Showing posts with label mathematical thinking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mathematical thinking. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Power of Dots

On June 29, the New York Times ran a story about the Common Core Mathematics Standards. If ever you wanted proof of the dismal mathematics education most Americans have been provided, you will find it in the story’s “human interest lede,” which described one mother’s response to seeing her daughter’s homework. By taking the daughter out of school to teach her herself “the old fashioned way” she herself had been subjected to, this well-meaning parent was ensuring that, as had clearly been the case for the mother, the daughter too would not be exposed to real mathematical thinking—the kind that in today’s world is a key to the most attractive jobs. Instead she would be subjected to the same, dreary, rote-skills-drills inflicted on previous generations—a process designed to train people for routine work in the pre-computer era, but so hopelessly inadequate for the 21st century that parents are un-equipped to figure out for themselves the simple (albeit unfamiliar) math homework their children are assigned.

Surely, if mathematics education should achieve one thing, it is develop the ability to figure things out for yourself. We’re not talking the Riemann Hypothesis here; the focus is basic school arithmetic, for heaven’s sake.

To continue with the Times article, arrays of dots seemed to figure large in this parent’s dislike of the Common Core. She felt it was pointless to spend time drawing and staring at arrays of dots.

True, it would be possible—and I am sure it happens—to generate tedious, and largely pointless, “busywork” exercises involving drawing arrays of dots. But the image of a Common Core math worksheet the Times chose to illustrate its story showed a very sensible, and deep use of dot diagrams, to understand structure in arithmetic. Much like the (extremely deep) dot array at the top of this article, which I’ll come to in a moment.

To the girl’s parent, mathematics is about numbers, but that’s just a surface feature. It’s really about structure. And throughout the ages, mathematicians have used the most simple symbols possible to bring out and understand that structure: namely, dots and lines.

The Times’ parent, so dismissive of time spent drawing and reflecting on dot diagrams, would, I am sure, think it a waste of time to devote any effort trying to make sense of the dot diagram I used to open this post. She would, I have no doubt, find it incomprehensible that an individual with a freshly-minted Ph.D. in mathematics would spend many months—at taxpayers’ expense—staring day-after-day at either that one diagram, or seemingly minor variations he would start each day by sketching out on a sheet of paper in front of him.

Well, I am that mathematician. That diagram helped me understand the framework that would be required to specify an infinite mathematical object of the third order of infinitude (aleph-2) by means of a family of infinite mathematical objects of the first order of infinitude (aleph-0). The top line of dots represents an increasing tower of objects that come together to form the desired aleph-2 object, and each of the lower lines of dots represent shorter towers of aleph-0 objects. In the 1970s, a number of us used those dot diagrams to solve mathematical problems that just a few years earlier had seemed impossible.

That particular kind of dot diagram was invented by a close senior colleague (and mentor) of mine, Professor Ronald Jensen, who called it a “morass.” He chose the name wisely, since the structure represented by those dots was extremely complex and intricate.

In contrast, the simple, rectangular array implicitly referred to in the New York Times article is used to help learners understand the much simpler (but still deep, and far more important to society) structure of numbers and the basic operations of arithmetic, as was well explained in a subsequent blog post by mathematics education specialist Christopher Danielson. The fact is, dot diagrams are powerful, for learners and world experts alike.

The problem facing parents (and many teachers) today, is that the present student generation is the one that, for the first time in history, is having to learn the mathematics the professionals use—what I and many other pros have started to call “mathematical thinking” in order to distinguish it from the procedural skills so important in past times.

The reason for that is that in the world today’s students will graduate into, computation is as plentiful as water or electricity. The smartphone we carry around with us is much faster, and more accurate, in carrying out mathematical procedures than any human.

In a single generation, society’s need for mathematical mastery has gone from procedural computation, to being able to make effective and reliable use of an effectively unlimited amount of automated computation. To put it bluntly, mastery of computational skills is no longer a marketable asset. The ability to make good use of computational power is where it’s at in math today.

For almost all the three thousand years of mathematical development, the focus in mathematics was calculation (numerical, symbolic, or geometric). Learning mathematics meant learning how to perform those calculations, which boiled down to achieving mastery of various procedures. Mastery of any one procedure could be achieved by rote learning—doing many examples, all essentially the same—leaving the only truly creative mental task that of recognition of which procedure to apply to solve which problem.

Numerical and symbolic calculation (arithmetic and algebra) are so simple and routine that we can program computers to do it for us. That is possible because calculation is essentially trivial. Perceiving and understanding structure, on the other hand, is something that (at least at the present time) requires human insight. It is not trivial and it is difficult. Dot diagrams can help us come to terms with that difficulty.

When movie director Gus Van Sant was faced with introducing the lead character, Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) in the hit 1997 film Good Will Hunting, establishing in one shot that the hero was an uneducated (actually, self-educated) mathematical genius, the first encounter we had with Will showed him drawing a dot diagram on a blackboard in an MIT corridor.

You can be sure that when an experienced movie director like Gus Van Sant selects an establishing shot for the lead character, he does so with considerable care, on the advice of an expert. By showing Will writing a network of dots on a blackboard, Van Sant was right on the button in terms of portraying the kind of thing that professional mathematicians do all the time.

The one bit of license Van Sant took was that the diagram we saw Matt Damon writing was not the solution to a problem that had taken an MIT math professor two years to solve. (Unless MIT math professors are a lot less smart than we are led to believe!) It was a real solution to a real math problem, all right. I am pretty sure it was chosen because it fitted nicely on one blackboard and looked good on the screen. It absolutely conveyed the kind of (dotty) activity that mathematicians do all the time—the kind of (dotty) thing I did in my early post-Ph.D. years when I was working with Prof Jensen’s morasses.

