CMS/SMC
Société mathématique du Canada
www.smc.math.ca
Société mathématique du Canada
  location:  Communautéfonds de dotationaperçu
Communauté        
Title of Project: Mathematics Learning Materials on the Web

Year of Competition: 2000

Grant amount: $3000

Project Duration: Multi-Year

Type of Report: Final

Period Covered: 2001-2004

Description of Activity:
This project, entitled "Mathematics Learning Materials on the Web", was directed towards assessing and meeting a perceived need for more finely targeted access to reliable web-based resources in support of the learning and teaching of college level mathematics.

The authors of the proposal had independently initiated projects a year or two earlier, one at Langara College in Vancouver, and one at the University of Alberta. These were both directed towards slightly different aspects of this same perceived need, and we were encouraged to apply jointly to the Endowment Grants Committee in the fall of 2000. Our application was for the funding of a three year project at $5000 per year, and in January of 2001 we received notification of an award from the Committee of a $3000 grant in support of our proposed activities.

This could not support the actual development of the product we had proposed, but as our proposed activity in the first year of the project was primarily team building and determination of need, we developed a presentation for delivery at the 2001 summer CMS meeting in Saskatoon and were provided with a slot in the agenda of the math education session, as well as with lab time to engage interested parties in hands-on activity. Our presentation was devoted both to considering some of the available materials and to reviewing various efforts to date towards dealing with the identification and access problem. The latter included updates on both of our own prior projects, and in particular on how the University of Alberta's Bio-DiTRL software had been adapted to the needs of mathematics. It also made reference to some other efforts such as the MAA's recently inaugrated JOMA and MathDL projects.

A link to the PowerPoint skeleton of that presentation is at http://www.langara.bc.ca/~acooper/reports/CMS-EFG/MathWeb.ppt

One of us also performed an email survey of the British Columbia postsecondary mathematics community with regard to use of web-based materials in the spring of 2002.

In the absence of further funding, one of us has continued on a slow track toward the development of an easily maintainable database-driven site as described in the original proposal.

The database has been populated initially with the links from the old Langara guide but it is hoped that broken links will be quickly identified, useful ratings applied, and new material added.

Readers of this report are invited to visit the site at www.langara.bc.ca/mathstats/resource/onWeb/ and make further contributions.

Assessment of Effectiveness:
Although received with some interest at the 2001 summer meeting, we did not at that time find enough volunteers to form the kind of editorial committee needed for a reviewed journal-style product. But since the timing of our presentation had conflicted with an important meeting of the Electronic Services Committee, we kept open the option of proceeding with a more involved project should volunteers turn up from among those unable to attend. We did attend the 2001 Winter Meeting and spoke with some members of the ESC, but the committee's business time was still taken up primarily with the larger issue of electronic journal publishing so we were unable to find a place on the agenda.

In the 2002 survey, we found that although some post-secondary educators found it useful to seek out supporting materials on the web, most did not, and those that did were often dissatisfied with the results. The reasons are similar to those that motivated this project, and could be summarized as ~Sboth too much and too little~T. Unreviewed sources produced excessive amounts of marginally relevant material and reviewed collections tended to be incomplete. These conclusions could be seen as supporting our original proposal, but it was not obvious that the lack of strong interest would be reversed by having the product we proposed.

At about the same time, the quality of search engine results improved dramatically and reviewed collections such as the MathDL and Merlot continued to grow, albeit slowly. Since these developments appeared to narrow the window that we had identified two years earlier (and about which funders had not been particularly enthusiastic even then) we saw the prospects for further support as rather dim and so moved on to other interests while waiting to see how effective Google~Rs link-based ranking would become and/or how quickly the various repositories would expand.

In fact, the growth of repositories has continued to be disappointingly slow (perhaps due to the amount of effort required by both authors and editors for each submission), and although Google is much better than the old unranked search engines at weeding out completely irrelevant links, it still requires a sophisticated user to quickly find a demonstration or example rather than a definition and to formulate queries that include all the alternative terms that might be used for the same topic.

So it appears that there may still be a need, or at least room, for something in between the extremes.

Future Plans (if any):
In the absence of funding, one of us (AC) has continued on a slow track toward the development of a site as described in the original proposal.

Rather than host materials, this project just provides links; and rather than insisting on peer review it admits arbitrary additions. For quality control, ranking and reviewing facilities are included and can be used as a basis for the ordering of search results. The goal here has been to make it easy to both add and review sites, so that the coverage could be as broad as possible with the user being able to quickly identify any standouts from the run-of-the-mill rewrites of textbook material. In order to meet the needs of a variety of user categories, the design allows for a customized ranking algorithm in which the opinions of reviewers who agree with the user are weighted more highly than others.

The database has been populated initially with the links from the old Langara guide but it is hoped that broken links will be quickly identified, useful ratings applied, and new material added.

Readers of this report are invited to visit the site at www.langara.bc.ca/mathstats/resource/onWeb/ and make further contributions.

Financial:
After covering the expenses for participation of both project teams in the 2001 meetings, there was about $800 left in the account which is being used to fund work-study students in the continuing process of identifying and reviewing sites for inclusion in the Langara database.

Contact Name: Alan Cooper

[July 2, 2004]


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