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Field-Testing the Math Apps

New York Times

By Lisa Guernsey

LAWRENCE, Mass. — Elias was shy at first. “He’s 4,” his teacher whispered when he would not say his age. He made no sound as his peers rushed to the tables with the iPads. When a friend grabbed the device to take his photo, he covered his eyes with his hands.

Maybe it was the room full of strangers that had him a little spooked. Six software developers and designers from WGBH, the Boston public television station, had descended on his classroom at the Little Sprouts child care center here, bearing a fleet of rubber-cased iPads.

Their mission was to test prototypes of math apps they had been working on for months — tools designed with the help of researchers in child development and cognitive science — and to learn from pupils like Elias. Would he understand how to play the games? Would he like them? Would he learn anything?

One of the adults crouched alongside the boy and showed him Breakfast Time, an app meant to lay the groundwork for understanding fractions. A waffle appeared on screen. “Can you slice it?” the man asked Elias.

Educational apps have been booming in the six years since the arrival of the iPhone’s touch screen, despite the warnings of some educators that children will spend too much time with devices and too little time exploring the physical world. The iTunes store offers more than 95,000 educational apps, many of them free.

Nearly three-quarters are aimed at preschoolers and grade schoolers, according to a 2012report by Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a research organization affiliated with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit producer of “Sesame Street.” A coming survey of members of theNational Association for the Education of Young Children shows that nearly 3 in 10 classrooms have an iPad or other tablet. Proposals to provide each child with a tablet have popped up in school districts around the country.

Rising concern about the foundations of math education has helped fuel this hunger for apps. A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences found a lack of exposure to math at home and in preschool settings, especially for children in low-income families. Among other things, it recommended increasing the informal opportunities for children to learn math, including through “software and other media,” and that teachers get better math training.

The WGBH developers in Elias’s classroom are part of a project called Next Generation Preschool Math financed by a $3 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Two research organizations  —  E.D.C. and SRI International, both of which have expertise in evaluating educational technologies  —  are leading the project, known as NextGen. Its aim is to develop and evaluate apps, teachers’ guides and tools for tracking children’s progress on the path to enjoying and excelling in mathematics.

Scientific research on the educational value of apps is nearly nonexistent. The NextGen project is trying to change that, through a painstaking process that includes not just software development but also testing, data gathering, observations of classroom dynamics, interviews with teachers, assessments of children’s learning and controlled comparisons. This school year, in 16 classrooms in New York and California, researchers will assess children at the beginning and end of a four-week unit to see whether the apps — and an accompanying set of materials for teachers — make any difference.

But the NextGen team is already learning a lot about the challenges of creating apps that are fun, easy for little hands to use, and able to provide evidence that children are actually learning something.

“This is like the sixth iteration that we’ve brought to the field,” said Christine Zanchi, executive producer of children’s media for WGBH. Her team had been trying to perfect the user interface that prompts children to slice the Breakfast Time waffles into equal parts. In past tests, children pushed too hard on the screen or used their fingers in a sawing motion. Some 2-year-olds put the waffle to their lips as if to taste it.

When the developers first observed children using apps already on the market, they noticed a tendency to touch and tap everywhere. “Inhibiting that tap-tap-tap is really hard for them at that age,” Ms. Zanchi said. Teachers, she said, have urged her team to design games that give children time to think.

Math games sound deceptively simple: Flash numbers on the screen, add animation, and voilà, you have shown a child how to count. But these kinds of apps are based on a misunderstanding of what children need to know, said Herbert P. Ginsburg, an expert in mathematics education at Columbia University and an adviser to the NextGen project.

“It’s not just ‘I can count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,’ ” he said. “It’s ‘What does 5 mean?’ ”

For the full story, see the story on the New York Times website.


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