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Linear algebra hits the Web

by Maggie Lattuca,
Open and Distance Learning, IITS

Over the past two years, Professor Fred Szabo has been developing a Web-based environment to teach linear algebra. This has not been an easy feat, as HTML documents are the main vehicle for displaying information on the Web, and mathematical expressions cannot be written in standard HTML.

At the inception of this project, the math was captured as an image and displayed as such on the Web. Dr. Szabo, however, wanted to make learning mathematics on the Web more interactive, interesting and enjoyable. To this end, he has made considerable progress.

In essence, this project is about using technology to motivate students to learn linear algebra, to help them understand complex ideas better, and to provide them with an innovative environment for developing analytical and computational skills, often inaccessible through traditional means. The ultimate objective of the project has been to produce a Web-based course that can be enjoyed online by students anywhere, any time.

A 1999-2000 Faculty Teaching Development Grant obtained through Concordia's Centre for Teaching and Learning Services in part funded the development of a series of computer-based modules that cover the syllabus of MAST 234 and MAST 235, as well as examples in electronic form of drills, quizzes and glossaries. Over the last few years, this project and its evolution have also benefited from the skill, knowledge and support of the Open and Distance Learning unit of IITS (Instructional and Information Technology Services).

The two most successful mathematical programs for the teaching and learning of mathematics are Mathematica and Maple. Both are command-line based, and students must write computer code in order to use them. Fortunately, there is a better way.

Scientific Notebook is a natural-language tool for doing math- ematics. Its ease of use and the beauty of communicating mathematics in this way are unsurpassed. Dr. Szabo has combined the best of Mathematica, Maple and Scientific Notebook in an innovative interactive course on linear algebra. The course is built around Dr. Szabo's recently published textbook, Linear Algebra: An Introduction Using Mathematica (Harcourt/Academic Press, January 2000).

In February, Dr. Szabo delivered a one-week intensive workshop of his Web-based linear algebra course at the Inter-University in Macau. The Concordia WebCT linear algebra courses were ported to the Inter-University Institute of Macau as an experiment in online teaching. The experiment was deemed successful and Dr. Szabo has been invited to return in 2001.

Closer to home, Dr. Szabo was invited to present the Concordia online linear algebra courses interactively to the Quebec Congress of Mathematicians at Université Laval on May 5. Its theme this year is Mathematics for the World.

This presentation will demonstrate how the Internet, WebCT, Mathematica, Maple, Scientific Notebook and streaming video are used to teach linear algebra at Concordia. Dr. Szabo will show how a course can be designed so that students not only watch mathematics unfold before their eyes like at the movies, but participate dynamically in an interactive learning process.


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