Ed-Tech Policy

Making Math Connections

By Michelle R. Davis — April 04, 2011 7 min read
A Project K-Nect classroom

If North Carolina high school student Katie Denton struggles with her algebra homework, she knows she’s not on her own.

Denton can use her school-issued smartphone to send instant messages to her teacher or classmates for help. She can use the same device to connect to the Internet and post an algebra question on a school math blog. Or she can watch student- or teacher-created videos demonstrating algebra concepts on her smartphone screen.

Her math class is taking part in Project K-Nect, a grant-funded program that has adopted smartphones as teaching tools in some math classes. Research on the program has shown a measurable effect on students’ math achievement and their interest in the subject, and the organizers say students have taken the program to heights they never imagined.

Project K-Nect began as a pilot effort in North Carolina in 2007, with a million-dollar grant from Qualcomm, a mobile-technology company, and a plan to use smartphones to boost students’ skills in the so-called STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, and math). The program is now operating in four districts in North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, and has roughly 3,000 students participating, according to Shawn Gross, the managing director for Digital Millennial Consulting, an educational technology firm that oversees Project K-Nect. The schools chosen are urban or rural and have at least 50 percent of their students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

Project K-Nect began with a 9th grade Algebra I course but has since expanded to include other courses, including geometry, pre-calculus, and biology.

Blogs and Movies

Students, some initially skeptical that a phone would help them do better in math, have been quick to embrace the idea of using the mobile devices to learn, says Denton, who is scheduled to graduate this spring from Dixon High School in the 24,000-student Onslow County, N.C., schools.

“At first, I was trying to figure out how a phone was going to help me with math,” she says. “I didn’t see a connection.”

A student a Dixon High School uses a smartphone to work on an algebra problem.

But Denton, who started in the program with Algebra I and has since taken geometry and Algebra II through Project K-Nect, says she and her classmates soon saw many advantages provided by the phone, particularly being able to get help at any hour and using instructional videos for assistance.

Each student in a Project K-Nectmath class is issued a smartphone made by the mobile-technology company HTC. The phones provide Internet access, video-camera technology, and instant-messaging options, but the text and voice capabilities are disabled so students can’t use the devices to text or speak to one another. However, students can use the instant-messaging function to contact anyone participating in Project K-Nect—even students at other schools.

For some math classes, particularly Algebra I, Project K-Nect had mathematicians at Drexel University in Philadelphia develop animated video math problems that teachers can assign to students as homework or classwork.

But the students, it turns out, have also created much of the program’s content themselves. Project K-Nect hosts a number of blogs on which students can request or give help. Students often videotape themselves solving problems to demonstrate techniques and post them on the blogs, or they videotape their struggles and ask for advice.

Some students have taken the technology a step further and created movies, complete with graphics, student actors, and storylines highlighting math solutions. Particularly popular are student-created movies with a “CSI” theme, in which the characters use math to solve a crime. One student produced a rap song on polynomials, which was ultimately posted to YouTube and spawned thousands of imitators, says Gross of Digital Millennial Consulting.

Students use the Internet function on the phones in a variety of ways. They might use the Web to view their math textbook online while riding a school bus to a sporting event; to consult the long list of “best math sites” compiled by both students and teachers as a repository; or to find helpful information about various math subjects.

“It has changed the way I feel about math,” says Janet Cagle, a student at Dixon High School who has taken both geometry and Algebra II through the Project K-Nect program. “I used to think it was just letters and numbers—you get an answer and move on. Now I can look up why you do things or who came up with different ways to do the math problems.”

Articulating Math Concepts

Teachers say one of the biggest benefits they’ve seen from the use of the technology is that students’ confidence levels and their ability to truly understand and explain the math they’re doing have risen. Because students are often helping their peers on the blogs and through instant messaging, they have to clarify just how they solved a problem, says Homer Spring, who teaches math at Dixon High.

“They’re better able to articulate how they get their answers,” he says. “You never know anythingquite as well until you have to teach it, so it drives it home better.”

For teachers, another plus is that the smartphone allows them to track students’ actions with it; teachers can tell how long students spend on a particular problem, for example, and whether they’re posting questions and answers or communicating with classmates via instant messaging.

Project K-Nect also features a built-in incentive system. Students get points for various activities, including solving problems, helping other students online, or posting blog entries. The points give them access to different video games that can be loaded onto the smartphones, or allow them to download music or give them extra digital storage space, Gross says.

All that connectivity appears to be bearing results. A 2010 program evaluation conducted in the Onslow, N.C., district by the nonprofit Project Tomorrow shows that students in Project K-Nect classrooms were more likely to achieve proficiency on the North Carolina end-of-course exams in Algebra I and Algebra II than other students in their schools and across the district and state.

In addition, more than 90 percent of Project K-Nect students surveyed for the study said they are now more comfortable learning math, while 81 percent said they have greater confidence in talking about math and math problems. The program also appears to give students a higher estimation of their learning, according to the Project Tomorrow research.

A New Student-Teacher Dynamic

The program isn’t without its challenges, however.

Intensive training for teachers—at least nine hours—is essential, says Gross, the technology consultant. In addition to learning how to use the smartphones, teachers participating in Project K-Nect are given training in instructional strategies oriented around the use of mobile technology. Project-based learning is a major focus, Gross emphasizes. Teachers also receive guidance on cyberbullying awareness and on appropriately monitoring students’ use of their smartphones.

Students also need about four to six hours of training, Gross says.

Inevitably, some technical glitches crop up, too, but participants say they can generally be worked out quickly, either by students or by district information-technology experts.

In addition, teachers throughout the project have found they need to make it clear to students that they are being monitored on their phones. At any time, a teacher can see what a student is doing on his or her phone; using special software, the teacher can even take over the device or shut it down.

Students learn quickly that teachers are keeping track of their actions, says Spring, the Dixon High math teacher. He cites one student who was sending instant messages that had nothing to do with math to another student in the program until the wee hours of the morning. The following day, Spring placed a 12-page printout of the entire conversation on the student’s desk.

“He realized quickly that was not a good idea,” Spring says.

Generally, teachers say students are excited about the devices and respectful of their uses. But use of the phones does sometimes create a need for districts to revamp their cellphone policies so that the devices are not banned inside schools.

And teachers do have to make adjustments, says Gross. New teachers appear to have the most difficulty incorporating the smartphone into their teaching methods, he emphasizes. Teachers need to be comfortable enough in the classroom to deviate from script and allow students to make discoveries on their own.

Further, teachers have to accustom themselves to being on call after typical school hours.

Steve Clarke, formerly a math teacher at Richlands High School in Onslow County, says the phones change the dynamic between the teacher and student—in a good way, in his opinion. The teacher becomes more a facilitator and less a lecturer, he says.

“It would be very hard to go back” to teaching math in a traditional way, says Clarke. “To be honest with you, I don’t know if I could do it.”

Michelle R. Davis is a Senior Writer for Education Week Digital Directions. This story originally appeared, in a different form, in Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Making Math Connections

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