Teaching maths by text

Mathematics education is in crisis in South Africa.  The TIMSS report for 2015 ranks South
Africa second to last in student achievement for the two grades measured. A recent circular from the South African Department of Basic Education instructed schools to consider mathematics marks as low as 20% as a pass.

This is not a new phenomenon and even at the higher end of the spectrum, South African universities complain that first year students are not adequately prepared in mathematics for university study. At the same time, however, cell phone usage has skyrocketed.

The Dr Math project in South Africa aims to assist pupils with their mathematics homework using the ubiquitous cell phone.  Pupils could use text based chat facilities on their personal cell phones and be linked to volunteer tutors from South African universities to get assistance with their homework.

The pupils and tutors would use low cost text based chat facilities and type messages back and forth to each other.  In order to keep the costs very low, no images, no videos, no audio were used.  Only text based chat.

The pupils and tutors both used their imagination in negotiating some of the mathematics symbols were were missing from low costs text systems. Dr Math started before the advent of smart phones and nobody worried about spelling.

A typical conversation might look like:

Pupil:  pls hlp me
Tutor:  what is your problem today?
Pupil:  solve for x
Tutor:  whats the formula you have
Pupil:  xsqrd – 9
Tutor:  do you know the rule x2-y2 = (x-y)(x+y)
Pupil:  yes…
Tutor:  do you know that 9 is 3 sqrd?
Pupil:  oh yes, I see, thx!
Tutor:  come back if you have more probs
Pupil:  yes I will thx!

Because of its popularity, tutors were often text chatting with up to 40 or 50 pupils per hour.  In addition, the volunteer tutors often worked into the late hours of the night providing assistance to pupils often until midnight.  This gave pupils help when other means of assistance such as teachers and parents were often not available.

Laurie Butgereit, the creator and champion behind the Dr Math project, explains that her son, Chris, actually had the idea for the Dr Math project.  During his late high school years when Chris needed help with his mathematics homework, Laurie assumed that she could help her son since she had a degree in mathematics.

But she quickly found that there was a certain friction between parent and child when it comes to helping with school homework.  In addition, the two were always being interrupted by messages beeping on Chris’s cell phone from his friends.

Laurie, who was speaking at EduTech 2016 in Glasgow, said to her son in exasperation: “Chris! I’m going to have to help you over your cell phone!”.  Chris turned and said “But Mom! That’s great idea and can you help my friends also?”

From Laurie helping her son and a few of his friends with mathematics homework over their cell phones, Dr Math eventually grew to a nation-wide service hosted at CSIR Meraka Institute in South Africa. It has assisted over 40,000 pupils and has been awarded a Technology in Government Award by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.