Monday, February 22, 2010

Is Math Boring?

It's funny because I love math. I have always loved it, but my wife almost gets physically ill by the mention of trigonometry. If by some accident I happen to mention anything that could be construed as a mathematical concept or problem my wife sushh's me as quick as she can. Some people really do struggle to accept mathematics for the exciting and interesting explanation of how everything moves and exists in our universe, ok maybe that is overstating it a bit but you get my drift.

Well the question is who is right, Is Math boring? I obviously say no and here is my case to prove it. Is TV boring, well much of it is TV is not a good example I'll try again, Is space travel boring? Or are computer games boring? or what about movie special effects? or mobile phones? The web? Flying? Even the driving the car? They all to a degree employ mathematics to achieve what they are designed to. The easiest first space travel is all about math. Everything is based on distance, relative speeds and intersection points all normal mathematical concepts but vital in successful space travel.

The whole tech industry is built upon the shoulders of mathematics. All computers at the low levels only understand math. Everything you want a computer to do from play a game, send an email, watch a video, social networking, twitter etc everything is translated to mathematical functions for computers to understand. Your computer only looks like it knows what you want it to do, to your computer all it really is doing is solving mathematical problems for you all day long. Math really is the one and only common worldwide language, it is the only language that every community in the world has in common and understands. Mathematics comes from a greek word meaning leaning, study and science all very basic tenets of education.

Form my above argument I would say to be bored by mathematics is to be bored of life. I blame how and what we were taught in schools for this perception that math is boring because taught properly it should only emit wonder from students. But the teachers tried to drill into us formulas and learn of theorems when in reality we needed to see it applied in the real world to grasp how it effects us everyday.

Now ask my wife for her argument and her response is the same as nearly every bored student in math class "But I'll never need this when I leave school". I always counter that as she grew up working in the family shop she used it in a very practical way everyday dealing with money. But hey these differences of opinion is what makes life interesting, I have only one thing left to say one the subject…I'm right Q.E.D.

Does Video Kill the Math Teacher?

The question is can a math teacher be replaced by a video presentation or even a computer application. Most teachers would instantly jump to the answer no way! Well I would give a qualified agreement with the teachers on that. There is no computer program in the world or video class that can do everything that a math teacher does and has to deal with. But saying that let us look at what it can be achieved with modern computer programs and video software.

Video is only ever going to be a reproduction of what a teacher has done and is really only one-way interaction enabled. No good asking a video questions if you need clarification on a point. But consider a student who has a unmotivated and bored teacher (come on we've all had them in our time) they might actually be much better off with a video and the textbook. The big advantage of a video over a teacher is that the student is now in control. The student can pause it, try something out replay it and rewind to review parts if they want. The student can learn the topic at their own pace. This is the biggest problem of classroom teaching, students as we all know don't learn at the same pace and a teacher is forced to cater for the lowest common denominator, resulting in a number of bored students.

Teachers should have nothing to fear from video and applications that enable student to self learn. The job of a teacher is to enable students to improve and access the concepts and information they need. They should have no fear for a third party be it tutor, video or application that is helping a student to achieve in math. You could even go as far and say to a teacher in reality to do their job right they should introduce these for use at home, both video and web based applications to improve math because in this way they are giving the kids the information and a choice of avenues to learning the subject matter at hand.

There are now fantastic services available on the web for getting video presentations of different topics and they really are a boon to modern day students in getting in touch with math enabling them to learn at their own pace. If I was a teacher I wouldn't worry about arriving at work and seeing a big 52" screen where my desk used to be or Robbie the robot because who would there be for the students to complain about?

Monday, February 15, 2010

How much homework is too much homework?

I’ve heard this debate about 1,000 times. “How much homework should I give?” well as with nearly everything (outside of math) there is no right answer, and never will be. Even when you are right you are wrong. In a single class there will be students who don’t need any homework because they get it already but then there will be others who have as usual coasted through class with their heads in the clouds and really only learn with threats and deadlines. These people need homework badly and plenty of it because it’s damn near the only education they are going to get.

My advice is to set homework that makes knowing the concepts key and once you have that the homework at hand should be a snap. This will mean that the students who get it already will breeze through their homework but the coasters will need to sit down and learn the subject at hand.

Yeah I agree but how to you do that?

