Tuesday, January 1, 2013

R.I.P. Mathematics? Maybe.

Is mathematics about to die? More precisely, are we rapidly approaching a time when progress in mathematics effectively comes to an end? I posted some thoughts on this issue in my answer to the latest Edge Question, an annual online event organized by the literary agent John Brockman. See if you agree with me.

Every year Brockman manages to get many leading scientists and intellectuals to contribute essays, for free, by the effective strategy of putting together a list of contributors from which no one wants to be left out – no matter how challenging the question he proposes.

The professions most heavily represented in the list are physicists, computer scientists psychologists, cognitive scientists, and journalists. Mathematicians fare much less well. In fact, the only other mathematician in the club besides myself is Steven Strogatz. If we include people who have written expository books on mathematics, you can add three more to the list: Mario Livio, Clifford Pickover, and Charles Seife.

Maybe we mathematicians feel uncomfortable going out publicly on a limb – for the goal is to stretch the boundaries of what we know – as reflected in the group’s title: Edge.

Since my Edge essay was inspired by the MOOC I gave recently, which I reported on in my December column, I’ll end by announcing that I am giving a slightly revised version of the same online course this spring, starting on March 4. I’m looking for college and university mathematics faculty and mathematics graduate students and postdocs to volunteer to act as “Community TAs” for the course, going onto the discussion forums every now and then and guiding the discussion threads in productive directions.

Last year, I put out a general call for volunteers for this role, and it did not work out. About 600 signed up, but only a handful of them actually had sufficient knowledge and experience to carry out the task. The vast majority were simply well meaning folks who wanted to help. Since the Community TAs are so designated when they post on the forum, this effectively rendered useless the TA designation.

There is no remuneration for doing this. (There’s none for me as instructor, either. I do this on top of my regular Stanford duties.) It’s all for the love of teaching and the drive to change the world. But it’s a lot of fun, and truly fascinating. For the length of the course, you are an active, contributing member of a genuine global community (North Korea excepted), who come together for a few weeks of intense interaction as they pursue a common goal.

If you want to give it a try, simply sign up for the course and then send me an email (to devlin@stanford.edu) giving me your Coursera login name so I can confer Community TA status to you. (I won’t repeat this request on the course site, since what I (or rather the 64,000+ students) really need is maybe 20 knowledgeable mathematicians wandering around the discussion forums – not several hundred well meaning non-mathematicians.)

Though, as I just noted, you won’t (currently) get paid for being a Community TA, one day soon it may help you get tenure or promotion. As the Coursera platform develops, we intend to introduce a mechanism for tracking forum TA activity, in terms both of frequency and positive impact as measured by recipient feedback. Once we have that, I suspect it won’t be long before a good record as a TA in a MOOC will become a submission item in a faculty tenure and promotion case. This has already occurred for Wikipedia contributors, another online volunteer activity.

For more background on my MOOC, and MOOCs in general, see my blog MOOCtalk.org.

BTW, in addition to my online course, last fall I gave a five-week survey course on mathematics and its applications in Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, which video-recorded the entire series to distribute for free on iTunes University.