Dr Math: A Mobile Scaffolding Environment

Dr Math: A Mobile Scaffolding Environment

A.Botha (CSIR Meraka Institute, South Africa) and L. Butgereit (CSIR Meraka Institute, South Africa)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/jmbl.2012040102
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Dr Math is an online math tutoring service hosted by the CSIR Meraka Institute in South Africa, which aims to support secondary school learners with Mathematics. The service is predominantly accessed through the mobile social networking service MXit. Since 2007, students from the Faculty of Engineering, the Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT) at the University of Pretoria, have been assisting “Dr Math” in fulfillment of a compulsory undergraduate module, Community-Based Project. They have supported 28,000 registered users in user initiated interactions. This purpose of this paper is to describe the mobile scaffolding environment and scaffolding practices as well as the tutor support that enhance the Dr Math service as a sustained example of mobile learning.
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With the ubiquitous access to mobile cellular technology, the concept of a digital divide has changed to that of a digital difference (Botha, 2011; Botha, Van Greunen, & Herselman, 2010). This alternative paradigm to accessing information and services has opened many opportunities. With a widespread agreement that ICT services have the potential to meaningfully impact on Education, mobile services are especially apt in developing economies such as Africa (Botha et al., 2010; Butgereit, 2007; Traxler, 2009). The challenge is to provide a significant educational service through technology that is already in the hands of the students and that they are already familiar with, thus eliminating the barrier to meaningful participation and engagement.

Dr Math is a mobile tutoring service that provides access to credible personal on demand tutoring in the subject Mathematics. The objectives of Dr Math are to deliver the following results and show their value particularly in the developing context:

  • Access to subject experts: University students provide live interactive tutoring to secondary school students. This is especially valuable to learners from under resourced areas.

  • Sustainability: The Tutoring is integrated into the Universities’ culture as part of a community outreach module thus ensuring a sustainable supply of tutors.

  • Wide uptake and participation: Tutoring and use are not limited by physical locality.

The Dr Math initiative, aiming to support secondary school learners, was initiated in January 2007, and has been well received locally and internationally.

With only viral advertising, the Dr Math service has grown from a single school and about 25 learners, to currently 28,000 registered users. In a controlled instance, four math classes were introduced to “Dr Math” and given a dedicated line to access so that we could monitor the uptake. The uptake is documented in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Growth of Dr Math in a seeded instance


CSIR Meraka has been making use of volunteer services and more specifically predominantly students from the University of Pretoria enrolled in an undergraduate module, Community-Based Project. Additional volunteers have been recruited from AIMS, other local South African Universities and a diverse assortment of institutions to act as tutors in the online environment.

All interactions are logged and log files are checked and feedback given to the students and the institution. Tutors are vetted and are required to sign an agreement as to online behaviour and engagement with learners. Initially a centralised model was used and students had to log on from a for purpose computer lab situated at CSIR Meraka. With the migration and upgrade of the platform this has changed and the tutors can sign in from distributed locations. Currently there are tutors from as far afield as Europe and North America and the service has been offered in three different languages. The Dr Math service is usually available from 2pm to 10pm depending on the tutor availability.

On average, each interaction takes about 20 minutes and a single tutor can facilitate about 50 individuals per hour depending on the nature of the interaction. Additional functionalities to the tutor service have been incorporated over time to enhance the scaffolding environment such as mathematical competitions, ranging from addition to finding the polynomials. Additionally to the competitions there is a Wikipedia lookup service (web scrape), access to a scientific calculator (many learners do not own one), various multiple choice quizzes, several static lookups for math terms, a text game, a space for learner feedback and a leader board that lists the top scores in the competitions (these are additionally sent to Twitter). Figure 2 illustrates these functionalities in addition to the tutoring service.

Figure 2.

Overview of the Dr Math service and additional functionalities


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