Shakespeare talked about “tides in the affairs of men” suggesting that “we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures”. The problem is that in the case of education we are fighting the current and the current is too strong.
The core of university life is undergraduate teaching. And there is a huge crisis in it. It is not managerialism or neoliberalism or corporatism or any of these ‘isms’. It’s not even the inadequate funding; that’s a slightly different and less devastating crisis. The really big crisis is the outcome of two things: (i) young people entering university completely unprepared for the challenges ahead of them and (ii) students being unwilling to, or perhaps unable to, rise to those challenges. These are fundamentally social and cultural problems that are simply too much for the third level sector alone to challenge. They make much of undergraduate teaching an utterly soul-destroying process.
So what is one supposed to do? For many years I have struggled against one area where students are woefully unprepared and that is in their grasp of basic mathematical skills. And I am finally admitting defeat. I have seen too many mathematical heresies over the years. I am admitting that the course on which I teach, where students dabble in a bit of chemical engineering, does not give them the immersion in mathematics that they need. After many years battling this particular tide I’m going to take Shakespeare’s advice.
So I’m going down the App route and building my mathematics-related teaching around the WolframAlpha knowledge engine. My hope now is that students have enough mathematical skill to be able to use WolframAlpha’s symbolic and numerical computation features. It is a marvelous technology for sure, available free online and downloadable as an App. Personally I have learned a lot of mathematics from using it. So, why not give it a go? Why not accept that the world is different now, move on and see where this new journey takes us. There’s nothing to lose and at least I might stop ranting incessantly about students’ poor maths skills.