A project that uses smartphones as learning tools is giving students a new perspective on math.

Making Math Connections

A project that uses smartphones as learning tools is giving students a new perspective on math.

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.”

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 ...


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