Maths + digital technology = opportunities: a complex and interesting equation

June 2017


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Drs JO FLETCHER and KAREN NICHOLAS set out to discover how primary schools are using digital technologies in their year 7 and 8 mathematics classrooms. Their research uncovered some interesting findings from how equity and maintenance of devices was managed to the need for more professional development to the way ICT was used to support learning.

using digital tablets in classAs the use of digital technology increases in primary classrooms, it is becoming clear that the experiences of schools vary widely, with some managing the exciting possibilities of the new resources better than others. Mindful of lessons from large international studies on the effectiveness of these new tools we wanted to look closely at the ways schools in New Zealand are implementing digital technologies.

We identified six primary schools and interviewed their principals, year 7 and 8 teachers, parents and children about the ways they use digital technologies in their mathematics programmes. The schools were mainly low to middle decile and ranged from small to very large. The school populations represented a large number of ethnic groups and included full primary, intermediate, and integrated school types. Over 50 participants were interviewed, and we also observed maths lessons, with the focus on the use of digital technologies being used.

Our findings showed widespread use of digital technologies and mathematical apps within classrooms during teaching and learning. The children enjoyed working with iPads, laptops and tablets, but this did not always mean that the associated mathematical learning was purposeful and focused to meet explicit identified needs. There were serious issues at some of the schools around being able to sustain a budget to purchase much-needed new digital technologies and supporting software. Additionally, other factors hindered progress, such as ICT maintenance within the classroom, professional development opportunities for teachers, purchase of ICT resources that encourage higher order thinking and equity of access to resources for all learners.

The budget for new technologies

Most of the study schools focused on buying a wide variety of resources, often through fundraising and grants. However, caution is recommended when buying devices and programmes that few teachers know how to use effectively. Sustained and focused professional development in the ways to use ICT to enhance mathematical learning are important. Teachers need the confidence to encourage self-regulated users who are moving forward in their procedural and conceptual knowledge, rather than merely filling in time on game-like activities which have little educational value for the specific needs of the students. Our observations showed that while the children may appear to be on-task and engaged, little purposeful learning was occurring.

The schools which used technology on a daily basis, focused on ensuring children had access to working iPads, tablets and computers. These teachers tended to use YouTube clips, free educational programmes such as Sumdog and arranged a menu of useful games and practice activities within a classroom maths folder.

Saving some of the ICT budget for maintenance of devices, buying new chargers and batteries and investing in secure and robust storage units appeared to be money well spent. None of our schools had chosen to go down the ‘Bring Your Own Devices’ route, saying that their families could not have afforded this, and it would have been difficult to ensure uniformity and provide maintenance for personally owned devices.

Professional development for teachers

Considering the large investment in these resources, it was surprising that little money was provided for professional development on how to use them well.

In all our case study schools one teacher was in charge of ICT, although in small schools they were also often the principal or deputy principal. These lead teachers reported that they spent a lot of time dealing with small technical issues, and although usually responsible for purchasing hardware and software, they did not get much time to show teachers the best ways to use equipment. There was an emphasis on sharing what worked immediately, through conversations and as an agenda item in school meetings. None of the schools had a focus on using digital technologies in maths, and none of the teachers had attended any external professional development in this area. Being self-taught and advocating quick fixes were the norm.

Resources to encourage higher order thinking

The activities children were engaged in were often games and graded activities from programmes such as Sumdog and Mathletics. Children really enjoyed them and they provided teachers with resources to use for knowledge activity groups. We saw little evidence of digital activities which challenged children to move onto higher order thinking. From a positive position teachers were able to access the children’s choices of activities and encourage them to challenge themselves, by limiting the menu options to discourage repeats of ‘fun’ favourite low level activities.

Equity of access to resources

As five of our six schools were decile 2–5, there were many conversations about the affordability of resources. All of these schools had accessed grants to ensure that digital technologies were available at school and one school had used a charity grant to get free laptops for all its children. However, the ongoing costs of servicing and replacement of resources were a continual burden. Parents stressed their commitment to helping their children have the equipment for the modern world, but a number could not afford to have the internet at home, so, if children did have access to a computer or tablet they were unable to access the classroom maths games and complete maths activities at home. A very popular maths programme, Mathletics, was too expensive for three of the schools. The schools used Sumdog instead, but felt there were more advantages to other, more expensive programmes.

‘Take-home’ advice from schools

We had deliberately set out to find out what mainstream schools, without special expertise in digital technologies, were attempting to achieve in teaching and learning in mathematics. Our interviews and observations uncovered the need to look before leaping into action. It seemed that basics such as ensuring all the tablets were working, charged and loaded with the right applications were neglected. This prevented teachers having confidence in using these devices every day.

Spending money on a teacher aide, dedicated to ensuring these basics were attended to, may be more valuable than spending thousands on a new programme or piece of equipment that only one or two teachers have the expertise to use.

Teachers were all competent users of ICT and shared appropriate mathematics games, mini lessons and applications confidently. These collaborative practices could be further enhanced if staff had more time to talk to each other and reflect on the advantages of their choices. The burden on the IT specialist teacher was huge, and it may be better to spread this, so each syndicate of teachers has someone with enough expertise to help with the easy things.

By far the greatest challenge is finding funding to help disadvantaged families access the internet at home. Schools provide homework clubs, but this does not fill the void, or allow families to spend time together on online maths homework and games. Perhaps grants which pay for computers for some of these children should also include internet access.

The use of digital technologies in mathematics has definitely provided opportunities for children to choose their own appropriate high-interest activities, and provide teachers with good data on their use. We need to move forward now, to extend teachers’ knowledge of ways to harness these technologies better, to encourage new mathematics learning and higher order thinking. This will require a sustained professional development focus, to encourage a community of practice which makes positive moves towards effective digital learning.

Drs Jo Fletcher and Karen Nicholas are from the University of Canterbury’s College of Education.

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