But it’s actually a problem that anyone who has learned how to think mathematically should be able to solve in at most a few hours. Numberphile has an excellent video explaining the problem.

So, New York Times story parent, I hope you reconsider your decision to take your daughter out of school to teach her the way you were taught. The kind of mathematics you were taught was indeed required in times past. But not any more. The world has changed dramatically as far as mathematics is concerned. As with many other aspects of our lives, we have built machines to handle the more routine, procedural stuff, thereby putting a premium on the one thing where humans vastly outperform computers: creative thinking.

Those dot diagrams are all about creative thinking. A computer can understand numbers, and process millions of them faster than a human can write just one. But it cannot make sense of those dot diagrams. Because it does not know what any particular array of dots means! And it has no way to figure it out. (Unless a human tells it.)

Next month I’ll look further into the distinction between old-style procedural mathematics and the 21st-century need for mathematical thinking. In particular, I’ll look at an excellent recent book, Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to be Wrong.

The book’s title is significant, since it recognizes that the vast majority of real-world mathematical problems do not have a unique right answer, and that the real power of mathematical thinking is making sure you are not wrong. (The book’s subtitle is “The power of mathematical thinking.”)

I’ll also look at a new mathematics video game that also focuses on mathematical thinking, this time, school-room Euclidean geometry. It’s called DragonBox Elements.

You might want to check out both.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Want to learn how to prove a theorem? Go for a mountain bike ride

