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UK Mathematicians have a MAGICal party

10 Oct 2008

A new interactive mathematics teaching network has been officially launched at The University of Manchester – and could provide a blueprint for the delivery of better post graduate education throughout the UK.

The Mathematics Access Grid: Instruction and Collaboration (MAGIC) project provides access to fully interactive postgraduate lecture courses in mathematics using advanced video conferencing technology.

MAGIC enables PhD students in mathematical sciences to gain access to training in a much broader set of advanced topics than has been traditionally possible.

The founders believe it provides a glimpse of the form advanced training in many other subjects may take in the future.

Academics at any one of the 18 participating universities can give lectures that can be ‘attended’ by PhD students at any of the other partner institutions. In theory, anyone with Internet access around the world can ‘attend’ the lectures.

The University of Manchester along with The University of Sheffield, has been instrumental in driving the MAGIC project forward.

The project has received £855,819 of funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and brings together 17 universities from all over England and one from Wales

The impetus for MAGIC came following Sir Gareth Roberts' Review in 2001 into the supply of science and engineering skills in the UK and also the International Review of Mathematics in 2004.

The IRM report probed the state of mathematics research in UK universities in comparison with work being done internationally, and identified the three-year UK PhD programme as being short compared to those in other countries.

"This structure produces PhD students who are narrowly focused," said the report. "New PhDs from the UK usually have less breadth and experience than their peers from other countries."

The IRM report concluded that "the UK cannot afford to concentrate its advanced training in mathematics, which has to be nurtured by the most up-to-date research, in a small number of highly competitive universities."

The aim of MAGIC is to improve the teaching of mathematics postgraduate students, and ensure they finish their studies with a more balanced, broader and deeper knowledge of maths.

In the opening welcome address Lesley Thompson, Director of EPSRC Research Base, congratulated the UK mathematics community for being the only group addressing the concerns raised in the International Reviews.

Thompson said EPSRC was very happy that mathematicians  and the MAGIC consortium were collaborating together to raise the standards of  postgraduate education for all students.

Starting immediately, teaching sessions at The University of Manchester will be delivered from special Access Grid rooms, containing all the necessary sophisticated video conferencing equipment, including a huge projector screen, several Web cameras and desk microphones.

Researchers in other universities in the MAGIC network will be able to participate from similarly equipped rooms. Using this system, they will have full access to lectures not available on their own campus.

The technology is set up so that anyone, anywhere, can watch and listen with only a web browser - although full interaction will only be possible from an equipped Access Grid room.

Lectures will be recorded so they can be played back later by students who are unavailable at the scheduled times. Notes will also be made available in electronic format.

Mathematicians say they prefer using the ‘chalk and talk approach’  in delivering the lectures. Using MAGIC, they will be able to present prepared material or write onto special tablets or interactive boards and transmit this information to the students.

Professor Jitesh Gajjar from the School of Mathematics, who is a co-leader of the project, said: "This is very ambitious and unique project, and it has been a big challenge to get all the universities to agree on a framework for participation and delivery.

“We believe it will give mathematics PhD students a much broader and deeper knowledge of advanced mathematics and help them compete with European and international peers for key jobs and positions."

Professor Neil Strickland from the University of Sheffield, who also co-leads the project, said: "While UK mathematics is generally very strong, our funding system forces our students to complete their PhDs much more quickly than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe or the United States.

"This makes it difficult for them to learn more background than they immediately need for their PhD projects. Many of our students are also in small departments, which do not have the resources to teach a broad range of graduate level courses.

"I am very excited by the MAGIC project, which will allow 18 universities to pool their efforts and radically improve the teaching provision for our graduate students."

The launch event  also included a special talk by Prof Nick Trefethen FRS of The University of Oxford, which was viewed by more than 24 institutions throughout the UK, including many from non-MAGIC sites.

Ben Green from the Access Grid Support Centre said afterwards that MAGIC was the only consortium worldwide which had used this technology so successfully and with so many partners.

Notes for editors

Photographs of the MAGIC network in action are available to illustrate this story. For more information please contact Alex Waddington, Media Relations Officer, Tel 0161 275 8387.

The MAGIC project currently involves mathematical sciences PhD programmes at The University of Manchester, The University of Birmingham, Cardiff University, Durham University, University of East Anglia, University of Exeter, Keele University, University of Lancaster, University of Leeds, University of Leicester, University of Liverpool, Loughborough University, University of Newcastle, University of Nottingham, University of Reading, University of Sheffield, University of Southampton and University of York

For more information on MAGIC please see http://www.maths.dept.shef.ac.uk/magic/index.php

EPSRC is the UK Government's leading funding agency for research and training in engineering and the physical sciences.

The School of Mathematics is part of the University of Manchester' s Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS). For more information see www.manchester.ac.uk/eps

More details about The School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sheffield can be found at http://www.shef.ac.uk/maths/