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Monday, September 26, 2011

About M381 (1)

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a sort-of rage-button like the Hulk: it is called MathCad. Thank God, I have the anti-dote almost always open and ready: Mathematica. I am not going to repeat why MathCad is a danger to your mental health, but I have to press the MathCad button at least once.

In almost all mathematics courses you can do at the Open University there is software involved. They either deliver a standard package, or ship custom software especially developed for the course ( i.e. MT365 ). The house-package of the Mathematics Department of the Open University is MathCad, version 2001. I have argued that MathCad alone is a reason -not- to choose for the Open University. What a disgrace...

( Calming down. )

They do however recognize that software, computers, tools are relevant in mathematics. Especially in Number Theory computers are used in active research. Another area where they use software in active research is: mathematical logic. Stronger: research in Number Theory is impossible without computers.

These facts are not even mentioned in M381. There are many open source tools available for Number Theory, even more for Mathematical Logic. Not a word about it in M381. One, if not -the- reason is the fact that course development in the Open University is done in a project organization. A project is created with the objective to create course X which will then be used for the next 10 or so years. It is exactly the opposite of what one would expect of a university education. It is not reasonable to expect the Open University to be at the forefront of mathematical research. Simply because other universities in the UK have that role. But it is reasonable to expect more than a static expose of 19th century Gauss number theory and early 20th century logic from Church, Turing and Goedel. In fact, the field is presented as abstract and of theoretical importance only. But Number Theory and Mathematical Logic are extremely relevant and applicable in many industries! But I did not learn that from the course and that is sad.

It took me a lot of work but I found some relevant learning tools in the fields of number theory and mathematical logic. More about those later in this blog.

(*) - I may have misunderstood the concept of 'University' in the UK. I think many universities in the UK are what we call in the Netherlands 'schools'. They deliver professionals with a degree in all fields through excellent education but they don't do research and so on. They don't add to the body of knowledge. They process and transfer knowledge. That description fits the Open University as well. - A marketing issue is that students like to have a 'university' education. And marketing people love empty heads boxes, they have a fancy word for it too: the 'packaging'. Does that make sense?


  1. I think you have to make a distinction between what can reasonably achieved by distance learning and a normal university. The OU is primarily a distance learning institute and there are two types of staff. Full time academic staff who are professional academics and associate lecturers who are employed by the Open university as tutors. There the range is between some full time academics or may be people who have a masters degree or PHd but were unable to get a full time academic post. The emphasis there will be on teaching and that is the primary aim of the Open University. Of course it's a bit of pot luck whether your tutor is a full time researcher or not.

    On the other hand in other universities in Britain the emphasis is on research and teaching is seen as a secondary activity. Of course the top universities in the so called Russell group
    Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Imperial College etc are at the forefront of research and that is where the top academics in Britain are to be found. Of course they only cater to those who are able to study on a full time basis and they certainly don't provide distance learning in the way that the OU does.

    If you want to do research unless you can get a rare grant so you can physically be there you are more or less shut out. There are limited opportunities for part time research in some departments but this would not be cutting edge as by definition if you are doing cutting edge research you would already have been able to get one of the rare grants for full time study.

    In the current climate this is almost impossible the ESPRC the grant awarding body in Britain for mathematics has dictated that it will only award fellowships in Statistics.

    So your only hope at least in Britain is to try and do an Einstein or make a pile of money between the ages of twenty to forty so that you can fund your own research.

    Anyway despite it's limitations the Open University is one of the few institutions where you can get a reasonable education in mathematics in your spare time. So it's worth it for that.

    Good luck with the exams

    Best wishes Chris

  2. You too, Chris :-)

    Statistics : Mathematics = Repairing cars : Physics.

    If you can get an education in your spare time, you can do research in your spare time.

  3. Hi Nilo
    Give us some details of open source tools for number theory research. I have tried Liberty Basic. It does do large integer calculations, but seems to have a very small stack for doing calculations, so you have to split them into simple steps.
    I and many others would be very grateful to you for sharing these open source tools with us. I'm starting M823 in February after getting a Distinction in M381. I tried most of the challenge problems in that course.


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