Because this blogpost covers both mountain biking and proving theorems, it is being simultaneously published in Devlin’s more wide ranging blog
Mountain biking is big in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. (In its present day form, using specially built bicycles with suspension, the sport/pastime was invented a few miles north in Marin County in the late 1970s.) Though there are hundreds of trails in the open space preserves that spread over the hills to the west of Stanford, there are just a handful of access trails that allow you to start and finish your ride in Palo Alto. Of those, by far the most popular is Alpine Road.
My mountain biking buddies and I ascend Alpine Road roughly once a week in the mountain biking season (which in California is usually around nine or ten months long). In this post, I'll describe my own long struggle, stretching over many months, to master one particularly difficult stretch of the climb, where many riders get off and walk their bikes.
[SPOILER: If your interest in mathematics is not matched by an obsession with bike riding, bear with me. My entire account is actually about how to set about solving a difficult math problem, particularly proving a theorem. I'll draw the two threads together in a subsequent post, since it will take me into consideration of how the brain works when it does mathematics. For now, I'll leave the drawing of those conclusions as an exercise for the reader! So when you read mountain biking, think math.]
Alpine Road used to take cars all the way from Palo Alto to Skyline Boulevard at the summit of the Coastal Range, but the upper part fell into disrepair in the late 1960s, and the two-and-a-half-mile stretch from just west of Portola Valley to where it meets the paved Page Mill Road just short of  Skyline  is now a dirt trail, much frequented by hikers and mountain bikers.
Alpine Road. The trail is washed
out just round the bend
A few years ago, a storm washed out a short section of the trail about half a mile up, and the local authority constructed a bypass trail. About a quarter of a mile long, it is steep, narrow, twisted, and a constant staircase of tree roots protruding from the dirt floor. A brutal climb going up and a thrilling (beginners might say terrifying) descent on the way back. Mountain bike heaven.
There is one particularly tricky section right at the start. This is where you can develop the key abilities you need to be able to prove mathematical theorems.
So you have a choice. Read Polya's classic book, or get a mountain bike and find your own version of the Alpine Road ByPass Trail. (Better still: do both!) 
My mountain bike at the start of the bypass trail
When I first encountered Alpine Road Dirt a few years ago, it took me many rides before I managed to get up the first short, steep section of the ByPass Trail. 
What lies around that sharp left-hand turn?
It starts innocently enoughbecause you cannot see what awaits just around that sharp left-hand turn.
After you have made the turn, you are greeted with a short narrow downhill. You will need it to gain as much momentum as you can for what follows.
The short, narrow descent
I've seen bikers with extremely strong leg muscles who can plod their way up the wall that comes next, but I can't do it that way. I learned how to get up it by using my problem-solving/theorem-proving skills.
The first thing was to break the main problem—get up the insanely steep, root strewn, loose-dirt climbinto smaller, simpler problems, and solve those one at a time. Classic Polya.
But it's Polya with a twistand by "twist" I am not referring to the sharp triple-S bend in the climb. The twist in this case is that the penalty for failure is physical, not emotional as in mathematics. I fell off my bike a lot. The climb is insanely steep. So steep that unless you bend really low, with your chin almost touching your handlebar, your front wheel will lift off the ground. That gives rise to an unpleasant feeling of panic that is perhaps not unlike the one that many students encounter when faced with having to prove a theorem for the first time.
If you are not careful, your front wheel will lift 
off the ground.
The photo above shows the first difficult stretch. Though this first sub-problem is steep, there is a fairly clear line to follow to the right that misses those roots, though at the very least its steepness will slow you down, and on many occasions will result in an ungainly, rapid dismount. And losing momentum is the last thing you want, since the really hard part is further up ahead, near the top in the picture.
Also, do you see that rain- and tire-worn groove that curves round to the right just over half way upjust beyond that big root coming in from the left? It is actually deeper and narrower than it looks in the photo, so unless you stay right in the middle of the groove you will be thrown off line, and your ascent will be over. (Click on the photo to enlarge it and you should be able to make out what I mean about the groove. Staying in the groove can be tricky at times.)
Still, despite difficulties in the execution, eventually, with repeated practice, I got to the point of  being able to negotiate this initial stretch and still have some forward momentum. I could get up on muscle memory. What was once a series of challenging problems, each dependent on the previous ones, was now a single mastered skill.
[Remember, I don't have super-strong leg muscles. I am primarily a road bike rider. I can ride for six hours at a 16-18 mph pace, covering up to 100 miles or more. But to climb a steep hill I have to get off the saddle and stand on the pedals, using my body weight, not leg power. Unfortunately, if you take your weight off the saddle on a mountain bike on a steep dirt climb, your rear wheel will start to spin and you come to a stop - which on a steep hill means jump off quick or fall. So I have to use a problem solving approach.]
Once I'd mastered the first sub-problem, I could address the next. This one was much harder. See that area at the top of the photo above where the trail curves right and then left? Here is what it looks like up close.
The crux of the climb/problem. Now it is really steep.
(Again, click on the photo to get a good look. This is the mountain bike equivalent of being asked to solve a complex math problem with many variables.)
Though the tire tracks might suggest following a line to the left, I suspect they are left by riders coming down. Coming out of that narrow, right-curving groove I pointed out earlier, it would take an extremely strong rider to follow the left-hand line. No one I know does it that way. An average rider (which I am) has to follow a zig-zag line that cuts down the slope a bit.
Like most riders I have seenand for a while I did watch my more experienced buddies negotiate this slope to get some cluesI start this part of the climb by aiming my bike between the two roots, over at the right-hand side of the trail. (Bottom right of picture.)
The next question is, do you go left of that little tree root nipple, sticking up all on its own, or do you skirt it to the right? (If you enlarge the photo you will see that you most definitely do not want either wheel to hit it.)
The wear-marks in the dirt show that many riders make a sharp left after passing between those two roots at the start, and steer left of the root protrusion. That's very tempting, as the slope is notably less (initially). I tried that at first, but with infrequent success. Most often, my left-bearing momentum carried me into that obstacle course of tree roots over to the left, and though I sometimes managed to recover and swing  out to skirt to the left of that really big root, more often than not I was not able to swing back right and avoid running into that tree!
The underlying problem with that line was that thin looking root at the base of the tree. Even with the above photo blown up to full size, you can't really tell how tricky an obstacle it presents at that stage in the climb. Here is a closer view.
The obstacle course of tree roots that awaits 
the rider who bears left
If you enlarge this photo, you can probably appreciate how that final, thin root can be a problem if you are out of strength and momentum. Though the slope eases considerably at that point, Ilike many riders I have seenwas on many occasions simply unable to make it either over the root or circumventing it on one sidethough all three options would clearly be possible with fresh legs. And on the few occasions I did make it, I felt I just got luckyI had not mastered it. I had got the right answer, but I had not really solved the problem. So close, so often. But, as in mathematics, close is not good enough.
After realizing I did not have the leg strength to master the left-of-the-nipple path, I switched to taking the right-hand line. Though the slope was considerable steeper (that is very clear from the blown-up photo), the tire-worn dirt showed that many riders chose that option.
Several failed attempts and one or two lucky successes convinced me that the trick was to steer to the right of the nipple and then bear left around it, but keep as close to it as possible without the rear wheel hitting it, and then head for the gap between the tree roots over at the right.
After that, a fairly clear left-bearing line on very gently sloping terrain takes you round to the right to what appears to be a crest. (It turns out to be an inflection point rather than a maximum, but let's bask for a while in the success we have had so far.)
Here is our brief basking point.
The inflection point. One more detail to resolve.
As we oh-so-briefly catch our breath and "coast" round the final, right-hand bend and see the summit ahead, we comevery suddenlyto one final obstacle.
The summit of the climb
At the root of the problem (sorry!) is the fact that the right-hand turn is actually sharper than the previous photo indicates, almost a switchback. Moreover, the slope kicks up as you enter the turn. So you might not be able to gain sufficient momentum to carry you over one or both of those tree roots on the left that you find your bike heading towards. And in my case, I found I often did not have any muscle strength left to carry me over them by brute force.
What worked for me is making an even tighter turn that takes me to the right of the roots, with my right shoulder narrowly missing that protruding tree trunk. A fine-tuned approach that replaces one problem (power up and get over those roots) with another one initially more difficult (slow down and make the tight turn even tighter).
And there we are. That final little root poking up near the summit is easily skirted. The problem is solved.
To be sure, the rest of the ByPass Trail still presents several other difficult challenges, a number of which took me several attempts before I achieved mastery. Taken as a whole, the entire ByPass is a hard climb, and many riders walk the entire quarter mile. But nothing is as difficult as that initial stretch. I was able to ride the rest long before I solved the problem of the first 100 feet. Which made it all the sweeter when I finally did really crack that wall.
Now I (usually) breeze up it, wondering why I found it so difficult for so long.
Usually? In my next post, I'll use this story to talk about strategies for solving difficult mathematical problems. In particular, I'll look at the role of the subconscious in being able to put together a series of mastered steps in order to solve a big problem. For a very curious thing happened after I took the photos to illustrate this post. I walked back down to collect my bike from the ByPass sign where I'd left it, and rode up to continue my ride.
It took me four attempts to complete that initial climb!
And therein lies one of the biggest secrets of being able to solve a difficult math problem.

