Algebra, Meet the iPad: A Year-Long Study Explores Learning With the Tablet

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HMH Fuse

Whether or not the iPad is the Holy Grail in education has yet to be determined. But when one of the biggest textbook publishers in the world invests in a pilot program specifically for the Apple tablet, it's a good indication that, at the very least, it's on the short list.

Since last fall, 400 California middle school students have been using the iPad to learn Algebra with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Fuse program. This first app, Holt McDougal Algebra 1, is an interactive version of the textbook, and with it, students get feedback on practice questions, they can write and save notes, receive guided instruction, and access video lessons.

"We like to say that the course is 're-imagined,'" said John Sipe, senior vice president, national sales manager at HMH. "It’s a lot more than just adaptation. We know that it’s a more iterative process than a revolutionary process in moving things to mobile delivery to a place like iPad."

The pilot study, which includes a total of 1,000 students -- 600 receiving the same instruction with traditional textbooks, without iPads -- will go through to the end of the school year, after which, the research firm Empirical Education, will evaluate and deliver results by the summer.


Here's the first part of my interview with John Sipe.

Q. Will HMH create apps for other devices, too, or just the iPad?

Right now, the apps are developed exclusively for the iPad. It was the first device that we could take full advantage of. It can support multimedia components, the multi-touch environment. And it's the first device that realized the vision that we’ve all had for a student learning device, a tablet.

But that said, we do have to be where schools are. So if tomorrow, dozens of school districts decided to adopt the Motorola Zoom Android-powered tablet, we’d be forced to take a hard look at porting our app over to Android. Many big app providers produce an Android version as well.

Q. Do you think the iPad will be a game-changer in education, or is it the beginning of what’s about to come?

The iPad is a beautiful, remarkable device. That’s why there’s so much attention around it. It's not Apple’s first time to attempt a device of this kind. Think back to the Newton. It didn’t succeed because a lot of things that people wanted to do, it couldn’t quite do right. And this is the first device that is able to do everything right that people have asked, not withstanding the discussion around Flash.

It’s an exciting device and a fantastic device to consume content. Is this THE device for education? That remains to be seen. Right now educators are telling us that it’s very expensive. And they’re right. As we’ve seen with all technology, price comes down very quickly, so it’ll be interesting to watch whether Apple decides to go after a more aggressively priced solution. Look what happened to their music offerings. Look at the Shuffle, for example, which costs $49, if I’m not mistaken. Prices change, they come down quickly. There are many folks out there who understand the importance of producing inexpensive tablets.

Is this THE device or is this the first device? It’s hard to say. But what we can certainly say firmly is that it’s the best thing to have come along so far. The reason we did this test is to learn as a content provider, how do we take a really well-designed, high-functioning mobile device and re-imagine curriculum, students interacting with learning in their own way. And that’s the exciting part of what we’ve done and what we’re trying to do.

Q. How will the iPad-taught class different from a traditional algebra class?

What we’ve seen in practice is the fact that it’s bringing everything to one place that’s making it exciting. The convenience factor, the simplicity factor -- that’s revolutionary. For example, if you’re working through a lesson, there are three or four algorithms presented. With a textbook, if you want to learn more about one of the examples, you have to stop looking in your book and go online to our website and navigate that particular section and view our video there.

Instead, on the iPad, you simply click on “view video” and up comes our professor, Dr. Edward Burger, the Bill Nye of math education. Students have written to him saying he’s changed their opinion of what math is. So to have him right there, you can see how it’s natural for students to tap “view video,” as opposed to setting their book down and going to the computer.

Another example is, when students are working on a problem, they can simply click on “check answer,” and up comes, “that’s correct, and here’s why,” or “that’s incorrect, and here’s why.” As opposed to when they’re working on paper or even online, those pieces are a little more drawn out.

Chirantan Patnaik

Q. Is there an adaptive aspect to this app, where students can progress to another level?

Right now, this follows identically to the student textbook. It’s adaptive only inasmuch as when the student takes an “are you ready quiz” before a chapter, students can see for themselves how they did in each of the subsections of the test, as can the teacher. Everything the student does in the device from a quizzing and assessment standpoint flows back to the teacher wirelessly. The app sends the data back to the instructor, what section they did well on, what they didn’t do well on. So a teacher has a lot more real-time data on student instruction. But as far as adaptive, actually changing the instruction, no the app doesn’t do that yet. But certainly the technology is out there. A different conversation happens then in terms of your goals.

Q. I guess what I’m trying to get at is whether this is actually changing the way kids learn.

What we’ve seen is that students are going ahead more often, and going back more often, and they’re able to do it themselves. The other exciting thing we’re seeing is that when parents are working with students, and want to brush up on these kinds of things, for example the quadratic equation, they can watch the videos themselves and quickly refresh their knowledge.

The teachers who are teaching the 400 students in the study group right away say engagement is much higher, as is their interest and motivation. So their perception of math and algebra learning is much better based on anecdotal research we’ve gotten so far.

That was our belief when we launched this, but we won’t have any real data until summer. But what we’ve seen in focus groups and interviews with instructors is that engagement is way up.

Q. Which begs the question, is it the actual gadget they’re interested in, or the content?


Great question. We know it’ll be both. But what’s the dividing line?

More with John Sipe tomorrow.