Well how about you flip the homework on its head and ask the students to set original homework for themselves that explains the topic and then explain how the answer was derived. This almost seems counter intuitive “Let them set their own homework?”, well yeah think about it for a second to do this right the student needs to know the topic to enable them set homework that will explain it. If the student doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about they will need to figure it out first to do this.

Or ask them to write a 20 line paragraph that would explain the concept of the topic at hand to next year’s class. Again simple for the people who know but a struggle for those who don’t.

I am not a fan of lists of problems or reams of regurgitated facts, in my opinion this is just a waste of time and hides the core of the education task. Our job is to teach the concepts and ensure that the concepts are understood. The internet has also made my homework strategy more valuable because there are sites and programs readily available that will give students the answer to any problem. These instant answers really only bypass the need for comprehension. I have yet to find a site that will give students instant answers to my homework (maybe there is a start-up in there somewhere) . You need to give homework that encourages students to learn the concepts not the details. Like the old adage “can’t see the wood for the trees” you need to make sure that your students are not blinded from what’s important in math by the pressing need to get their homework out of the way because it’s spoiling my xbox game time.

So next time you have the same old debate about the amount of homework to give go with the answer “Just enough”, because then you’ll always be right.

Book Publishers to go the way of the Dodo

Book publishers must have seen this coming for a very long time and what surprises me most is that they have done absolutely nothing about it. They haven’t learnt the lessons of the music industry and decided that if they just ignore the problem it would go away. Well it hasn’t!
We’re talking about the web and electronic delivery of content. The music industry first ignored it then when it was too big to ignore tried to squash it. When that failed they tried to cosy up to it with Apple etc, but now they resemble a once great white shark twitching on the shore struggling to survive.
I reckon the book publishers are just ending the “ignore it” stage but for all that has gone before it looks like they are going to attempt the same trick that failed for the music industry.
It really doesn’t have to be this way. Publishers should see that an easy to use spur of the moment system where consumers can just purchase content at the click of a button can only mean more sales and less costs. But the fear of losing control of the supply line is what is stopping publishers embrace the new order. Publishers fear that if they go pure digital what do they really offer the author that the author can’t just do for themselves?
Well I think the publishers are underselling themselves. Imagine for a second a world where anyone who wanted to be an author could just write a book and “publish” it themselves. We would end up with thousands of new books every day and because there would be no critical analysis of quality 99% of them would be rubbish. This would make finding a good book incredibly difficult. What publishers really offer is that they can become the gatekeepers to ensure that most of the rubbish never reaches the mass market. We should be able to know that if we purchase a Harper Collins book then at the very least the author is able to write and has been approved worthy of mass publication.
Also digital delivery has huge advantages for the publisher, author and consumer. The publisher doesn’t have to spend a fortune on printing presses and delivery of the physical book. The publishing process would be to create a simple download of an e-book and make it available on the publishing network. Then the delivery process is consumer driven by the download and purchase of the e-book. This purchase will occur and complete without any input from the publisher.
The stumbling block at the moment seems to be the publishers want to hang on to the established life-cycle of new books. First they selling the hardback edition for about double the price of the paper back. Then 4 months later when all the people who really wanted the book have brought the expensive version they release a paper back for the masses. This doesn’t really work in the e-book world because there is only 1 edition. Also consumers are not willing to spend the $15 for a new paperback on an e-book nor should they have to. The costs of “publishing” an e-book are pennies. Consumers are willing to pay the author and publisher their cut but not to pay for non existing costs.
We can only hope that publishers wake up to the new world before it’s too late because I do believe they have a role to play. But if they continue fight and procrastinate then the world will move on without them and we’ll end up in world where the publishers will be consigned to history.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Has Math changed that much in the last 2 years?