Friday, January 3, 2014

23 and Me. Play it again, Sam

It’s one of the most famous lines from one of the most famous movies of all time, Casablanca. Except it’s not what Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, actually said, which was “Play it once, Sam, for old times' sake . . . [NO RESPONSE] . . . Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.'”

This month’s column is in response to the emails I receive from time to time asking for a reference to articles I have written for the MAA since I began on that mathemaliterary journey back in 1991. (Yes, I just made that word up. Google returns nothing. But it soon will.)

I first started writing monthly articles for the MAA back in September 1991 when I took over as editor of the Association’s monthly print magazine FOCUS. When I stepped down as FOCUS editor in January 1996, the MAA launched its website, and along with it Devlin’s Angle.

During that time, in addition to moving from print to online, the MAA website went through two overhauls, leaving the archives spread over three volumes:

January 1996 – December 2003

January 2004 – July 2011

August 2011 – present

Throughout those 23 years, I’ve wandered far and wide across the mathematical and mathematics education landscape. But three ongoing themes emerged. None of them was planned. In each case, I simply wrote something that generated interest – and for one theme considerable controversy – and as a result I kept coming back to it.

I continue to receive emails asking about articles I wrote on the first two of those three themes, and the third is still very active. So I am devoting this month’s column to providing an index to those three themes.

I’ll start with the most controversial: what is multiplication? This began innocently enough, with a throw-away final remark to a piece I wrote back in 2007. I little knew the firestorm I was about to unleash.

What is Multiplication?

September 2007, What is conceptual understanding?

June 2008, It Ain't No Repeated Addition

July-August 2008, It's Still Not Repeated Addition

September 2008, Multiplication and Those Pesky British Spellings

December 2008, How Do We Learn Math?

January 2009, Should Children Learn Math by Starting with Counting?

January 2010, Repeated Addition - One More Spin

January 2011, What Exactly is Multiplication?

November 2011, How multiplication is really defined in Peano arithmetic

Mathematical Thinking

I first started making the distinction between mathematics and mathematical thinking in the early 1990s, when an extended foray into mathematical linguistics and then sociolinguistics led to an interest in mathematical cognition that continues to this day.

April 1996, Are Mathematicians Turning Soft?

October 1996, Wanted: A New Mix

September 1999, What Can Mathematics Do For The Businessperson?

January 2008, American Mathematics in a Flat World

February 2008, Mathematics for the President and Congress

October 2009, Soft Mathematics

July 2010, Wanted: Innovative Mathematical Thinking

September 2012, What is mathematical thinking?


No introduction necessary. MOOCs are constantly in the news. Though I was one of the early pioneers in developing the Stanford MOOCs that generated all the media interest in 2012, and I believe the first person to offer a mathematics MOOC (Introduction to Mathematical Thinking), the idea goes back to a course given at Athabasca University in Canada, back in 2008.

May 2012, Math MOOC – Coming this fall. Let’s Teach the World

November 2012, MOOC Lessons

December 2012, The Darwinization of Higher Education

January 2013, R.I.P. Mathematics? Maybe.

February 2013, The Problem with Instructional Videos

March 2013, Can we make constructive use of machine-graded, multiple-choice questions in university mathematics education?

September 2013, Two Startups in One Week

More about MOOCs

In addition to the MOOC articles listed above, I have also written articles about the topic in my own blog and for the Huffington Post. Here are the references:


An irregular series of posts starting on May 5, 2012


December 2013, MOQR, Anyone? Learning by Evaluating

March 2, 2013, MOOCs and the Myths of Dropout Rates and Certification

March 27, 2013, Can Massive Open Online Courses Make Up for an Outdated K-12 Education System?

August 19, 2013, MOOC Mania Meets the Sober Reality of Education

November 18, 2013, Why MOOCs May Still Be Silicon Valley's Next Grand Challenge

Monday, December 2, 2013

MOQR, Anyone? Learning by Evaluating

Many colleges and universities have a mathematics or quantitative reasoning requirement that ensures that no student graduates without completing at least one sufficiently mathematical course.

Recognizing that taking a regular first-year mathematics course—designed for students majoring in mathematics, science, or engineering—to satisfy a QR requirement is not educationally optimal (and sometimes a distraction for the instructor and the TAs who have to deal with students who are neither motivated nor well prepared for the full rigors and pace of a mathematics course), many institutions offer special QR courses.

I’ve always enjoyed giving such courses, since they offer the freedom to cover a wide swathe of mathematics—often new or topical parts of mathematics. Admittedly they do so at a much more shallow depth than in other courses, but a depth that was always a challenge for most students who signed up.

Having been one of the pioneers of so-called “transition courses” for incoming mathematics majors back in the 1970s, and having given such courses many times in the intervening years, I never doubted that a lot of the material was well suited to the student in search of meeting a QR requirement. The problem with classifying a transition course as a QR option is that the goal of preparing an incoming student for the rigors of college algebra and real analysis is at odds with the intent of a QR requirement. So I never did that.

Enter MOOCs. A lot of the stuff that is written about these relatively new entrants to the higher education landscape is unsubstantiated hype and breathless (if not fearful) speculation. The plain fact is that right now no one really knows what MOOCs will end up looking like, what part or parts of the population they will eventually serve, or exactly how and where they will fit in with the rest of higher education. Like most others I know who are experimenting with this new medium, I am treating it very much as just that: an experiment.

