O'Reilly School of Technology + Mathematica: What Do They Add Up To?

Last month, the O’Reilly School of Technology and Wolfram Research announced that the school was licensing Wolfram’s flagship math program Mathematica to create a web-based version of the system.

Right after the announcement, we ran an interview with Scott Gray, director of the O’Reilly School of Technology that gives a solid explanation of the deal and what it means. Tim O’Reilly and I had a few more Radar-oriented questions for Scott. (Disclosure: I’m a half-competent Mathematica hacker and a bleary-eyed fan of Mathematica creator Stephen Wolfram’s A Different Kind of Science).

Q: There’s already a webMathematica. How is what you’re doing different from that?

Gray: webMathematica is the Web 1.0 version of Mathematica, using just HTML and web forms. It doesn’t have any of the rich front-end capabilities of the Mathematica software. The in-line editing and computational functionality of Mathematica are not only some of the features of Mathematica that separate it from other symbolic mathematics software, but these features turn out to be very important when using Mathematica to teach mathematics. Hilbert will use Ajax and CSS to achieve high fidelity with the original software. Using Ajax and CSS to emulate rich GUI interfaces on the web is one of the trends we’re seeing in this Web 2.0 era.

Q: Does this have any relation to the CalculuzWiz program from a few years back that used Mathematica to teach calculus?

Gray: No. Calculus Wiz is simply a repository of Calculus examples that utilize Mathematica. While that’s a nice resource, it doesn’t have the pedagogical and narrative structure we’re seeking. We’re going to be using the Calculus&Mathematica (C&M) content created by Prof. Jerry Uhl and Prof. Bill Davis of the University of Illinois and Ohio State. They’ve created over a dozen courses in mathematics using a unique narrative structure utilizing Mathematica. This structure uses Mathematica to engage learners in a conversation which encourages exploration and discovery. For learning theorists out there, the pedagogy is a computer-driven form of constructivism which has been used successfully at the University of Illinois, Ohio State, and many other universities since the early 1990’s. This will allow us to increase the availability and decrease the overhead for teaching these wonderful courses.

Q: What’s the long-term goal here? How are services like this going to change the school and — more broadly — education?

Gray: The overarching goal of the O’Reilly School of Techology (OST) is to improve science and engineering education by setting an example of what’s possible using the computer and internet as catalyst. The education industry is one of the least disruptive industries on the planet. Although we hear a lot about technology being used in classrooms and the internet, the pedagogy is the same as it’s been for hundreds of years. For the most part, nothing has changed about how subjects like mathematics are taught. Computers and the internet are simply being used to distribute the same boring lectures and presentations that haven’t been working all along. Science and math education is still a mess, especially in America. It became clear to me long ago that change could not happen from within the educational establishment, so we’re using OST as a platform to demonstrate new ways to teach and learn. We have a long way to go on our journey, but we’re headed in the right direction.

Q: Are there any plans to license the Ajax version back to Wolfram?

Gray: If this works really well, look for Wolfram to consider other avenues for taking advantage of the potential of software as a service. Allowing this model in partnership with O’Reilly is a big policy step for them and they are curious to see if the benefits of business models like this can outweigh the risks. From a strickly idealistic point of view, everyone realizes that opening up and unleashing the power of Mathematica into the Web 2.0 world of mashups has enormous potential.

If you want to see more, Gray will be showing a preview at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco in June.

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