Math Education Landscape, my thoughts after attending NCTM Conference 2015

There is a high interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, especially math as it is regarded as the base of the rest of the science and engineering fields. Government, educational institutions, and even non-educational private companies are jumping into the math education industry, providing direct or indirect solutions to teachers and/or learners.

Many researchers, educators and companies gathered at National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) 2015 Conference held in Boston on April to share knowledge about math teaching and learning. Numerous topics were discussed in various sessions including, but not limited to: Technology for learning, equity in education, cross-discipline learning, project-based learning, fluency, perseverance, formative assessment, supporting teachers, different aspects of math, and of course common core.

Here are my thoughts based on what I have listened to and observed at the conference.

Adoption of Common Core

The Common Core seems to have been well accepted by the educators in general. Since the creation of the Common Core in 2009, 45 states have adopted the standard. Most of the traditional book publishers as well as online content providers residing in the US have adapted their content to align with the Core. Even organizations outside of US, for example Jump from Canada, have considered retrofitting their content referencing Common Core.

With the objective of better providing guidance to educators for effective math teaching, the NCTM recently published “Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All”, complementing the Common Core with research-based teaching principles.

I believe that within few years the term “Core Standard” will be known even to the general public, for example to parents. Therefore math education content must be Common Core based in order to be appealing to the market. I also believe that there is high probability of adoption of the Common Core by foreign countries as basis for their math education curricula.

Use of Technology

Another recurring topic was the use of technology for math education. Nowadays, computing devices have become accessible enough for children. The network infrastructure complements the ubiquitous devices bringing the possibility of a high degree of collaborative learning. The technology not only allows for better collaboration but also allows to scale up (i.e. effectively accommodate more content) and scale out (allow more students without affecting teaching quality).

Compared to other disciplines, math uses a language (e.g. equations) that can be translated into computer instructions. Likewise, computer interactives and visualization can abstract the complexities of math representation. These factors makes the computer a great companion for math teaching and learning.

About 40% of the exhibitors at the conference had digital learning experience in their portfolio. Some of them were purely technology-based (i.e., online content, assessment provider), some had combination of physical books complemented by online resources.

One notable fact is that well-established traditional educational companies such as Pearson, Mc Graw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Scholastic, have extensive online math products. And most of the emerging companies are focusing on technology solutions (i.e. not physical books). Amplify, IXL, dreambox, are good examples of these in education companies.

Although the computer cannot completely replace a human teacher, it has already shown it can support teachers in their day-to-day teaching activities, and support students by complementing the learning experience providing adaptability and fun.

Clearly, proper use of technology is a key factor in today’s education. As an excerpt in the NCTM’s “Principles to Actions” says:

“[an] excellent mathematics program integrates the use of mathematical tools and technology as essential resources to help students learn and make sense of mathematical ideas, reason mathematically, and communicate their mathematical thinking”

Use of Tablets (iPads)

A tablet (iPad) is considered the device that has made important improvements in education. Such is its impact and potential that I have dedicated a separate section to this area.

Today the iPad has become the de facto multimedia device of choice for schools.
In terms of math, there are 547 “Math” apps, 459 “Number” apps, any many more apps under the games category. Teachers are regularly using the device in their classroom and parents are installing educational apps for their children at home.

In one of the K-2 math conference sessions the presenter asked how many teachers use iPads, about 60% of teachers raised their hands. The remaining were mostly planning to do so within a year or two. Interestingly, a few educators that I had chance to talk with mentioned that their school had an initiative to deploy iPads but there was no additional budget available for the software (apps).

Despite the many challenges of introducing technology to the classroom and having learners effectively use technology; tablets have made significant step forward. To start, tablets have the form factor that allows even kindergartners to utilize it.

Given the facts above, it is not surprising that supporting the tablet is a major requirement for online education. Currently, most of the online content-and-assessment products are being delivered using a mobile friendly web format, mostly in form of “responsive” pages. I suspect the reason for that, i.e. not using native app, is that the dynamic content layout as well as assessment types are difficult to implement in native mobile. A possibility is to use technology stacks that compiles/transpiles into native such as React Native but the technology is still in early stages.

Tablets will keep increasing in popularity among schools and educators. It will eventually replace computers and laptops in the classroom.

Game-based and Gamification, the fun factor

Another expected trend is incorporating game concepts to education to increase engagement. There are two manifestation for this: game-based applications (resources here and here) and Gamification.
With the former, a student actually learns by playing games. Sometimes the learner is even unaware that she/he is learning a particular subject. With the latter, the learner is motivated to learn; the learner understand he/she is in the context of learning something. A good example is incorporating a badging and leadership board features to online assessment application.

The existing established players such as Scholastic and Mc Graw Hill have incorporated gamification to their existing product and also want to add game application to complement their product line.

Few start-ups have started with game application. Reflex has taken up the challenge of combining pure games with math learning. Some others such as mathseed have taken a hybrid approach to construction of online assessment that resembles games.

Games for learning and gamification is a movement to address the general implicit notion that “math is dull and boring,” as many would have heard young children say. I am certain that more organizations will use in this approach, iterate upon it and come up with solutions that satisfy a large emerging game-based/gamified learning market.

Non-profit entities coming to market

Yet another interesting observation is that there is increasing numbers of non-profit entities delivering or serving as facilitator of learning content.
It is not uncommon to see government entities and foundations (NPO/NGO) involved in education. Traditionally those entities channeled money and other resources to provide scholarships and deliver educational goods to low-income families and their children.

In the NTCM, I noticed a few NPOs including foundations and universities that are providing math learning solutions that directly target teachers and students.
For example Jump Math has opened on its site its curriculum that resulted from research on math learning and teaching. Universities such as UC Davis have produced online visualization tools meant to be used as math learning supporting material.
Another noteworthy organization is CK-12. Founded in 2007 by Neeru Khosla, CK-12 has built a platform for educators to create and share content, including math. The product has enough features to be compared against products from larger traditional companies.

Other insights

Additional insights and observations
Many public school teachers have expressed constrained budgets as limiting the number of online resources available to them, including apps.
Amazon acquired TenMarks a year ago and is directly competing with online education companies.
Massive Online Open Coursewares (MOOCs) including KhanAcademy were not present at theconference.
Not much social networking features, probably because of privacy issue.

CONCLUSION

Be it technology or traditional media, ultimately was the content, together with the delivery mechanism that differentiated one solution from another.
I believe that it is crucial for education content providing companies to have a flexible platform that not only facilitates the authoring process but also allows for rich content delivery in personalized manner.
The content and its derivatives such as analytics, should be readily and intuitively accessible by not only educators but also by parents, and taking a step further, available as aggregate data for curriculum/assessment designers and learning scientist for constant improvement of tools and contents.
In order for that to happen, there must be an active ecosystem surrounding the content that supports different learning lifecycle.

Education is not in hands of few organizations, but it’s everyone’s business. We should all be participant, actively collaborating to the disseminating knowledge to our kids and generations to come.

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