Technology in Math Education: the iPad a Game-Changer?

November 13, 2012

We create math in our minds. Yet much of the incentive for dreaming up mathematical results has been inspired by the world around us. Thus there is an underlying connection between the completely abstract and the utterly pragmatic sides of mathematics.

In the classroom teachers are often exhorted to motivate their students by providing “real life” examples as well as problems drawn from the “real world.” Dan Myers explores this motivation issue wonderfully with his blog posts Three Acts Math Tasks and Database of Three Act Math Tasks (more on this later).

Technology in the math classroom: tool or crutch?

As part of the push to keep students motivated and to provide them with cutting-edge math instruction, school systems have been turning increasingly to technological aids. When calculators were introduced in classrooms in the 1990s, many questioned whether they were being used positively for mathematical exploration, or in a negative way as a crutch. Were they keeping students from fully acquiring basic skills? (Anecdotes abound as to high school students pulling out calculators in class to do such things as multiplying a number by 10).

Enter the iPad

iPads are becoming a common technology in math educationThe latest push for technology in the classroom centers on the iPad. In some sense iPads are a natural extension of computers and calculators, combining the power of the former with the ease of the latter. We are now at the same place that we’ve been with so many previous technologies, where the creation of the tool has come about far more quickly than the understanding and support for how to use it effectively in teaching.

At its best the iPad, with many great math apps, can be a wonderful way to explore mathematics in a more interactive way than can be done with images in textbooks.

At a less inspiring level, the iPad can be a high-priced book reader. Regrettably, most textbooks aren’t well designed to take advantage of the iPad’s capabilities. Many are simply a repackaging of existing textbooks.

At its worst, the iPad can become a time sink as teachers deal with the logistics of keeping them powered, updated, and unbroken.

Technology requires training

Young students us technology in the math classroomThere are stories of school systems that have gotten grants to provide iPads to students, then failed to help teachers figure out what to actually do with the iPads in class. It can be especially frustrating to have access to a tool with such potential, but not be given the training and support to put it to good use.

How would you suggest iPads be used in the classroom?

Here, then, is the question of the day: what do you think should be done with the advent of the iPad in math classrooms? And:

  • What iPad apps have you come across that you would want other math teachers to know about?
  • How would you suggest teachers and students put them to use in class (or out of class), as a regular tool, or as a special treat or reward?
  • What should teacher training programs be doing to acknowledge this upcoming wave of technology use in the classroom?

In the Extension School’s math for teaching program students are asked to explore issues about using technology in math classrooms in the program’s capstone course. Find out more about this class and the Mathematics for Teaching Graduate Program.

Anonymous replied:
For adult self learners it could potentially replace courses all together. For an age group that can stick to it all lectures and preliminary work should occur outside of class. Class time then becomes a large guided problem solving session. For young children it would only really be an aid.
Dean Dochterman replied:

I am currently in the throws of digesting the fall out of my school receiving just such a grant as described here.  My high school is now a 1 to 1 school where each student has an iPad mini.  The kids have had their minis for about a week and our tech department has already "shut down" an app called Snap Chat b/c it was overly distracting.

I am required to teach Algebra II in a blended curriculum.  At any one time, 3 activities are happening in my classroom - Direct Instruction, Independent work, and Collaborative work.  It is my first year teaching this way and I am definately swimming in my proximal zone of development!

We have a LMS called Schoology which the iPad synchs with nicely.  My students receive a digital agenda each week and spend their classtime rotating through the 3 stations using their iPad's to access videos I assign or worksheets that I loaded into their course on Schoology.  Type on PDF is a useful app that allows students to open my worksheets and write on them using their finger as a pencil!  When they finish, they just put it in the electronic drop box I created for that assignment.  Some kids are more motivated with this option to do all their homework electronically.

I am very interested to hear of other, useful math apps for the iPad.

Anonymous replied:
Wouldn't it be wonderful if children could learn math at their own pace ensuring the comprehension of each step as they progress? If the Ipads could be used to watch Khan Academy Videos and do assignments to progress, the teacher could be there for those that need additional help (i.e. technical support)greatly lessening the teaching load and greatly improving the learning curve. :)
David Wees replied:

I think before you recommend such a system that you read this research about IPI, a system somewhat similar to the Khan Academy in many ways. http://www.wou.edu/~girodm/library/benny.pdf

Bill Quirk replied:

Khan Academy Math is not similar to IPI.  Each video is connected to related exercises.  Hints are available to help the student solve each exercise.  Benny's behavior makes no sense relative to the Khan system.