by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist
Math on the phone: How innovation by accident discovered a new educational option
Great moments in education sometimes happen completely by accident. An offhand remark inspires a student; a scheduling mistake matches a student with a new teacher who lends a lifetime’s worth of advice; the lack of a Chromebook cart opens a new door for EL students struggling to learn math in a language they have yet to master.
Mr. Agnelo Montrond, an EL (English Learner) math teacher at Brockton High School, was unable to secure a Chromebook cart on the day he planned for his class to use our JFYNet online math program. Desperately searching for an alternative, he wondered if students could access the program on their smartphones.
Our software program, Mathspace, happens to have a free app that students can download. That, he knew. But what happened next was unexpected. Students discovered that if they used the app, their Android phones would translate questions into the language of their choice. Most students already had their phones configured for their preferred language. So when they opened the Mathspace app, they no longer needed to confront the language of math only in English.
Many students have found Google Translate helpful with Mathspace. If they don’t understand a question due to the language barrier, they can copy and paste the question into Google Translate to see it in their preferred language. With an Android phone, this happens automatically.
For EL students, English proficiency does not happen overnight. It can take years. But they cannot stop learning other subjects while working to master the English language. Besides, we are well aware that math is a language all its own. Students can now use their phones to get translation help to understand math problems. Then they have a chance to apply math skills to solve them. In addition to moving ahead in math, they get a boost of confidence in their ability to navigate around language obstacles in other subjects, as well as daily life.
Katia, a student in the class, still struggles with English. But, she says, “With the app, at least I know what the math question is asking. Math terms in English are hard to remember.” Even native English speakers would agree with that observation. English Learner students learn many English words through day-to-day conversation, but math terms don’t often come up outside of class.
Mr. Montrond doesn’t bother chasing computer carts anymore. His students seem completely comfortable using their phones, and the instant translation capability cuts right through language snags that used to stop learning in its tracks. The Mathspace app is free to download and, crucially, it saves login information so that students don’t need to remember (or forget) one more password. There are many other apps for other instructional programs. As more and more schools offer Wi-Fi, schools will no longer need to worry about having enough computers for classroom instruction.
Using apps in the classroom can lead students toward greater usage outside the classroom. Homework assignments and make-up work become more convenient, even unavoidable, when it’s all right there on the screen they interact with all day and much of the night. Today’s smartphones have more power than the mainframes that launched lunar voyages. Navigating from question to question, finding hints, saving notes and watching instructional videos is as easy as ordering a pair of sneakers. No computer cart is needed.
The classroom is in the palm of your hand– and class is always in session.