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What should Mma be?

  • To: mathgroup at
  • Subject: What should Mma be?
  • From: elbert at
  • Date: Wed, 9 Dec 1992 13:56:36 +0000

Ok, I haven't followed much of the thread on this subject and might be
duplicating something here, but...

It is absolutely clear to me that what Mma should be is a whole lot more
accessible!  That means, mostly, one thing....much, much cheaper!  I hope
the following doesn't read as a flame...but I have struggled for three
years to get more of my student's access to Mma and am a little frustrated.

I think that lots of this list has a bit of a research perspective, but one
of the greatest uses for Mma is in teaching.  This tool could become almost
as commonplace on college campuses as word processors (well, at least as
commonplace as spreadsheets).  One of the great strengths of Mma is it's
profound breadth (you can argue that this causes many of it's faults of
course)...the system can be used for far more math than a typical user ever take advantage of that by letting it become a tool that
students encounter in many different courses.  The tool would be far more
useful if students used it from the beginning level onward and thereby
learned Mma the only way you chunks as you need them.  It is
hopeless to think of having students take a special course in Mma...except
for the odd specialized short course...that isn't the way education
works-and no ones curriculum has room to give up another course to put in a
Mma course.  Have them learn a little Mma in their Calc course, use the
same tool in Economics, find it useful again in Geology, and so on....this
way students develop real facility with the tool and begin, quickly, to
find their own applications in places it isn't explicitly suggested.

The problem is that students cannot afford the software and neither can
most institutions.  The student pricing is flawed because students get a
less-than-full featured version of the software...that is bogus. The
educational institution pricing is flawed because it still costs too much. 
I think my institution is a pretty good example of a well-off college. We
have nice facilities and the support of the administration in new
educational initiatives.  But we cannot find the cash to outfit a good
sized lab of Macintoshes with Mma and then keep them updated (updates
should just be plain free for several years, the cost of mathPlus is too
much).  Instead we have it installed on a few machines and students have to
go to specific computing places and specific machines to use it....this
discourages use and makes it impractical to require it's use in any but a
minimal way in courses.

What would happen if the software cost an order of magnitude less? I know
many faculty that could require purchase of the package for a course and
our labs would fill out with the end I think Wolfram would sell
more than 10x as many copies and would end up making more money!  And think
of the many less financially well off school that could begin to use might even make some real inroads in high schools.  We could also,
finally, reach critical mass for this tool and begin to see real growth
into sectors of the curriculum that never considered it before. It would be
a quantitative boon to the pedagogical processes and I bet Wolfram would
reap benefits in the research and business sectors by the increased numbers
of Mma-literate graduates.  Wouldn't it be exciting to know that you could
use Mma and assume that your students have access to it?  Does anyone have
to think twice about students having access to a word processor anymore? 
Of course not.  Does anyone get away with NOT worrying about students being
able to use Mma?

CAVEAT-I guess schools with lots of NeXT machines around have much less of
a problem because the software is bundled...but I think those institutions
are still rare and even at those school, few students have a NeXT of their

ADDENDUM-The password protection scheme is also an makes
installation on public-use computers difficult and, in our case at least,
with a higher hardware cost...that puts faculty at odds with computer
center administrators.  Wolfram has to realize that software use on
campuses is driven by faculty and faculty already have a hard enough time
getting their "support personnel" to make things happen...Wolfram shouldn't
make it harder.

David Elbert
Department of Geology
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753   
Elbert at midd.bitnet

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