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Guest Editorial (untitled)

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Software companies have done an excellent job establishing technical products such as Mathematica, SPSS, AutoCAD or Labview in classroom labs and on professors' desks at universities across the country. Offering significant price discounts for educational institutions as well as flexible site license programs that provide even greater savings for higher-volume purchases help universities make the software available on more machines on campus, often in several departments that share common requirements, or even campuswide.

Software companies can do more, however, to help academia derive maximum benefit from such products.

The decision to adopt technical software for instructor presentations and student use is usually left to individual educators in many university departments.

In many ways this is good, because educators generally know best how to use a particular type of software effectively in their own classroom or laboratory. They should have the freedom to choose the best available.

This freedom can be a hit-and-miss affair, however, because even within the same department it often leads to "islands" of education. While one instructor assembles the efforts of several semesters of experience to develop computer-based lessons to illustrate particular concepts, he or she may not be aware a colleague elsewhere has already created a similar set of instructional material.

A central information base and effective distribution of such course material could lead to better education for all students, as well as save instructors valuable time. Software firms can make this happen by serving as a clearinghouse for information sharing.

Working with academic users worldwide, Wolfram Research has learned a great deal about how to design such programs that benefit all involved. We have developed a number of initiatives to foster development of interactive multimedia course materials and to enable educators to share their results. Our successful activities include:

  • Support discussion forums on the Internet. Users from various fields can present ideas, pose problems, and receive solutions from colleagues as well as help from the company.
  • Set up dedicated libraries of relevant educational material on the World Wide Web. Users can browse through the material efficiently, see what's relevant and download it for classroom use. Our MathSource library, for example, includes an extensive set of Mathematica courseware, educational papers, and examples by educators organized by field.
  • Support university and government initiatives on various curriculum reform projects. The Calculus&Mathematica courseware, a result of our long relationship with math professors involved in calculus reform, is a prime example. We are also now working with engineering reform programs, helping educators with resources both individually and collectively.
  • Incorporate educators in the software design process. Although educators commonly adapt commercial products for academic use, it is perhaps more useful if they can influence design and development from the beginning. If software firms serving education hire people who intimately understand the customers, it will result in more suitable products. Such employees &emdash; and we have about 30 Ph.Ds, some with teaching experience &emdash; bring their academic roots into a company, along with an understanding of what is needed for effective educational software.
  • Set up active advisory boards of educators who already use and teach with the software. These experts provide continuing comments to the company on what's working, what's not, and what might be desirable in the next product release. A board of math teachers from across the U.S. now meets several times annually and helps us define our priorities.
  • Establish additional incentives. Examples are our Visiting Scholar and High School Grant Programs, which provide hands-on training and assistance to selected teachers who want to incorporate Mathematica into the curriculum. Clearly, such incentives encourage faster technological innovation in colleges and schools.

Software companies need to keep open the lines of communication to the educators and students who use their products. Educators, in turn, must tell companies about their experiences with the software. In this ongoing process, information can be easily passed on to fellow educators and used to enhance a product's educational value as it develops. It's a partnership that needs nurturing from both sides.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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