Role of Open Source in Mathematics

Aug 2, 2008 by

The last session I attended was a panel on open-source materials in mathematics. First up was Aaron Krowne, president of He claims to have 20,000 users, although I was not clear about whether that was active users, or just folks with open accounts. Interestingly, I have never used PlanetMath, an online mathematics encyclopedia. I can’t really see any of my students using PlanetMath either … for example, here is the page on Related Rates. Although the content is put up in Wiki-format, the feel of the site is very Web 1.0 to me … almost no graphics or video (at least I didn’t find a single one in my 10 minutes of browsing). Perhaps this is simply a site that is better suited to users in academia who are either doing mathematical research or who are teaching upper-level math courses and need resources. They do have a great logo though, and I’m curious what they will do now that they have this vast knowledge base. I love their logo:

Second on the panel was Michael Gage, from the University of Rochester, who is one of the original developers of WeBWorK. Mike emphasised what many of us said in the panel yesterday: Immediate feedback is a powerful learning tool. He also made an important, and valid, point: “Ask the questions you should, not just the questions you can!” Mike said that there are now over 20,000 questions coded for WeBWorK, but is hoping to work on a couple of question issues in the future – first, encouraging users to contribute modified questions back into the community pool, and second, working on a better system of organization or searchability for the questions. Mike also expressed concerns about bringing in new blood to the leadership of WeBWork to replace those that will be eventually leaving the work (so if you’ve got some free time … )

I didn’t actually catch the name of the third panelist (some journalist I am), but he spoke about the evolution of MathForum and all of the various project offshoots that MathForum has been involved with. The latest project offshoot is a wiki called MathImages, which was launched yesterday. They hope to collect mathematical images that can be used in teaching the whole spread of math courses. There’s not much there yet … but that’s because they need folks to begin contributing and annotating the uses and details of the images.

In the panel discussion, there was talk about how to better-coordinate the communication between all the different open-source math projects (including those not represented in the panel, like Sage and NSDL, for example). I’m not sure that anyone came up with a good solution, but I think that they are all desirous of better intercommunication.

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  1. Robert Talbert

    That page on related rates isn’t Web 1.0, it’s Rudin 1.0. Who seriously thinks a student needing some help with related rates won’t look at that and suddenly find his brain frozen up?

  2. charles

    The third person on the panel was Gene Klotz of Swarthmore. He founded Math Forum and is one of the pioneers of online math.

  3. Maria H. Andersen

    Thank you!

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