every student, or community assessment of schools. None of these options is as cheap as standardized tests, but one could argue that in a continual "band-aid" approach to the real problem of the educational monopoly, we have spent far more money.

There are actual examples of schools around the world where real learning is taking place. If you examine these school districts, you’ll often find that they lack the myopic focus on a standardized test that have spread across Canada, the UK, the US, and Australia. In other words, by ignoring the standardized test and focusing on student learning, they have managed to offer a much improved education for their students. We should be looking at these examples and finding ways to diversify the ways in which we measure the success of our students and be willing to fund the costs of these alternate measures.