• Solving Algebra on Smartphones

    • Using her school-issued smartphone, Katie Denton, a junior at Dixon High School in Holly Ridge, N.C., reads the biographic profile of a student from another school that is also participating in a Project K-Nect math class.
      —Sara D. Davis for Education Week

    • Research shows that a project to use the devices as teaching tools in some N.C. districts has had a measurable impact on student achievement in math.

    • 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 in a handful of North Carolina school districts.

    • Research on the program has shown a measurable effect on students’ math achievement, and the organizers of Project K-Nect say students have driven the program to heights they never imagined.

    • The smartphones, made by the Bellevue, Wash.-based mobile-technology company HTC, are a step beyond cellphones, providing Internet access, video-camera technology, and instant-messaging options.

    • Before choosing the smartphone, Gross surveyed about 300 Washington-area high school students about the mobile technology they’d prefer to use. To his surprise, 90 percent chose the phone over other technologies he offered, including an iBook, a digital camera, or a Sony PSP, or portable play station.

    • Project K-Nect began with a 9th grade Algebra 1 course and has since expanded to include other courses, such as geometry, precalculus, and biology.

    • 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 device to learn, says Denton, who attends Dixon High School in the 24,000-student Onslow County, N.C., schools.

    • But Denton, who started in the program with Algebra 1 and has since taken geometry and is now taking Algebra 2 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.

    • For some math classes, particularly Algebra 1, Project K-Nect had mathematicians at Drexel University in Philadelphia develop short animated video math problems that teachers can assign to students as homework or classwork.

    • Project K-Nect also has various blogs where students can post to request or give help. Students often videotape themselves solving problems to demonstrate techniques to their peers, and post them on the blogs, or sometimes videotape their struggles and ask for advice.

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

    • 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 anything quite as well until you have to teach it, so it drives it home better.”

    • Project K-Nect also features a rewards system. Students get points for various activities, including solving problems, helping other students online, or posting blog entries. 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.

    • For teachers, a 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.

    • Gross says results from students’ experiences in 2007 found that all of the classes using smartphones in 9th grade Algebra 1 outperformed the other Algebra 1 classes at the school taught by the same teachers on the North Carolina end-of-course exam and on their final class grades.

    • Students need about four to six hours of training, he says.

      Some school districts that wanted to sign up didn’t have the necessary wireless networks in place, says Neill Kimrey, the director of instructional technology at the North Carolina education department, but were able to tap state money or federal Title I and E-rate funds to beef up their networks, he says.

    • Students at one school, for example, all pulled up algebra problems on their phones at the same time, causing them to crash, says Suzette S. Kliewer, a math teacher at Southwest High School in the Onslow County district, who has taught students through Project K-Nect for five semesters. But Kliewer says the few kinks that arose at her school were worked out quickly, either by students themselves or by on-site technical help from the district’s information-technology department.

    • teachers throughout the project had to make it clear that students were constantly 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.

    • New teachers appear to have the most difficulty incorporating the smartphone into their teaching methods, he says.

      In addition, teachers have had to accustom themselves to being on call after typical school hours.

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