Digital Division: Giving Math Classes a Makeover

John McGowan, Math Product Manager, Texthelp
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John McGowan, Math Product Manager, Texthelp

Let’s get real for a moment: mathematics has always had an image problem. As a teacher for over fifteen years, I know all too well that many of my students just aren’t enthused by the subject. You can see it on their faces when they come into the room for my first class each year. And as the long-term poor relation, math is now facing an even bigger threat to its popularity in the classroom.

There’s no question that technology has been a powerful enabler for new approaches to learning over the last few years. Digital methods are steadily transforming teaching, as traditional pedagogy gives way to more collaborative, interactive strategies.

Today’s students are more likely to pick up their Chromebooks than pen and paper to complete an assignment. The cloud and web-based resources like Google Docs have given classroom collaboration a huge boost–but the benefits they bring haven’t been enjoyed equally across all subjects.

The explosion of digital devices has made the teaching of English, science and humanities subjects a more social, community-focused experience. Students can work together on stories and assignments, sharing comments and suggestions with each other in much the same way they mediate their digital lives outside the classroom.

‚Äč  Digital methods are steadily transforming teaching, as traditional pedagogy gives way to more collaborative, interactive strategies 

In many parts of the world–not least the United States, Asia and South America where I’ve spent a lot of time–there’s a heightened focus on investment of resources in teaching science and technology subjects. That’s welcome news, of course. But it only serves to accentuate math’s lingering outsider status as a STEM subject. So what’s the problem exactly?

It’s still common to see math teachers carrying piles of paper worksheets between classes, or laboriously copying written answers and test scores into a Student Information System. What’s more, many students have been struggling without the personalized support and resources they take for granted in other subjects.

While young people take classroom tech in their stride, it’s ironic that there’s still no real digital collaboration in math. As a subject it’s stuck in relative isolation, with students completing their own work individually and handing it in to the teacher on sheets of paper, just as they’ve done for hundreds of years.

There’ve been many efforts to introduce technology into math classes. But the big bottleneck is being able to write math digitally. Teachers and students find it difficult inputting equations, graphs and other expressions on a computer or mobile device. Even writing a basic fraction like ‘three quarters’ (¾) with your keyboard isn’t easy. And what about square root signs, fractions, powers or other mathematical symbols and expressions?

There are various mathematical description languages out there. But you have to think like a programmer, using hard-to-remember codes and key combinations to write something relatively straightforward like the solution to a quadratic equation.

This lack of a simple way to insert math expressions challenges teachers and students at all levels, and across the whole range of STEM subjects. And of course solving a math problem is only half the story. You’ve also got to be able to articulate the answer to others, and explain how you got there. And there lies the problem. Rather than enhancing learning and improving communication between teachers and students, technology has inadvertently created additional barriers in the math classroom.

As educational software developers, at Texthelp we’re acutely aware of this new digital divide. And being conscious of the need to make math more accessible in today’s classrooms, that’s why we’ve created EquatIO. This easy-to-use extension for Google Chrome lets students type, handwrite or speak math expressions naturally and intuitively. EquatIO neatly inserts your formulas into documents or worksheets, instantly side-stepping the biggest barrier to digital math.

There’s a whole lot more innovation in education to be excited about right now–like classroom capture and active learning systems–and I’m convinced that the next few years will see a profound transformation in math teaching at all grade levels.

Augmented reality could help students visualize how a vector is an entity in 3D space that has magnitude as well as direction. The Internet of Things will make objects, fields and forces instantly measurable, connecting everyday life with an abstract numerical world.

Of course one app isn’t going to change attitudes overnight. But my own vision is that with the right tools—and a healthy dose of imagination—we can rehabilitate mathematics as a fully-fledged digital classroom subject, with passive students becoming actively engaged content creators.

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