Seed Project: Learn Math the Hard Way

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[edit] My Project Idea

I'm inviting anyone interested in learning math by solving problems to participate in a novel experiment this summer. I have been working on turning -- a free online mathematics encyclopedia built "by the people, for the people" -- into a comprehensive learning resource that can be used "instead of" a text book and homeworks/worksheets.

What I'm interested in testing this summer is how people can learn on PlanetMath, by sharing, discussing, and solving mathematics problems. Because this hasn't been tried before, I need to recruit not only "active" learners but adventurous learners!

(Back to proposals.)

[edit] Name

Learn Math(s) the Hard(er) Way

[edit] Group (, "beta" of our new platform at

[edit] One Line Summary

In this summer project, we will learn math "the hard(er) way", by solving problems online, and creating problem sets for others.

[edit] What is the proposed solution?

I've learned from experience that saying "Go forth and learn math" doesn't really work. We need some structure! We've started by uploading contents from the public domain Calculus book "The Calculus" by Davis and Brenke. So anyone who specifically wants to study Calculus can dive right in. Other topics, and problems at any level, are welcome too -- if you're ready to take the initiative! If Calculus isn't your cup of tea, we can find a free/public domain book to import e.g. from

Or if you have original content, we can upload it. Contributions from teachers and mentors are a big part of what I hope will go on in the site! The thought is that students who run into trouble can get help from peers, teachers, or any PlanetMath user. Every question will help us improve the material.

[edit] How will you make the change?

We've implemented a simple framework for adding problems (AKA exercises), solutions, and reviews (to indicate whether a solution looks right, wrong, or needs more work). Mathematical terminology will be automatically linked to terms in the encyclopedia -- so if you don't know what a problem is talking about, it will be easier to look things up. This month we're adding support for "problem sets" and easy ways to keep track of personal progress.

But that's just technology. What we need now is people. I'm intending to recruit a wide range of participants. I will circulate this call for proposals to teachers working with Math for America, to mathematicians at NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates sites, to PlanetMath's advisory board, to the Math Future community -- and to anyone else who might be interested. Together, we can start building the next generation mathematics learning platform.

[edit] What is your value proposition?

Studying mathematics here, you can share your mathematical joys and sorrows with other learners from around the world. We hope that if you get stuck, you can get help from other people in the community quickly. And, as I mentioned, every question will help us improve the expository material, making it so that the next person who comes along won't hit the same stumbling block.

[edit] Why is this different from other offerings?

We build on 10 years of work on the PlanetMath encyclopedia -- so, we are studying math in a knowledge rich environment. PlanetMath isn't just a giant "chat room", but an organized and structured resource. Every object is discussable, so if you have a question or you find a mistake, your comments will go out to the entire community and you can get help quickly.

This particular summer experience will also build on 2.5 years of work from me in my Ph. D. project, designing and a platform and a learning paradigm that I quite sincerely think will work better than anything else out there. But the experience is also an experiment -- so we shall see! -- and by participating here, you can help advance the "science" of learning.

[edit] Team: bio, expertise, and role(s) in the group

The project is led by Joe Corneli, co-Director of and Ph. D. candidate at the Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, UK (Ph. D. topic: "Peer Supported Problem Solving and Mathematical Knowledge"). I earned my BA in 2002 from New College of Florida, with a focus on mathematics (undergraduate thesis: "Double Bubbles in Spaces of Constant Curvature"). I participated in 2 summer NSF REU projects, and have had a range of experience as a mentor, TA, tutor, teacher, and online facilitator.

My job here is to make sure the software works, and to try and build a good group. I will also help with the content and hope to learn some math myself! (I will be using techniques from graph theory to analyse the data we gather from user participation.) In the end, I'm a participating researcher, and will write this work up in my thesis.

Contact me for more info or to "sign up" --

[edit] Stage of the venture

Planning stage.

[edit] Date of founding

Learn Math(s) the Hard(er) way will launch on the new PlanetMath platform in mid-July. A "beta" version of this platform was announced on June 6th, and you can kick the tires at

[edit] Milestones achieved

  • PlanetMath's encyclopedia has pretty thorough coverage of university level mathematics, some high school and research topics
  • We have new software more or less ready to be used in this experiment (just putting on some finishing details this month)
  • This call for contributors is now drafted!

[edit] Milestones yet to be achieved

  • Recruiting people
  • Running the experiment
  • Writing it up

[edit] Support required

[edit] Who else do you need on your team to make the project a success?

I would love for any interested teachers, students, hobbyists, or math researchers to sign up and contribute problems, solutions, reviews and comments. There are other ways to contribute as well: improving the PlanetMath encyclopedia, proofreading scanned and OCRed math textbooks, making pictures and diagrams...

in short, if you have an interest in the subject, we can find a place for you.

[edit] What in general would you do with funding or volunteer support?

If there is any funding available for this project, I'd like to distribute it to people who couldn't participate otherwise. In addition to mathematical tasks, volunteers who are more interested in programming can contribute on the software side. But the main thing here is learning math, and putting time in on that.

[edit] Market and Competitors

[edit] Quantify the market (if possible).

There are a lot of other online learning environments for math -- Khan Academy especially comes to mind, but so do things like the Math Forum, and Our coverage is very different, and our approach is very different. In some sense, we will be building a 21st Century version of "Schuams Outlines" (which you might be familiar with: books full of example problems, worked solutions, and exposition).

[edit] Specify your target niche (my target is "any Internet user" is not an answer)

The project takes inspiration from the recent (and popular) programming book, Learn Python the Hard Way, by Zed Shaw. Zed's book is quite cool in that it doesn't assume any particular background with programming, but just gets the reader working through problems, starting with easier ones and getting harder. But a similar model could apply to any topic: start with simple problems, and work through to the harder ones...

Over time, we should be able to build a whole library of books like this. I hope to capture the interest of people who not only want to learn some math themselves, but who wouldn't mind sharing what they learn with others, and helping out the rest of the world in this way!

[edit] A few numbers

I hope to recruit at least 30 active participants.