Sunday, August 16, 2009

Math... It's Changing!

If you haven’t heard yet, math is changing. Don’t worry, 1 + 1 will still equal 2, (or 10 for those who think in binary code.) However, the way math will be taught, learned, and applied is evolving. Recent technological innovations, in particular Internet-based applications, have sparked this change, and teachers from the college level through elementary schools are grappling with the most effective ways to use these innovations.

With the advent of online courses, teachers found a need to be able to connect with students and for their students to connect with each other. Forums, blogs, and Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Blackboard and moodle became the means to accomplish this. As these online courses matured, teachers began to incorporate the technological innovations into their regular classes to form a hybrid course, which is best described as a regular class with a significant online component. This worked quite well for discussion-based courses in the humanities; however, the need to express mathematical formulas such as:

required learning formatting languages such as LaTeX or having to post an image for each expression or equation. Simultaneously, a growth in social networking, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube was taking place. Cloud computing and web-based applications gained a solid foothold on the Internet, email and text messaging became the communication media of choice, and students began to exploit these social technologies in large numbers.

Currently, more and more math teachers, particularly at the college level, are recognizing the synchronism that exists between Internet-based instruction and social media. This fusion of technology is being largely embraced as a means to promote collaborative work among students and as a means to engage students by using the technologies they are most familiar with.

This past June, Wolfram Research, the creators of Mathematica, rolled out a new website, On this site, users are able to access numeric data from a wide variety of sources, such as sociology, science, economics, and mathematics. Users can input an equation and the website will provide a solution, often with the steps of solution listed. Needless to say, this generated much discussion among math teachers at every level regarding its implications. Some worry that students will not learn basic mathematics if the computer can do the math for them. Other instructors are excited that students will be able to apply mathematics to actual data. The one fact that both camps agree on is that students will use the site.

These innovations have great implications for how math will be taught in the future. Students will become more technologically savvy, more electronically connected, and have greater resources available to assist them. As educators, we must not only be aware of these trends, but we must learn how to leverage them to provide better instruction. We must examine how and why we present material. Are we trying to provide basic understanding of mathematical facts and procedures, or are we trying to develop an understanding of the underlying mathematical principles? Is the homework we assign designed as drill and practice, or are we trying to get our students to think about how math is applied to make decisions in the real world? Do we as instructors provide the information, or do we allow students to discover the how various concepts relate to one another? All of the above methods are valid in the correct context. However, we must think critically about how we teach mathematics if we want our students to develop critical thinking skills about mathematics.

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