The first version of my MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, offered in the fall of 2012, was essentially the first three-quarters of my regular transition course, modified to make initial entry much easier, delivered as a MOOC. Since then, as I have experimented with different aspects of online education, I have been slowly modifying it to function as a QR-course, since improved quantitative reasoning is surely a natural (and laudable) goal for online courses with global reach—that “free education for the world” goal is still the main MOOC-motivator for me.

I am certainly not viewing my MOOC as an online course to satisfy a college QR requirement. That may happen, but, as I noted above, no one has any real idea what role(s) MOOCs will end up fulfilling. Remember, in just twelve months, the Stanford MOOC startup Udacity, which initiated all the media hype, went from “teach the entire world for free” to “offer corporate training for a fee.” (For my (upbeat) commentary on this rapid progression, see my article in the Huffington Post.)

Rather, I am taking advantage of the fact that free, no-credential MOOCs currently provide a superb vehicle to experiment with ideas both for classroom teaching and for online education. Those of us at the teaching end not only learn what the medium can offer, we also discover ways to improve our classroom teaching; while those who register as students get a totally free learning opportunity. (Roughly three-quarters of them already have a college degree, but MOOC enrollees also include thousands of first-time higher education students from parts of the world that offer limited or no higher education opportunities.)

The biggest challenge facing anyone who wants to offer a MOOC in higher mathematics is how to handle the fact that many of the students will never receive expert feedback on their work. This is particularly acute when it comes to learning how to prove things. That’s already a difficult challenge in a regular class, as made clear in this great blog post by “mathbabe” Cathy O’Neil. In a MOOC, my current view is it would be unethical to try. The last thing the world needs are (more) people who think they know what a proof is, but have never put that knowledge to the test.

But when you think about it, the idea behind QR is not that people become mathematicians who can prove things, rather that they have a base level of quantitative literacy that is necessary to live a fulfilled, rewarding life and be a productive member of society. Being able to prove something mathematically is a specialist skill. The important general ability in today’s world is to have a good understanding of the nature of the various kinds of arguments, the special nature of mathematical argument and its role among them, and an ability to judge the soundness and limitations of any particular argument.

In the case of mathematical argument, acquiring that “consumer’s understanding” surely involves having some experience in trying to construct very simple mathematical arguments, but far more what is required is being able to evaluate mathematical arguments.

And that can be handled in a MOOC. Just present students with various mathematical arguments, some correct, others not, and machine-check if, and how well, they can determine their validity.

Well, that leading modifier “just” in that last sentence was perhaps too cavalier. There clearly is more to it than that. As always, the devil is in the details. But once you make the shift from viewing the course (or the proofs part of the course) as being about constructing proofs to being about understanding and evaluating proofs, then what previously seemed hopeless suddenly becomes rife with possibilities.

I started to make this shift with the last session of my MOOC this fall, and though there were significant teething troubles, I saw enough to be encouraged to try it again—with modifications—to an even greater extent next year.

Of course, many QR courses focus on appreciation of mathematics, spiced up with enough “doing math” content to make the course defensibly eligible for QR fulfillment. What I think is far less common—and certainly new to me—is using the evaluation of proofs as a major learning vehicle.

What makes this possible is that the Coursera platform on which my MOOC runs has developed a peer review module to support peer grading of student papers and exams.

The first times I offered my MOOC, I used peer evaluation to grade a Final Exam. Though the process worked tolerably well for grading student mathematics exams—a lot better than I initially feared—to my eyes it still fell well short of providing the meaningful grade and expert feedback a professional mathematician would give. On the other hand, the benefit to the students that came from seeing, and trying to evaluate, the proof attempts of other students, and to provide feedback, was significant—both in terms of their gaining much deeper insight into the concepts and issues involved, and in bolstering their confidence.

When the course runs again in a few week's time, the Final Exam will be gone, replaced by a new course culmination activity I am calling Test Flight.

How will it go? I have no idea. That’s what makes it so interesting. Based on my previous experiments, I think the main challenges will be largely those of implementation. In particular, years of educational high-stakes testing robs many students of the one ingredient essential to real learning: being willing to take risks and to fail. As young children we have it. Schools typically drive it out of us. Those of us lucky enough to end up at graduate school reacquire it—we have to.

I believe MOOCs, which offer community interaction through the semi-anonymity of the Internet, offer real potential to provide others with a similar opportunity to re-learn the power of failure. Test Flight will show if this belief is sufficiently grounded, or a hopelessly idealistic dream! (Test flights do sometimes crash and burn.)

The more people learn to view failure as an essential constituent of good learning, the better life will become for all. As a world society, we need to relearn that innate childhood willingness to try and to fail. A society that does not celebrate the many individual and local failures that are an inevitable consequence of trying something new, is one destined to fail globally in the long term.

For those interested, I’ll be describing Test Flight, and reporting on my progress (including the inevitable failures), in my blog as the experiment continues. (The next session starts on February 3.)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Math Ed? Sometimes It Takes a Team

In last month’s column, I reflected on how modern technology enables one person—in my case an academicto launch enterprises with (potential) global reach without (i) money and (ii) giving up his day job. That is true, but technology does not replace expertise and its feeder, experience.

In the case of my MOOC, now well into its third offering, I’ve been teaching transition courses on mathematical thinking since the late 1970s, and am able to draw on a lot of experience as to the difficulties most students have with what for most of them is a completely new side to mathematics.

