Algebra, Meet the iPad: Part II

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HMH Fuse

The iPad's impact on the role of the teacher, paid content versus free online and open-source content, and the learning process.

Will eighth-graders who use the iPad to learn algebra do better than their textbook-using counterparts? That's what publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Fuse pilot program will determine at the end of the school year. In yesterday's post, HMH's John Sipe talked about how anecdotal surveys, halfway through the study, have shown higher engagement level and interest in algebra, partly due to the convenience of having all the content on the app. But how much of that engagement is related to the novelty of using the gadget has not been determined, he says.

Here's the rest of our interview.

Q. Do you have any information you can share about grades so far?


No, because the study’s still underway. But what we’ve heard from teachers is very encouraging. We’ve been able to see students' time on task, how long they were working on each problem, what they clicked on, what they avoided, which problems they got right and wrong. We have a lot of data that helps us to understand where students are spending their time, and where we need to spend our time as instructors.

What I suspect is going to happen is that the performance between the print version and app version is going to be similar. But I do think we’ll see better performance with the app in terms of time spent on each task. So far anecdotally kids are spending more time actually involved in doing algebra in the classroom using the iPad, and that’s going to be key – because their engagement and interest is sustained. They’re going to be watching more videos because they’re more convenient to watch. They’re doing more of the practice problems because they’re more engaged in doing so because the “check your understanding” is right there and they don’t have to go look in another place.

Q. Did you train teachers on how to use the app?

Interestingly enough, the device is so easy to use, we didn’t have to spend a whole lot of time on training the teachers, because remember, this is just a student app. The teachers are still using their teachers' guide from print textbooks. This is just how the student accesses content. So the student is not issued a book, just an iPad, and all their content exists on the iPad. They use it on the bus, at home with their families, they bring it back to school and use it in class.


Q. I've heard from educators that they're worried about being replaced by these gadgets. And a lot of educators complain about not being trained properly in how to use the new technologies in order to be valuable to their students' learning process.

Not only will teachers not be replaced, it helps elevate their positions in student learning. These videos and many of the aspects of the apps actually do the “heavy lifting” for teachers. Traditional algorithms are presented in these videos using traditional instruction. So teachers don’t have to “waste their time” on some of these things that they’ve always had to do. They can spend much more time on individualized learning, identifying specific student needs. Let students cover the basics, if you will, on their own, and let teachers delve into enrichment and individualized learning. That’s what the good teachers are telling me.

I did hear from a couple teachers as we were doing the training, sort of as anecdotes when they first got this, “Oh my god, what’s my job?” And that’s obviously a natural first reaction, but when you start spending time with it, you realize this can actually make you a better teacher.

Q. Will this app be available to the public?

We’re submitting it to Apple as we speak. It will be commercially available probably in the next few weeks.

We’re trying to make this a way for teachers and school districts to save money. The app will cost substantially less than the student book. There will be a day before we know it when students will be carrying around an iPad instead of four or five 700-page books.

Q. How will an app like this compete with something like the videos on the Khan Academy, which are free for anyone to view?

The Khan Academy is fantastic. Khan does fantastic work, and there are tremendous videos there. The thing that we can do that open source has a hard time doing is both vetting this with authors like Dr. Ed Burger, and also bringing it all to one place and making sure it aligns with state and local standards. We play the role of vetting and assuring that content has met all the pedagogical and other requirements that are critical and required for good content.

That said, I could see a day when the links to the Khan Academy live right in our app, right alongside our videos. Sort of like, "Here’s our video of the quadratic equation, and if you’d like to see the video from Khan Academy’s, here it is." So again, it makes the learning happen all in one place.

Q. You've given 400 iPads to students for this study. Will you be taking them back after the pilot is over?

That's to be determined. We’re developing other apps, Algebra II and Geometry, which are on the way. So it’s an item to be discussed.

Q. What’s the next step?

We’ll see how this goes. We are the largest educational publisher in the U.S. and have the most titles in print and the biggest market share. We knew it was incredibly important for us to learn everything we could learn on how to deliver content in new ways. And this is one of the many new ways.


Our role in education is changing rapidly. With the amount of content available online, and with the amount of open source content, it helps inspire us to continually innovate and try new things in new ways.

I'll be reporting more on the program after my visit with Presidio Middle School tomorrow in San Francisco, one of the participating pilot schools. In the meantime, you can hear a report about the HMH Fuse project at a Los Angeles school.