This is something that really bugs me. Every few years the math books are updated and changed by the publishing companies for no good reason but to squeeze more money out of the schools and parents. Why they are let do this I’ll never know.
These new editions have at best a few cosmetic changes and an updated front cover. Then the schools all gradually move to this “new” book and this forces the parent to shell out for a new book instead of the old one or a second-hand one. The “new” book is in reality has exactly the same content as the old one because it has to cover the same curriculum. The standards in California for instances, haven’t changed in 20 years so the math taught is exactly the same and hasn’t changed in 20 years. Usually if you check through the old and “new” books most of the chapters are word for word exactly the same and a few chapters are re-named...that’s it!
For me there is a simple solution, just don’t put up with it. The school districts should just pick a book they are happy with and leave it. When a new edition comes out ignore it, finally when the math book is out of print and no second-hand ones are freely available allow the students to pick a newer edition of the same book and gradually move over to that. If all districts went with this the nonsense would stop because there would be no point in re-printing the same content in a new edition if everyone just ignored it, except for the people who were in the market for a new book anyway. These people would have just brought the old book if no new edition was printed because they’d know it was basically the same anyway.
This would free up resources and effort in the publishing houses to do something real and not waste their time re-hashing the same stuff over and over again. It would also allow the publishing houses to get more content online and do more for students and teachers in the way of resources and benchmark testing and standards tracking. All these extra goodies are losing resources because of this endless cycle of uselessness.
Nice dream I guess but let’s face it, we live in a different world and we just have to put up with this messing from the publishing houses. But if we can just get our own houses in order let everyone else sort them selves out the problem might eventually work its self out.
Will the publishing houses do the right thing? Only time will tell but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Friday, January 29, 2010

iPad for homework iWonder?

The hyperbole has died down and in the cold light of day the iPad looks like iPod Touch Maxi. But the question I have is will these e-Readers like the Kindle and the new iPad be any help in getting homework done?

First let’s look at the case for the iPad as a homework/school helper.

1) At only 1.5lb weight the iPad is light and could easily be carried to school.
2) Intuitive interface makes for a easy learning curve and productivity gains straight off the bat
3) Perfect interface to watch video and listen to audio. With the promise of video chats this could be a fantastic tutor device.

Now the obvious down side

1) Because the device is limited to no flash then most web based apps will not work and most web based video will not be usable
2) Multi purpose device means distractions are only a touch away and it’s hard enough now to get kids to concentrate on homework.

I can see a scenario where this iPad could become a fantastic device for tutoring and homework help but I think this is still some way off. If I had a wish-list for the device that could really help with homework it would have the following

1) Built in Camera and Microphone for video chats with tutors
2) Full multi-tasking to enable video chat, whiteboard and textbooks all to be used at the same time.
3) Voice dictation software to enable student to talk to the device (I know a stretch but this is a wish-list)
4) Full web enabled technologies i.e. Silverlight and Flash
5) Custom Built shared whiteboard web class software.

None of these extra wish-list items are really out of the question and the technology already exists to perform all these. But the will and the market is the real question.
As for the Kindle this is without doubt the best e-Reader on the market. I can see this device replacing textbooks in the next few years but I believe there is still a few advancements advancements needed. This device could become the student/study device and with integrated class room and tutor software could achieve most of my wish-list requirements. The Kindle will be priced at less then $100 this time next year and will have a bigger screen and much more content. Amazon doesn’t want to get into the hardware market and compete with Apple they want to create a cheap e-Reader which is the best device to use for reading books this will enable them t control the burgeoning market for eBooks and become the dominate force into the future. The Kindles will become subsidized devices which all school kids will end up with in there bags.

Kindle Wish-List to create a fantastic student device

1) Touch screen
2) Bigger Screen with Back lit option
3) Much Cheaper about $100
4) Integrated School Books and Class/Tutor software built in
5) Bluetooth enabled to allow in class homework sharing and marking.
6) Big improvement on writing interface to enable it become the replacement for all school materials
7) Web Enabled with option to go full screen color.

With the Kindle wish-list we could see this device take over classrooms across the country and there is almost a guaranteed market every year then among the millions who attend classes everyday. Remember you heard it here first.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bill Gates agrees with us that education is moving online

How is that for an endorsement, Bill Gates today in his annual letter from his Foundation. He outlined how he believes that education is about to be driven online and that this will bring great benefits to everyone. This is where Bill Gates goes to learn about new things and he seems to think the time is now right for an explosion in interest and demand for new educational services online.
Right well we weren’t exactly mentioned by Bill Gates but he’s preaching the exact same message as us.

Education is that last great bastion of community that has yet to really feel the power of the web. Services are getting made and are available now that could really help education today but the establishment have been slow to adopt them. These services are struggling to get noticed and struggling to get the education establishment interest in them. The problem is with the system really as the emphasis is just not there on software and technology as an education enabler. Software is seen as a cost and until it can be viewed by the schools and education department as a great tool for helping students and controlling costs, the first question will always be “How much is this going to cost us?”

