Count on cell phones

Mathematics education in South Africa via cell phones and the web

Riitta Vanska
Nicky Roberts

A project in South Africa supports mathematics education in schools using the web, social networking and mobile apps to deliver learning material directly to students’ cell phones. Teachers can also use the content in their classroom lessons. Students can practise mathematics exercises from a cell phone at any time and receive immediate feedback, while teaching staff only need a two-day training course to learn how to use the new service.

Many governments in ACP countries have strived to improve the quality of education in their schools, and worked to ensure equality for all students. For South Africa, this meant replacing the old fragmented and racially segregated education system with a single government department that now implements a national curriculum for all public-funded schools. But the legacy of apartheid remains, and there are still significant differences in the quality of education received in the country’s schools. The problem in South Africa is not so much one of access to a school, as one of access to a school that offers quality teaching and learning opportunities.

These differences are particularly stark in mathematics education, a priority subject and one that is compulsory for all South African secondary school students in grades 10 to 12 (from approximately age 16 and over). The policy, however, puts tremendous pressure on the education system to ensure that there are sufficient, well-qualified and capable teachers in the subject. Mathematics drop-out rates remain unacceptably high, with grade 12 pass rates well below national targets.

In 2008, the ImfundoYami / ImfundoYethu (our education, my education) project started to investigate ways to support formal education using mobile technology. The following year, a partnership of government departments and private companies, including Nokia and Nokia Siemens Network (NSN), adopted this idea and started a pilot project to test the use of cell phones in mathematics learning. The project team wanted to develop methods that would not be dependent on the involvement or competence of teachers.

After an initial pilot project, the provincial education departments selected 30 public schools from three different provinces to take part in an extended trial, which ran from January until December 2010. The selection was representative of many different types of schools in South Africa. It included those that had been previously well-funded under the apartheid regime and others that hadn’t; some were urban, others rural, some were specialist mathematics schools, while others had a minority of learners enrolled in mathematics. In these early stages of the project, however, all 30 schools were based in relatively affluent communities which could support the use of technology, in that they already had mobile network coverage (GPRS) and access to electricity. It was also important that the schools had at least one computer with internet access (for the teachers to use during the project), and that the schools’ staff were interested and willing to be involved.

Multi-level help

The Nokia Mobile Learning for Mathematics project developed mathematics learning materials that were suitable for viewing on cell phones. It was sometimes a challenge, for example, to keep the information short for the small size of a cell phone display, which also meant that the resolution of graphics and mathematical symbols was limited.

The types of questions in the exercises and tests reflect these constraints. Multiple-choice was the dominant question type, but spot-the-error, and step-by-step questions (which show the first step in a multi-step procedure with students asked to select what the next step would be) were also developed. In this way the content was divided into small manageable components, even though the complete question contained many layers of detail.

The project uses social networking tools, such as the popular South African mobile chat platform, MXit, to allow groups to collaborate. Students need a cell phone that can access the internet, and many of them already use MXit to chat with friends. To complement the cell phone content, the project team set up a dedicated website using Moodle (an open source application to develop online learning sites) to allow students and teachers to track progress and activities on the web. The site also allows teachers to set and monitor homework with little extra effort. The system makes it easy for teachers to see which students are having problems and identify areas that are causing difficulties.

Teachers receive a two-day orientation session, taught by project team members and teachers involved in the pilot. An e-learning co-ordinator or curriculum advisor from the local district education authority provides further support.

Nokia provided each school with a ‘mobi-kit’, comprising a lockable case containing ten cell phones, all of which can be charged simultaneously from a single electrical-point. Students who do not have their own cell phone, or are unable to borrow one at home, can at least have mobile access while at school. The teachers can also use the exercises and theory lessons in a classroom even if the students do not have cell phones, and make use of the tests to set ad hoc exams.

Students participate by first downloading the MXit application onto their phones (if they don’t have it already). This allows them to chat with their friends who are displayed as contacts within MXit. The students simply have to accept ‘MoMaths’ as one of their contacts. They can then choose to work through short theory sections, or answer questions from a database of approximately 10,000 questions, categorised by topic and degree of difficulty.