Right now, as we get into elementary, discrete number theory, the class (the 9,000 of 53,000 registrants still active) is struggling to distinguish between divisiona binary operation on rationals that yields a rational number for a given pair of integers or rationalsand divisibilitya relation between pairs of integers that is either true or false for any given pair of integers. Unused to distinguishing between different number systems, they suddenly find themselves lost with what they felt they knew well, namely elementary arithmetic.

Anyone who has taught a transition course will be familiar with this problematic rite of passage. I suspect I am not alone in having vivid memories of when I myself went through it, even though it was many decades ago!

As a result of all those years teaching this kind of material, I pretty well know what to expect in terms of student difficulties and responses, so can focus my attention on figuring out how to make it work in a MOOC. I know how to filter and interpret the comments on the discussion forum, having watched up close many generations of students go through it. As a result, doing it in a MOOC format with a class spread across the globe is a fascinating experiment, when it could so easily have been a disaster.

My one fear is that, because the course pedagogy is based on Inquiry-Based Learning, it may be more successful with experienced professionals (of whom I have many in the class), rather than the course’s original target audience of recent high school graduates. In particular, I suspect it is the latter who constantly request that I show them how to solve a problem before expecting them to do so. If all students have been exposed to is instructional teaching, and they have never experienced having to solve a novel problemto figure it out for themselvesit is probably unrealistic to expect them to make that leap in a Web-based course. But maybe it can be made to work. Time will tell.

The other startup I wrote about was my video game company. That is a very different experience, since almost everything about this is new to me. Sure, I’ve been studying and writing about video game learning for many years, and have been playing video games for the same length of time. But designing and producing a video game, and founding a company to do it, are all new. Although we describe InnerTube Games as “Dr. Keith Devlin’s video game company,” and most of the reviews of our first release referred to Wuzzit Trouble as “Keith Devlin’s mathematics video game,” that was like referring to The Rolling Stones as “Mick Jagger’s rock group.” Sure he was out in front, but it was the entire band that gave us all those great performances.

In reality, I brought just three new things to our video game design. The first is our strong focus on mathematical thinking (the topic of my MOOC) rather than the mastery of symbolic skills (which is what 99% of current math ed video games provide). The second is that the game should embed at least one piece of deep, conceptual mathematics. (Not because I wanted the players to learn that particular piece of mathematics. Rather that its presence would ensure a genuine mathematical experience.) The third is the design principle that the video game should be thought of as an instrument on which you “play math,” analogous to the piano, an instrument on which you play music.

In fact, I was not alone among the company co-founders in favoring the mathematical thinking approach. One of us, Pamela, is a former middle-school mathematics teacher and an award winning producer of educational television shows, and she too was not interested in producing the 500th animated-flash-card, skills-mastery app. (Nothing wrong with that approach, by the way. It’s just that the skills-mastery sector is already well served, and we wanted to go instead for something that is woefully under-served.) I may know a fair amount about mathematics and education, and I use technology, but that does not mean I'm an expert in the use of various media in education. But Pamela is.

And this is what this month’s column is really about: the need for an experienced and talented team to undertake anything as challenging as designing and creating a good educational learning app. Though I use my own case as an example, the message I want to get across is that if, like me, you think it is worthwhile adding learning apps and video games to the arsenal of media that can be used to provide good mathematics learning, then you need to realize that one smart person with a good idea is not going to be anything like enough. We need to work in teams with people who bring different expertise.

I’ve written extensively in my blog about the problems that must be overcome to build good learning apps. In fact, because of the history behind my company, we set our bar even higher. We decided to create video games that had all the features of good commercial games developed for entertainment. Games like Angry Birds or Cut the Rope, to name two of my favorites. Okay, we knew that, with a mathematics-based game, we are unlikely to achieve the dizzying download figures of those industry-leading titles. But they provided excellent exemplars in game structure, game mechanics, graphics, sounds, game characters, etc. In the end, it all comes down to engagement, whether the goal is entertainment and making money or providing good learning.

In other words, we saw (and see) ourselves not as an “educational video game company” but as a “video game company.” But one that creates video games  built around important mathematical concepts. (In the case of Wuzzit Trouble, those concepts are integer arithmetic, integer partitions, and Diophantine equations.)

Going after that goal requires many different talents. I’ve already mentioned Pamela, our Chief Learning Officer. I met her, together with my other two co-founders, when I worked with them for several years on an educational video game project at a large commercial studio. That project never led to a released product, but it provided all four of us with the opportunity to learn a great deal about the various crucial components of good video game design that embeds good learning. Enough to realize, first, that we all needed one another, and second that we could work well together. (Don’t underestimate that last condition.)

By working alongside video game legend John Romero, I learned a lot about what it takes to create a game that players will want to play. Not enough to do so myself. But enough to be able to work with a good game developer to inject good mathematics into such a game. That’s Anthony, the guy on our team who takes a mathematical concept and turns it into a compelling game activity. (The guy who can give me three good reasons why my “really cool idea” really won’t work in a game!) Pamela, Anthony, and I work closely together to produce fun game activities that embed solid mathematical learning, each bringing different perspectives. Take any one of us out of the picture, and the resulting game would not come close to getting those great release reviews we did.

And without Randy, there would not even be a game to get reviewed! Video games are, after all, a business. (At some point, we will have to bring in revenue to continue!) The only way to create and distribute quality games is to create a company. And yes, that company has to create and market a productsomething that’s notoriously difficult. (Google “why video game companies fail.”) Randy (also a former teacher) was the overall production manager of the project we all worked on together, having already spent many years in the educational technology world. He’s the one who keeps everything moving.

