Teachers and lecturers collaborate on an exciting new research project to investigate the impact of using applications (apps) in primary mathematics. By JUDE BARBACK.

Rebekah Whyte’s passion for integrating digital technology with learning began in 2011 with five iPods and her year 1 class. “I still have the iPods!” she laughs, although she admits they are now somewhat obsolete as tablets have taken their place. While time has marched on and technology has evolved, Whyte credits her early experimentation with using various apps on the iPods for revealing just how effective the technology could be in helping students grasp concepts and making learning fun.

Her experience with the iPods was the starting point for her master’s dissertation, in which she would probe further the benefits of incorporating devices and apps into teaching and learning, particularly for mathematics. Whyte, who teaches at Tahatai Coast School in Papamoa, now has the opportunity to participate in an exciting new research project investigating what influence using apps has on students’ mathematical learning.

Along with Glen and Monique Storey, teachers at nearby Te Akau ki Papamoa School, the teachers will collaborate with University of Waikato senior lecturers Dr Nigel Calder and Dr Carol Murphy on striving to understand how teaching and learning of primary mathematics
can be improved through the use of apps on mobile digital devices. The two-year research project is supported
by a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) grant of $200,000.

The project will analyse the influence of using apps on students’ mathematical learning, which will help construct a framework to evaluate and inform teaching decisions aroundthe use of apps to improve students’ conceptual understanding.

This framework will then support teacher professional learning and development in mathematics pedagogy. The project builds on Calder’s ongoing research in using digital pedagogical media (computers and mobile technology) to learn mathematics and Murphy’s in studying teacher subject knowledge and children’s dialogue in mathematics
classrooms. They came across the Papamoa teachers’ work through smaller projects they were carrying out in schools, and the partnership was formed.

The project is in its early stages. The teachers involved are currently collecting baseline data. They are working with focus groups of kids, looking at student blogs, taking into account test results such as PATs and other assessment data.

Surprising results

Early as it is, the researchers are already excited at the project’s potential. “The very first sets of data have revealed some interesting and surprising data about the ways students engage with the apps and their interaction with each other,” says Calder.

Calder says while the project stands alone, the research is part of a growing body of work in this area. “As yet, there is little guidance for teachers on how to optimise the use of apps on mobile devices for learning mathematics.

The purpose of the research is to use a framework based on technological pedagogical and content knowledge (TPACK) to further develop effective use of apps for the New Zealand context, and to enhance children’s learning in mathematics.”

TPACK, in a nutshell, is the knowledge and experience that teachers have to best use ICT in their programmes of learning – knowing what the best resource is and how to use it to optimise the learning for each individual child. It is a multidisciplinary model, but in this case it is being adapted to the context of mathematics.

Flow-on effects

Calder and Murphy anticipate that what they learn will have implications for other subject areas, but it is not a direct aim of the project.

Unsurprisingly, the teachers involved in the research are huge advocates for the use of apps in teaching mathematics, and it is an essential part of their practice.

Monique Storey says the research will help articulate what they’re experiencing in the classroom.

“It’s about wrapping language around what we do,” she says.

“Technology has transformed teaching maths,” says Glen Storey. “Our National Standards results have gone off the charts.”

He says using a device allows students to articulate what they’re learning about.

“It’s a really good tool to show the thinking that goes on behind trying to work something out.”

“It’s also non-threatening,” adds Monique. “Students like being able to take their time to work it out.”

Rebekah Whyte says the apps help target areas that need more work, as they provide statistics and instant feedback to the teacher.

Selectivity is key

Glen says it’s not a case of simply having the device; it’s using the right apps that is important. “Apps can be used really badly,” he says. “They’re not a replacement for effective teaching.” Whyte agrees. When she first began experimenting with apps in the classroom she made a lot available to the students, but soon noticed the children would whizz between the apps rather than completing one properly.

This prompted her to wipe all the apps and load a smaller, more refined selection. She says it is important to explain to the children what they’re trying to achieve, what concept they’re working on, and the expectation to complete the app before moving on to another.

Teaching maths, at any given year, shouldn’t be restricted to one level, Glen says. It should progress from teaching basic content, to encouraging critical thinking, to promoting reflective, self-moderating behaviours. Apps, when used effectively, can help progress students through this learning journey. “It’s not about ‘drill and skill’ anymore, it’s about transformative learning,” says Glen.

Monique says apps and mobile devices shouldn’t necessarily replace other more hands-on elements of teaching.

“It’s not a case of ‘or’, but rather ‘and’. There is still a place for counters, play money, things like that,” she says. It will be interesting to note whether the research will take into account issues of equity and student accessibility to devices.

Te Akau ki Papamoa has 1:1 device:student ratio and Monique and Glen agree the school’s 1:1 policy has made a real difference.

Calder and Murphy confirm that access will be considered in developing the framework.

Calder points out that Tahatai Coast doesn’t have a 1:1 policy, and that the research will eventually encompass a much wider group of schools.

“As we develop the framework over the next year with groups of teachers, we will investigate use of apps in a broader range of classes,” says Calder.

Calder and Murphy anticipate that the project will yield some significant findings around teacher professional learning, particularly as it relates to a wide range of varying contexts and teacher experience. “Glen, Monique and Rebekah are expert teachers in this area so that is why we are co-researching and co-constructing the framework and understanding with them.

But the key aspect will be how it can be influential and helpful with a broad range of teachers and situations.” Next year the framework will be used with groups of teachers with mixed experience and expertise with mobile technology.

It will be initially introduced to schools and teachers in the Bay of Plenty and Waikato before being presented nationally and internationally.

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