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Extra maths on a mobile device: a South African study shows it’s not that simple

A teenage boy using a mobile phone.
Pupils weren’t persistent in using a maths app to study the subject after school because were distracted by peers and social media apps. shutterstock

International assessments have established that South Africa’s performance in maths and science among grade 5 and grade 9 learners has consistently been rated among the lowest worldwide. The South African Department of Basic Education and schools are therefore under pressure to improve mathematics results.

But besides the homework that schools set, it’s difficult for them to motivate learners to do any additional study of mathematics after school. Ideally, additional study would be the solution to improve the results.

In 2015, the department of basic education identified information communication and technology as a potential solution as one of the key pillars to improve the quality of teaching and learning. This is because technology enables sharing of material, development of teachers, technical support, management of progress, and particularly learners outside school. But research argues that using mobile devices to enhance learning might easily distract learners unless there is some control and structure.

I did a case study to explore how secondary school learners could be encouraged to study mathematics after school using a mobile device and whether this would be an effective way to improve their performance in the subject. The students had the LevelUp app installed on their mobile device. LevelUp is an educational app available for use on a mobile phone that offers free access to carriculum aligned learning material. The app is aimed at encouraging pupils to regularly engage with educational content and subsequently create a learning habit in exchange for real world rewards such as airtime and data bundles.

My study focused on what learners thought of the app and the implications of their perceptions for the effectiveness of LevelUp. I found there were challenges in using educational apps such as LevelUp, particularly after school.

The findings

My research findings were consistent with earlier research that suggested that motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic) was crucial in encouraging learners to study mathematics.

The learners weren’t attracted to and persistent in using the application as an educational tool to study mathematics after school. This is because they were distracted by peers and by other competing applications, such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram. Also, some learners preferred to study using books and papers, making it difficult to adapt to the online teaching method.

Learners seemed to enjoy using the electronic devices to chat and network with friends and family. Their motivation was high when using mobile devices for socialising. But it was low when it came to studying online, especially unsupervised.

Learning on mobile devices competed with other highly attractive activities associated with belonging in the group, playing games for fun or catch-up discussions with people. The need to belong, to be close to, trusting of, caring for, and cared for by others played an important role in using social media.

LevelUp is not part of the school curriculum. This makes it difficult for learners to fit additional mathematics exercises, using the application, into their daily routine.

Coordination and collaboration

My research suggests that to encourage high school pupils to study online or outside school despite all the challenges and distractions, what’s needed is coordination and collaboration by school administration, teachers and parents.

Teachers’ responsibilities are to prepare lesson plans and educate the learners – they spend a great deal of time with the learners. They are therefore best placed to convey the rules and to encourage the learners to study online or outside school. Teachers should know each learner’s behaviour. Armed with this information, they can have one-on-one sessions with the learners to coach them and encourage them to concentrate.

A child’s motivation and school performance can be increased by parental involvement, especially when proper assistance is given. Children’s educational achievement has a strong relationship with parental aspirations or expectations. Children become more intrinsically motivated when parents are supportive or encourage their children to study independently.

There are potential problems in linking parental involvement to learning at home. Studying requires conceptual and creative processing. If learners are taught using a controlling approach, they are often found to lose initiative.

Parents should therefore not be excessively controlling. The school should provide guidelines on how learning should occur and it should be made clear that the teachers are still in control of the learning process.

Going forward

The aim of my research was to empower school administration, teachers, parents and learners with insights that could help them to improve teaching and learning online outside school. The importance of coordination and collaboration between the school administration, teachers and parents cannot be over emphasised.

Designed and implemented correctly, information communication and technology has the potential to help resolve South Africa’s access to education and to provide quality education to many learners anytime and anywhere in the country simultaneously or on demand.

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