Fixing Education for the AI Era – Introducing Conrad Wolfram

TWITTER_photo_croppedConrad Wolfram, mathematician, technologist, and founder of the WolframAlpha Computational Knowledge Engine, is on a mission to improve mathematics education. He sees a disconnect between the need to be able in mathematical problem solving in a society dominated by data, and the archaic requirement of the education system to perfect computationally trivial tasks, as he has previously stated:

“In the real world almost universally we use computers for calculating as part of the maths process. In education we almost universally use humans for doing the calculating. The subjects are different, and unless we fix the educational subject to be the mainstream subject we need for the real world, we can’t fix maths education.”

Even though mathematics is a subject that greatly affects our daily life – it is a huge part of what constitutes the economy – our education system still seems to be failing students in this area; our teaching methods have not kept pace with our technological progress. Dr. Wolfram wonders how is it possible we do not use computers in the exams and then expect students to know how to use the effectively. “You should use a laptop, you should use computer for doing the calculation bit of maths. There are a few cases where it is important to do calculations by hand, but these are small fractions of cases. The rest of the time you should assume that students should use a computer just like everyone does in the real world.”

WolframAlpha is a tool that rethinks how to handle knowledge on the web, and emphasises the need for technology to be involved in our habitual learning process. Rather than being a Google-like tool, for which you require not particular competencies, WolframAlpha does not work unless you know what to ask it to do, so an incorrect input will only provide an incorrect answer.

Wolfram’s work raises a number of questions on how technology is either going to push humanity towards improvement, or instead slowly transform us into technology addicts. Dr. Wolfram affirms that using WolframAlpha allows us to teach calculation more efficiently by tackling conceptual problems while computers do the heavy lifting. For example letting a machine focus on the implementation of calculus allows us to do what machines cannot at a conceptual level.
The ultimate goal of the platform is to “collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything”, and to “bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people”. It is certainly a lofty goal, but is achievable? The platform has had mixed reviews, though perhaps this is not the point. There is far more at stake here than a platform, it is about changing peoples’ attitudes.

In recent years there has been a spright on anti-intellectualism (e.g. Michael Gove suggesting that the British public have had enough of experts and the Oxford Dictionary naming “post-truth” the word of the year in 2016). Modernising mathematical education, with a focus on problem solving rather than the act of computation, will have a huge positive impact on society.

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