Sunday, January 9, 2011

Joint Mathematics Meetings January 2011

The 2011 Joint Math Meetings started for me with the advisory board meeting of the Mathematical Sciences Digital Library (MathDL). Both the MAA Reviews and the Classroom Capsules are currently free on the MathDL site to both MAA members and non-members.  The Reviews are useful mainly to faculty and libraries making decisions about purchasing books, but the "Classroom Capsules and Notes brings together the best of 114 years of the short classroom materials from the MAA print publications" and should be of use to all math faculty.

The MAA now hosts WeBWorK, an open source (free) web-based homework system originally out of Rochester U.  If your institution is unable or unwilling to host WeBWorK on its own server, the MAA will let you try out WeBWorK with up to 100 students from your school.  (And if you want to try it out with more students, ask anyway, and the MAA will try to find a participating institution that can accommodate you.)

Aaron Wangberg of Winona State U. has created an electronic whiteboard to work within WeBWorK.  His students are required to use the whiteboard to show their work before submitting their answers for the instant correct/incorrect feedback.  Mike Gage says this utility will soon be available to all the WeBWorK authoring community.

Warren Esty of Montana State U:  Theorem  The value of math skills has gone way down.  Corollary  We should focus our teaching toward skills that will add value.  Examples:  Being able to read math and to make the right things "come to mind."  (The idea of the latter example is that information and computation are both cheap, but knowing what is relevant to look up or to compute is harder to come by.)

At the CTiME sponsored panel session on the final day I learned a bit more about MathJAX, which is rapidly becoming the standard tool for putting math notation on the Web.  MathJAX is largely the work of Davide Cervone of Union College.

Much of the excitement about MathJAX is that it provides a much needed piece of the puzzle so that the potential of MathML can be realized.  Although MathML has been the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standard for putting math on the Web for 15 years, it has not been widely accepted by browsers.  MathJAX allows the author of a webpage to use TeX or MathML to specify math notation, and MathJAX instructs the browser how to display the math properly, even for browsers that do not know how to display MathML.

Steve Wilson (AMATYC Central Vice-President) told me that he spent a few hours in the exhibits room.  Besides the major textbook publishers and mathematical software providers, the exhibitors at JMM 2011 included, which showcases information and resources for students and faculty about careers, etc.  The ALEKS rep would give me no numbers at all about possible costs, but the WebAssign folks were happy to chat about costs or anything else.

One American Mathematical Society booth freebie was a report on an AMS survey about online homework systems.  By far the most frequently adopted were 1) MyMathLab, 2) WebAssign, and 3) WeBWork.  MML involved the most students (230K), then WeBWorK with over 100,000 and WebAssign with less than 100,000.  There was no effort to rate the relative quality of the different homework systems, but I found it interesting that the study divided the PhD granting institutions into those that were among the top 80 (as ranked by the National Research Council) and those ranking below the top 80.  For example, the response rate among the top 80 was 71%, for the rest of the PhD-granting universities the response rate was 65%.  For the masters-granting universities the response rate was 45%, for bachelor's 30%.  "The two-year college numbers were too small for any meaningful analysis" as "Only 11 responded" of the 30 TYC invited to participate.