Maths for the masses
Teaching mathematics is a problem in both the developing and developed worlds. In North America, educators complain that even high-achieving students lack a good grasp of some basic mathematical concepts. The situation is even worse in the Arab region, according to the Arab Human Development Report 2003.
The report, Building a Knowledge Society, emphasised the need for quality education, particularly in science and maths — areas that could help the lagging region move forward and catch up with developed nations.
But apparently, when it comes to maths, people lose their enthusiasm for learning.
"Students and parents alike do not think mathematics is a useful field of study," says Mark Werner, chair of the mathematical software committee at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt.
"There is not much motivation for a subject with little perceived practical value. This might be because many of the problems we teach in the classroom are only stepping stones to other, applied and usually more interesting problems, which are typically covered in other departments such as engineering," adds Werner.
With that in mind, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is taking steps to make maths more appealing and easier to learn and teach. UNESCO's Cairo Office has struck a deal with US-based Wolfram Research Inc. This will allow Arab states to use the company's famous 'Mathematica' software, to both teach mathematics and improve science and technology education and research.
Wolfram Research has agreed to base the price of Mathematica on the 17 Arab countries' gross domestic product and the number of students who can use the software. This will drive the price down from more than US$1,000 in North America to about US$10 in Arab states.
Mathematica is one of the more widely used computer algebra systems. It can perform numerical or symbolic maths far more quickly and accurately than humans. Like similar products, such as MATLAB and Maple, Mathematica is a tool for education as well as research.
Students can use it for solving 'pure' as well as applied mathematical problems — those they encounter in their engineering, physics, or biology studies.
"Mathematica is like a mathematics encyclopaedia, very advanced and powerful," says Tarek Shawki, the regional communication and information advisor for Arab states at UNESCO's Cairo Office, who pulled together the Wolfram agreement.
"It extensively uses visualisation to illustrate mathematical concepts, like integration, in a way never possible before. Besides all the capabilities it has, Mathematica allows users to add new functions using a special programming language."
Werner is also enthusiastic about the potential gains from using mathematical software.
"It will enable students to solve real world, complex mathematics problems that they will face once they graduate," he says. "Many real world problems are too complicated to be solved within a few minutes; using the techniques we teach in the classroom is a good start, but quite often more is required."
Common examples include systems of simultaneous equations that are often too complicated to be solved by hand, and matrices that are too large to efficiently invert or multiply manually. Additionally, says Werner, graphical exploration of the problem and/or solution is almost indispensable for a large class of problems, particularly in statistics.
According to Shawki, the beauty of Mathematica and similar software is that it opens up the students' minds to what maths really stands for.
Shawki is a former professor of applied and theoretical mathematics at the University of Illinois, United States, and at Suez Canal University, Egypt. He thinks that one of the main problems with teaching maths in the Arab world is that students lose sight of the big picture when they become locked into finding a solution for a long equation.
"Mathematica helps students quickly get through equations so that their eyes keep focused on the meaning of what they are doing, the broader context — be it in engineering, physics or biology."
Werner remembers how a complicated mathematical problem he set his calculus students revealed the influence of mathematical software:
"I happened to come across one of the students working on this project using the mathematical software in our lab. He said he enjoyed a lot solving such a complicated equation and told me, 'Wow, Mathematics is so much fun!'"
The AUC's mathematics department's present maths software, Maple, was chosen because it was less expensive than Mathematica, says Wermer.
Shawki adds that the new price arrangement with Wolfram is one step of many needed to improve maths education in the region.
"First, the top decision-making authorities need to understand and value what it means to improve mathematics education in their respective countries."
Under the deal Shawki brokered, only governments can sign contracts with Mathematica's producer to get the software for US$10. Individuals cannot. So far, only two countries — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — have expressed serious interest. Neither has yet signed a contract with Wolfram Research.
"Second, you buy the optimal software," says Shawki. "Third, you train teachers and educators to use the software. Fourth, you encourage them to use it to design examples and problems from the syllabuses they are teaching. Fifth, you 'Arabise' the software's interface, engine and manuals."
There are open-source alternatives to Mathematica that could be had for free, like Maxima and Axiom. So why did UNESCO select a commercial product?
"Mathematica is impeccably superior to open-source alternatives," says Shawki. "And, in this region, most of us see open-source software as something for the taking at zero price, which is quite a misconception."
"Although you do not have to pay licensing fees for open-source products, you still have to incur other expenses in the form of development, customisation and maintenance so that the product can fulfil the task it is used for," he says.
Shawki says that UNESCO has always supported open-source and open-courses products and initiatives, because it is in the interest of UNESCO member states.
But, he says, when you are selecting an application to be adopted across a whole region, you cannot base your decision solely on the price.
"Adopting open-source requires a culture of perseverance, competence, and collective and collaborative contribution. Also, it needs a new managerial framework on the government's part, so that they can deal with products whose price is not paid in licensing fees, but in other forms like development and maintenance. These elements do not yet exist in this region."
In other cases, however, UNESCO has adopted and refined open-source applications, like Moodle; the learning management system the organisation uses to run its online open-courses portal.
Although the UNESCO-Wolfram agreement was signed in January 2004, progress toward adopting the software in the Arab region is slow.
And maths departments have heard little, if any, about the initiative. "They probably need to do little more marketing," says Werner.