Well Bill has a plan that non-profit and corporate forces will collide and make the perfect educational resource available to all for free or near free. Personally I just don’t see it. I think the model has to be more pragmatic than that. A drive on costs to get them as low as possible will enable providers to produce quality online material and courses that can be offered to schools and students for very little. At the moment there are services available now that offer great online courses in subjects for as little as $25 per year, but I believe going forward this will just get cheaper and cheaper until it becomes so competitive and price conscious that we’ll be paying less than $10 a year soon.

I agree with Bill when he says that there is yet a single “great” resource available but this is because no real big players have entered the market yet. This will change and existing players will get better, cheaper and offer more. It’s great to see the exposure that online education is getting and I just hope that this debate truly begins and a spotlight can be shone on the services that offer a great service at a reasonable fee that are in the market trying to drum up interest now.

Can Twitter Teach our Kids Math?

Well at this stage twitter is becoming mainstream. We have to accept twitter is probably going to be here to stay. I posed the question “Can Twitter Teach our Kids Math?” which is a bit of a stretch but I believe it can definitely help.
Twitter to the uninitiated is a simple SMS-like messaging service that allows people to connect and follow the messages posted by people and companys and in turn post (or Tweet) their own status. It is used in a few different ways but mainly by people who just want to keep in touch with people and organisations.
Sounds simple and it really is that simple there is a little bit more to it but basically not much more. But let’s see if we can come up with a scenario where twitter could be used in an educational situation. Imagine if all the students “followed” the teacher on twitter and could get updates and homework tips and results and personal mentoring all on twitter, it’d be a bit cool right? Imagine too if the parents could also follow the school and get updates on school closures and events and their kids progress, again cool right? This would be a super easy way to stay up-to date with what is happening in school and best of all it’s free to everyone concerned. Not particularly innovative just quick and easy movement of information.
Twitter could be great as a communications service in school as described above but it still doesn’t teach our kids. Well we could also offer anonymous free tutor help. I’m actually surprised a service like this doesn’t already exist (well I can’t find one) that allows a person tweet a specific problem to a service and get back an instant-ish response, not sure how the business model would work but hey twitter hasn’t figured one out yet either. Or how about a twitter service where people can post up homework help and advice again surprised the book publishers haven’t cottoned on to this one yet either.
Everyone knows that education is delivered and received by talking and reading well twitter is just a new method of communication and can easily then be included into the mix of education successfully and will succeed and fail in the exact same way as all communication does now. If it succeeds just remember where you heard it first, if it fails blame twitter ;-)

Monday, January 4, 2010

24/7 Math Homework Help

In my day math homework was something you did straight after school so you could get out to your friends. If you got stuck you were well stuck. You could ask your parents but all you would get back is blank stares. Ask you brothers or sisters and they'd laugh at you. You could search the internet...hang on that wasn't invented yet.
I often think kids have it harder in so many areas of life nowadays but getting math homework help is not one of them. The internet is a great resource to help (and cheat) with your homework. If you didn't bother with your homework and you have 20 minutes in the morning to get it done in a hurry the internet is a lifesaver. Not really the recommended scenario for getting your homework done but now possible, but used right the internet and web tutor services are a fantastic resource.
Math homework help services on the internet now mean expert advice on the exact concepts you are working on are just a click away 24/7. This is a great boon but also removes the standard excuse of the student. “I couldn’t understand it and no one at home can help” ah well yes there is it’s called the internet. Many teachers first reaction to web based tutor services is fear and to dismiss them. But really teachers can use good web homework tutors to really enforce a math lesson.
Imagine the scenario the teacher runs an hour long class on polynomials and sets homework based on the chapter in the textbook. But also refers all the students to a web tutor service offering a customized lesson with examples on the exact same chapter if they need help. Now some students always struggle to get the subject in school and for a host of reasons might not get it first time. But now at home these students get the chance to review the topic at their own speed and have an expert tutor on hand to help if they get stuck. The teacher benefits because any student arriving into class without the homework done better have a really good excuse, the student benefits because they have an expert at home on tap to help and it really empowers them to take control of their own education.
This scenario is happening everyday in schools across the country with services that already exist. All I’d say to students is don’t be afraid to try them as most if not all are free for a trial period or really inexpensive. It is much better to get a service that covers your exact textbook rather than a generic one as you will always get the exact help you need. Teachers please embrace web based tutors because they do not seek to replace you but to improve the situation for everyone. They do not just give the students the answers to math problems but try to reinforce the concepts that you introduced in class.