Technology for Learning Mathematics: What Can We Learn from Large-Scale Studies?


SRI’s mission is “World-changing solutions making people safer, healthier, and more productive.” In my recent keynote address at the International Congress of Mathematics Education, I asked “What will it take for technology to change the world of mathematics education?”

Educators worldwide are working intensively to find ways to improve mathematics learning. Improving mathematics is profoundly important to all societies, because mathematics understanding enables students’ ability to participate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) college and career pathways.

With the growing availability of technology in schools and at home, many educators look to technology to improve education. Alas, as research by SRI’s Barbara Means, has shown, learning technologies tend to either (a) achieve rapid scale or (b) have proven effectiveness for increasing learning — but not both. For technology to change the world of mathematics education, we will need to identify technologies that can achieve both scale and effectiveness.

It has been my lifelong passion to understand how to crack this challenge, thus enabling technologies for mathematics learning to achieve societal impact.

In my keynote talk, I shared three examples of how it can happen:

First, an older technology, the graphing calculator, has already demonstrated that effectiveness at scale is possible in mathematics education. Graphing calculators are affordable, robust, and easy to use – and they are already used by more than half of U.S. high school students.  Graphing calculators have enabled real change in mathematics education by enabling teachers to focus on the mathematical concept of a “function” with an emphasis on understanding how graphs and symbols relate. Further, high quality reviews that synthesize multiple research studies (meta-analyses) have shown that graphing calculators can effectively enhance learning.

Second, I shared new results from SRI’s study of a program to enhance learning via online mathematics homework, using a free tool called ASSISTments. In a rigorous randomized controlled experiment conducted among 43 schools and with more than 2800 students in Maine, we found that using ASSISTments boosts students’ mathematical achievement in 7th grade. Because homework is a nearly universal policy and practice and ASSISTments is a scalable web-based platform, this result has the potential for impact through both scale and effectiveness.

Third, I provided an update on SRI Education’s long-running program of scale-up research on SimCalc approach to democratize access to advanced mathematics. In this work, we have shown that visual representations that students can interact with can enable students to develop “deep learning” of mathematics concepts that are normally quite difficult. This program of research has strong evidence of efficacy, and has scaled in Texas, Florida, and in London-area schools in the UK (as part of SunBay and Cornerstone Mathematics programs).

Looking across all three examples, I shared common elements in technology-enhanced programs that have the potential to change the world of mathematics education. The programs have deep connections to learning science-based theories. The content in the program tackles big mathematical ideas that are otherwise hard to learn. Considerable effort goes into making the programs easy for teachers to adopt and use.

The programs support teachers through extensive, well-designed programs of teacher professional development. A critical element is attention to the quality of implementation: the teams who field these technologies have the capability to monitor, manage, and improve the quality of implementation in classrooms.

At SRI, our vision for changing the world in mathematics education has been to “democratize access to advanced mathematics” through high quality implementations of powerful learning technologies. At ICME, we joined with colleagues coming from around the world to discuss how to accelerate progress towards a future in which all children learn mathematics deeply.

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