Like it or not, the world around us is changing rapidly, and with so many things pulling on our students’ time, it’s no longer adequate to sit back on our institutional reputations and expect students to come to us and switch off the other things in their lives while they take our courses.

One case: I cannot see MOOCs replacing physical classes with real professors, but they sure are already changing the balance. And you don’t have to spend long in a MOOC to see the similarities with MMOs (massively multiplayer online games).

We math professoriate long ago recognized we needed to acquire the skills to prepare documents using word processing packages and LaTeX, and to prepare Keynote or PowerPoint slides. Now we are having to learn the rudiments of learning management systems (LMSs), video editing, the creation of applets, and the use of online learning platforms.

Creating video games is perhaps more unusual, since it requires so many different kinds of expertise, and I am only doing that because a particular professional history brought me into contact with the gaming industry. But plenty of mathematical types have created engaging math learning apps, and some of them are really very good.

Technology not only makes all of these developments possible, it makes it imperative that, as a community, we get involved. But in the end, it’s people, not the technology, that make it happen. And to be successful, those people may have to work in collaborative teams. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Two Startups in One Week

Last week turned out to be far more hectic than most, with the simultaneous launch of two startups I have been involved in for the past few years.

When I went into the life of academic mathematics some 42 years ago, I could never have imagined ever writing such a sentence. Nor, for that matter, would I have had the faintest idea what a “startup” was. It’s a measure of how much society has changed since 1971, when I transitioned from being a “graduate student” to a “postdoc,” that today everyone knows what a startup is, and many of my doctorate-bearing academic colleagues have, as a sideline to their academic work, started up labs, centers, or companies. What was once exceptional is now commonplace.

Massive changes in technology have made it, while not exactly easy, at least possible for anyone in academia to become an “edupreneur,” to use (just once, I promise) one of the more egregious recent manufactured words. This means that, when our academic work leads to a good idea or a product we think could be useful to many of our fellow humans, we don’t have to sit back and hope that one day someone will come along and turn it into something people can access or use. We can make it available to them ourselves.

MOOCs are one of the most recent examples. If any of us in the teaching business finds we have developed a course that students seemed to have benefited from and we are proud of, we can (at least to some extent) bottle it and make it available to a much wider audience.

Of course, we have had versions of that ability since the invention of the printing press. Today, millions of people, academics and non-academics alike, use those printing press descendants, websites and blogs, to achieve a much wider audience for their written word.

A somewhat smaller (but growing) number have used platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo to make video-recordings of their lectures widely available.

To some extent, MOOCs can be viewed as an extension of both of those Internet media developments. A MOOC sets out to achieve the very ambitious goal of bottling an entire college course and making it available to the entire world—or at least, that part of the world with broadband access.

The launch this past weekend of the third iteration of my constantly-evolving MOOC on Mathematical Thinking was one of the two startups that gobbled up massive amounts of my time over the past few weeks. Even though, having given essentially the same course twice before, the bulk of the preparatory work was done, implementing the changes I wanted to make and re-setting all the item release dates/times and the various student submission deadlines was still a huge undertaking. For with a MOOC, pretty well everything for the entire course needs to be safely deposited on (in my case, with my MOOC on Coursera) Amazon’s servers before the first of my 41,000 registered students logged on over the weekend.

When you think about it, the very fact that a single academic can do something like this, is pretty remarkable. What makes it possible is that all the components are readily available. To go into the MOOC business, all you need is a laptop, a word processor (and LaTeX, if you are giving a math course), possibly a slide package such as PowerPoint, some kind of video recording device (I use a standard, $900 consumer camcorder, others use a digital writing tablet), a small microphone (possibly the one already built in to your laptop), and a cheap consumer video editing package (I use Premiere Elements, which comes in at around $90). Assuming you already have the laptop and a standard office software package, you can set up in the MOOC business for about $1500.

Sure, it helps if your college or university gives you access to the open source MOOC platform edX, or is willing to enter an agreement with, say, the MOOC platform provider Coursera. But if not, there are options such as YouTube, websites, Wikis, and blogs, all freely available.

My second startup was supposed to launch at least a month before my MOOC, but a major hacking event at Apple’s Developer Site delayed their release of the first (free) mathematical thinking mobile game designed by my small educational software company, InnerTube Games. Both launches falling in the same week is not something I’d want to do again!

Why form a company to create and distribute mathematics education video games that incorporate some of the findings and insights I’d developed over several years of research? The brutal answer is, I had no other viable option. Though several years of research had convinced me that it was possible to design and build “instruments” on which you can “play” parts of mathematics, in the same way a musical instrument such as a piano can be used to play music (in both cases by passing the need for static symbolic representations on a page, which are known to be a huge barrier to learning for many people), I simply was not successful in convincing funders it was a viable approach.

Clearly then, I had to build at least one such instrument. More precisely, I had to team up with a small number of friends who brought the necessary expertise I did not have. Again, a few years ago, it would have been impossible for an academic to found and build a small company and create and launch a product in my spare time. But today, anyone can.

Sure, even more so than with MOOCs, to form and operate an educational software company, you need to work with other peoplethree in my case. (That, at least, has been my experience.) But the key point is, the technology and the resources infrastructure make it possible. You don’t have to give up your day job as an academic to do it! And just as a MOOC provider (or a YouTube, website, blogging platform combo) takes care of the distribution of your course, so too the Web (in my case, in the form of Apple’s App Store) can make your creation available to the world. At no cost.

