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Can a Smart Phone Program Really Close the Achievement Gap?

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Students from different geographic regions communicate socially, but also to help each other achieve the common goal of succeeding at Algebra 1.

When asked what tech tools students would like to use in learning science and math, their reply was no surprise: "They said they wanted something that would utilize social networking technology -- something portable. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to use a smart phone," said Project K-Nect founder and director Shawn Gross about his interview with  Washington, D.C. area- kids five years ago.

"Students told us that the subject matter was too abstract, there wasn't enough [real-world] application, that they were having difficulty with the instructional methods. They thought technology might be a way to change that," says Gross.

With that directive in mind, Project K-Nect's social-media-based curriculum combines project and collaborative learning with new media learning for the 3,000 high schoolers in three states who currently participate.

The initial goal of the nonprofit -- launched in North Carolina in 2007 with the support of Qualcomm's Wireless Reach Initiative and other organizations and now also in place in Ohio and Virginia -- was to increase student performance in STEM subjects, particularly in low-income areas. The requirement, therefore, for Project K-Nect's participating schools, is that at least 50 percent of the student body qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Do smart phones help low-income, at-risk student populations learn math? Yes, most definitely, says Gross. The majority of participating students scored 20 percent higher on standardized tests than their peers in the same school and 30 to 40 percent higher than students in the district and state after a single year. (Click here to see a full research report on the program in Onslow County, North Carolina).


But for very high-risk students -- such as those who are homeless or are attending school primarily for a free lunch -- the technology-integrated math class is not as likely beneficial, Gross says. There is a lot more going on in that student's life than academia, and curriculum alone won't change that.

"It's hard to just say 'at-risk students,' -- there are different categories of at-risk students," he says. "The bottom line is we see increased student achievement and engagement because this is a media that students feel comfortable utilizing. It's an outlet to be able to express themselves in a totally different fashion."


"Initially, we partnered with Drexel University and Florida State University to create the curriculum. We built a comprehensive set of Algebra 1 resources: all the components related to instant messaging and blogging, assessment tools for teachers, supplemental activities, project-based learning components, problem sets, and cartoon animation. There are basically mini apps for every unit of instruction that get pushed out to a student's device.

Teachers speak for 10 or 15 minutes about the fundamentals of the unit and give some instruction, then pass it to students who work in teams to create videos that describe the steps students need to take to arrive at proficiency [in Algebra 1]. Then, teachers ask the kids to apply the math to something. They post the videos up into the blogs [that all Project K-Nect's participating students share]. When they run into stumbling blocks they create a video and tag it with 'SOS.' One of the schools will pick up an SOS tag within a matter of minutes and will respond back, either using instant messaging or a video response.

[Visit Project K-Nect's blog to see example videos of what students are doing.]


"Social networking is heavily questioned by adults, so at first, no one thought students were going to be using blogs to actually do math. It turned out that those adults were dead wrong. Students from different geographic regions were communicating socially, sure, but they were also communicating to help each other to achieve this common goal of succeeding at Algebra 1. They were taking control of the learning process and creating personalized learning communities.

And what has been really dramatic are the changes in instructional strategies in the classroom. Teachers have gone from lecture-style textbooks to a completely different approach: It's project-based learning design that they're doing, now.

What's surprising -- in a good way -- is that the majority of the students we started with in 2007-2008 school year went on to take an AP Calculus course or are currently enrolled in AP Statistics. In this district [Jacksonville, North Carolina], typically only about 2 percent of Algebra 1 students will go on to take AP math course. Now, those students are sitting in an AP class in their senior year."

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