As maths becomes more an integral part of diverse courses, Lindsay Aitkenhead finds that software often does not add up

Sheffield Hallam University, in common with other new universities, is widening its student base, and this presents problems for the mathematics staff who can no longer assume recent success at A-level maths to be a common starting point for their students. From a wider perspective, there is now a mathematical element in a wide range of disciplines.

A mathematician resides in the Adsetts Centre, our new learning centre, for two hours every day offering maths help to students. The centre combines library services, open access PC facilities, design, photography, multimedia production and the Learning and Teaching Institute. We are developing approaches to teaching and learning that integrate new and traditional approaches and materials. We hoped that we could complement the maths help service by offering mathematical software that would be suitable for supervised self-study and revision.

In the institute we have undertaken a review of available software, in collaboration with the school of science and mathematics and the school of education. The brief was to identify and review mathematical multimedia software at every level from basic numeracy to university first year, with the needs of adult learners in mind. It became obvious that the results would be useful for a much wider audience than originally anticipated, particularly further education colleges which also need to support mathematics learners with a variety of educational histories.

The project consisted of three parts. The first was the identification and review of mathematics software, which was carried out during last summer and updated in the autumn. Programs were examined and reviewed according to an agreed set of criteria. The second part was an open day, when mathematics lecturers from further and higher education were invited to evaluate the software. The third part, evaluation with students within the centre, is in progress. The 70-page publication Mathematics Multimedia Courseware Review is based on the first two parts of the project.

Well, that's the story, skirting around the issues raised. Can you really learn maths from a computer package? More to the point, can you really learn maths from the packages which are available? How do the manufacturers's claims correlate with computer services' attempts to get the software to run over the network? Will students use the software unless they are forced to?

Computer programs have two advantages over a conventional mathematics teacher, and one major drawback. The advantages are that they give constant, private feedback, which can be very reassuring for students. Computers can also be creatively harnessed to offer explanations which were previously impossible, for example by animating the shapes in geometry or by providing interactive simulations which graphically illustrate the effects of altering variables.

The drawback is that a program cannot answer questions, tailoring explanations to suit each student. The implications are that while computer packages can form excellent revision and learning aids, the talking human remains crucial for interpretation, support and guidance.

In practice most computer packages offer the first advantage and a few offer the second. Some offer multiple explanations including sound, or attempt context-sensitive help.

Any notion I might have had about mathematics being a universal language flew out of the window when I started looking at software from the United States. Although ostensibly written in English, technical terms can differ and the approach to mathematics is less exploratory and more rigidly algorithmic. One program (Pro One Software's Windows Geometry) consists of Euclid, complete with theorems, proofs and ruler and pencil constructions. It is nice software but it is a long time since geometry was taught this way in England.

In nearly every package that contains images of people, these people are middle-aged white men. Taken individually these images could perhaps be explained as a bad joke. Taken collectively they give a strong impression that maths belongs exclusively to middle-aged white men and if you happen not to fit these criteria then tough, maths is not for you. Is this really the impression we want to give to our students?

Price is no indicator of quality whatsoever. One of the best of the 23 pieces of software (Mathsoft Studyworks) can be bought for Pounds 9.99. Other programs, sometimes costing thousands of pounds were dreadful.

The drawback with the report is that although packages were reviewed with respect to agreed criteria I am, as a teacher of mathematics, in the position of expert rather than learner with regard to the content of the software. This is being addressed by collecting feedback from students using the software. I hope that there is enough information in the report for mathematics teachers to make their own decisions about what might be suitable for them and then to explore the software with their students.

We are hoping to update and expand the maths review later this year and put it on the web as a searchable database. We will also be taking a look at software aimed at teaching English and science.

Lindsay Aitkenhead is a lecturer and research assistant at Sheffield Hallam University.

Mathematics Multimedia Courseware Review, Pounds 10 including UK postage and packing, from Jane Brewer, LTI, Level 7, Adsetts Centre, Sheffield Hallam University, Pond Street, Sheffield S1 1WB. Phone +44 114 2254745, fax +44 114 2254755.