Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mathematics Education and Software Freedom

Conrad Wolfram has an interesting suggestion. He says that kids spend most of their time in school learning how to do arithmetic by hand (long division and such like). This is not only tedious and boring it’s also stupid to do it by hand when we have computers! Computers are good at precisely these kinds of repetitive tasks. Instead of spending grueling hours practicing long divisions, kids should be formulating problems, thinking logically and exploring realistic problems.

According to him, math education should be computer based, using programming at its core.

I agree with this, more or less.

However, there’s a curious thing about doing long division on pen and paper. Once you learn doing that, it’s yours. You can go home and do it on another sheet of paper with another pen. You can go on the beach and do it on the sand with a stick. (Yes, a rather sad way to spend your time on the beach.) You can go mountain climbing and carve it out on a rock with a chisel. You can travel to another country and teach it to a foreigner. You can write and sell a book explaining how it works.

In other words, you own long division. You can do with it as you please. You don’t have to buy it from somebody. You don’t have to pay royalties every time you use it.

However, you have to do those things with computer software.

What software are we going to use to teach our kids math? It is going to run on windows? If yes, can he come back home to a Mac and do his homework? What language is he going to program in? Will he be able to run his program on another compiler on another platform? Is he required to pay a royalty to someone every time he needs to run his software? Will he be able to share his work with his buddies?

Remember that Wolfram is not talking about using computers to teach math. He’s talking about using computers to do the math. He isn’t talking about presentation and animations. He’s talking about programming and simulations.

It is clear that unless a completely free and open software environment is adopted for learning, we run the risk of teaching our kids knowledge that’s owned in large parts by one or two companies. Free software is going to play a key role in how learning takes place in the 21st century.

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