We are not talking about enterprises designed with the purpose of making money hereI am essentially in the same game as the writing of academic works or textbooks, and in my case less so, since my books cost money but my MOOC and my game are free. Rather we are making use of a global infrastructure to make our work widely accessible. If that infrastructure involves for-profit MOOC platforms or software companies, so be it.

The fact is, it has never been as easy as it is today for each one of us to take an idea or something we have created and make it available to a wide audience. Sure, for both my examples, I have left a lot unsaid, focusing on one particular aspect. (Take a glance at my video game website to see who else was involved in that particular enterprise and the experience they brought to the project. That was a team effort if ever there was!) But the key fact is, it is now possible!

For more about my MOOC, and MOOCs in general, see my blog For my findings and thoughts on mathematics education, see many of the posts on my other blog together with some of the articles and videos linked to on the InnerTube Games website.

And for another (dramatic) example of how one person with a good idea can quickly reach a global audience, see Derek Muller’s superb STEM education resource Veritasium

Friday, March 1, 2013

Can we make constructive use of machine-graded, multiple-choice questions in university mathematics education?

A good metaphor for the current state of MOOC education is provided by this historical video. But when you look at those images, please remember what those events led to. Unless you are able to keep that history in mind, you should not at this stage get into the MOOC business. For there be only dragons.

With the second edition of my Stanford MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking starting this weekend on Coursera, I have once again been wrestling with the question of the degree to which good, effective mathematics learning can be achieved at scale, over the Internet.

Once I had made the decision to try to take (elements of) my 35-year-old mathematics transition course into the then emerging MOOC formatless than a year ago!I was immediately brought face-to-face with the necessity of making use of two educational devices I had loathed (and never used) throughout my entire career in higher education:
  1. machine-graded pop quizzes
  2. machine-graded multiple-choice questions
For MAA readers, I don’t think I need to explain my dislike for either of these ├╝ber-simplistic devices, which can surely be justified in a regular classroom only in terms of making life easier for the instructor.

Simply putting a class online does not require the use of either device, of course. Technologies such as video conferencing and screen sharing can make learning at a distance almost as good as traditional classroom learning, and in some circumstances can make it better in some respects. But making a class available to tens of thousands of students online changes everything. With such large numbers, the “class” dynamics change dramatically. But it’s not all for the worse.

The first thing to realize is that a MOOC is in many ways like radio or TV. Though both of those familiar features of modern life are referred to as “mass media,” they are in fact highly individual. The newsreader on radio or TV is not addressing a large audience; she or he is talking to millions of single individuals. The secret to being good on the radio or TV is to forget the millions and think of just one (generic) person. After all, the listener or viewer is not in a room with millions of other people; in fact, if the broadcast is successful, that listener or viewer is cognitively in a room with just the presenter. The really successful radio and TV newsreaders and presenters are the ones who can do that really well. They create that sense that they are talking just to You.

In my own case, I already knew that from many years of occasional media work, but I think all MOOC instructors come to that realization very quickly. When your voice, with or without your face, is in someone’s living room, there is a direct human connection that in important ways is far more intimate than is possible in a lecture hall filled with anything more than a handful of students.

Once you realize this feature of the MOOC medium, the underlying pedagogic model is obvious. It’s one-on-one teaching/learningsomething that in the traditional academy is (of necessity) reserved only for doctoral students.

At which point, the appropriate use of both pop quizzes and multiple-choice questions starts to look feasible. (They ought to; doctoral advisers use both extensively, and to great positive effect, though they do not refer to them as such, and there is no machine-grading!)

Of course, in a MOOC it remains the case that the student cannot communicate directly with the professor, nor can the professor see and comment on an individual student’s work. That means two further techniques have to be used as well:
  1. peer tutoring
  2. peer evaluation 
In the first version of my MOOC, last September, I built the course around the doctoral-student education model, deliberately setting out to create the experience of a student sitting alongside me at my desk. (There is a low resolution example here.)

But as a result of a career-long dislike of the first two and a deep suspicion of the fourth, I used all but the third of those auxiliary devices reluctantly and as little as possible. (The one I did embrace, peer tutoring, did not work well the way I set it up. See below for details of Attempt Two.)

Because of my caution, I think I avoided a fate reminiscent of NASA’s first attempts to launch a rocket into space. But that was a first, exploratory experience, and I wanted to live to try again. This time around, based on what I learned, I am going to use all four much more aggressively, but in ways I think might work.

I’ll be describing how I’ll be using them in a series of posts to my blog For a briefand decidedly limitedforetaste, check out this video excerpt of a conversation my MOOC TA Paul Franz and I had recently with radio and TV personality Angie Coiro, host of the syndicated radio and television interview show In Deep.

The goal of Version 2 of the course is not to reach the Moon. Chances are high that we’ll crash and burn. The goal is to at least get off the ground before we do, and, if we are lucky, maybe even reach the upper atmosphere. For sure, there will still be a long way to go.

If you want to live dangerously and be part of this huge experiment, and if you have a Ph.D. (or pending Ph.D.) in mathematics and several years of college teaching behind you, I am still looking for well qualified volunteers to act as “Community TAs” for the course, to answer students' questions on the course discussion forums. So far I have 14 volunteers, comprising 5 college professors, 3 Ph.D. students, 3 individuals currently working in the software industry, a K-12 education consultant, a research laboratory scientist, and a stock analyst. If you want to volunteer, and have the requisite experience, please drop me an email at (There is no payment for doing thisthat includes me!) But being part of a large and truly global community, who come together for several weeks for the sole purpose of learning how to think mathematically (the course carries no college credit), is truly a wonderful experience.