The students receive immediate feedback on multiple-choice practice exercises, and can compare results with classmates in their school or other participating schools nationally. They can see if their topic scores improve as they repeatedly practise the exercises and can opt to take a test choosing their level of skill – easy, medium, or difficult – to assess their performance on a particular topic, and compare this to other students’ results.

Good results

In general, the project was well received by teachers and school principals. They valued the additional practise that it gave their students, the ability to monitor performance and give immediate feedback. The overriding concern from school staff was the lack of access to cell phones for some learners. An evaluation of the project, however, noted that this was not a necessary condition for regular use of the service, as 27% of regular users reported borrowing a cell phone or using the mobi-kit phones. Conversely, having a cell phone did not necessarily result in regular use of the service, as 39% of learners who described themselves as not being regular users had their own cell phones.

During the test period, there were more than 100,000 visits to the service, with students completing over 10,000 tests. Competency in mathematics rose by 14% in all levels — among those who were good at the subject previously as well as those who were less proficient. The evaluation found that two thirds of the teachers used the service, while about a quarter used it regularly. Many students, whose teachers did not use the service frequently, still used it independently.

Most teachers (79%) strongly agreed or agreed that the two-day teacher training equipped them with all they needed to know about the project. They reported this immediately after the training session, and reiterated the same views six months later. This is significant, as research shows that teachers involved in schemes using computers to support learning and teaching often complain about a lack of adequate training. It also highlights a potential key difference between mobile technology and computer technology.

By the end of the second term of using the service, most teachers also agreed that the project had had a significant impact on their students’ attitude to mathematics, as well as on their own roles as mathematics teachers. The majority of teachers and principals in the case study schools indicated that they would like to continue using the service beyond the trial. Slightly more than half of the case study schools indicated that they would be willing to buy a mobi-kit for school use.

Minimum expense

That such a short training course appears to be adequate for teachers is a strong advantage of the project, and of using cell phone technology in educational programmes. Other benefits include lower costs compared to computer-based schemes, using social networking applications that are already popular with young people, and constant accessibility. This is reflected by the fact that 82% of student use/participation occurred outside school hours and continued during weekends and holidays.

The project team has been careful to develop the system so that students can access the information as easily as possible. They have tried to ensure that it is compatible with multiple social networking and other mobile apps, and that it will work on a variety of cell phones and networks. Two network operators (MTN and CellC) are project partners and have paid for the data delivery costs during the project. The data delivery cost in South Africa is relatively low at approximately two Rand (20 Eurocents) per month with very active use.

Costs of implementation and data use would be one of the main constraints when expanding the project to other ACP countries. These expenses would have to be covered to make a similar project truly sustainable and available to as many students as possible. There are of course also several practical considerations remaining before the project can be expanded, especially if it is to be used to support learning in other subjects.

The big advantage of the mathematics system however, is that the content would not need any major adaptation. Mathematics has a near universal curriculum, and so investments in one country would only require slight changes for use in other countries. Nokia has already started a similar pilot in Finland, and the early results of the South African trial have encouraged them to continue their work. The company is currently seeking to develop further partnerships, and is consulting with the Commonwealth of Learning, an intergovernmental distance learning organisation, to introduce the system to more schools in the next few years.

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Riitta Vanska is senior manager, mobile and learning solutions, with Nokia, and Nicky Roberts is evaluation project manager with Neil Butcher and Associates.

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Using the cell phone learning service, students can:

  • Communicate, participate and interact whenever they have their cell phones
  • Do homework and revision in a mobile social networking platform
  • Carry a ‘test-yourself and revision’ to use when convenient
  • Work on questions and exercises that fit with the school curriculum
  • Work through short theory sections
  • Answer questions from a database with more than 10,000 questions
  • Choose their topic and degree of difficulty
  • Receive immediate feedback on multiple-choice practice exercises
  • Retry exercises repeatedly
  • View and track their topic scores to see how they are improving
  • Compare their performance with others in the community (classmates, local schools and other schools nationally)
  • Chat with their friends about learning problems (and socially)
  • Catch up on learning while travelling to and from school.
31 January 2011

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