Math Awareness Month: How COVID is changing the way math is taught, learned
Math Awareness Month, which occurs every April, was established more than 30 years ago to increase public understanding and appreciation for the subject of mathematics. It also serves as a good time for us to check in on the state of math education in the U.S.
This past year has been unlike any other in recent history. When COVID-19 closed the doors to physical classrooms across the nation, and most schools pivoted to virtual or hybrid learning models, teachers had to adopt new approaches to instruction and adapt to the uncertainty of shifting parameters. As a result, we’ve seen the use of digital learning tools skyrocket as teachers have worked hard to find new ways to engage students and support learning in the new “virtual” reality.
Given the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on education in the past year, it is critical that educators and the education industry come together to discuss the future of math education in order to help teachers teach and students learn in any environment.
The impact of COVID-19 on the use of technology in math
Since March 2020 there has been a massive shift in teaching and learning across all subjects. But one of the biggest shake-ups has, undoubtedly, been the educational approach to math. Recent research revealed that students have fallen behind in math achievement during COVID-19, relative to a typical school year. Historically, math has been a board-based exercise in the classroom and a paper-based exercise for students at home. While the use of online tools for math games or at-home practice has been growing in recent years, the use of these tools, until now, has been largely supplemental. As such, over the past year many teachers and students have had to adapt to using online math-related tools for the first time.
The surge in the adoption of edtech tools and applications became evident this year with the rising popularity of organizations like Khan Academy, which saw usage grow threefold. I’ve also seen this through my own company. Since this time last year, the adoption of our STEM application, EquatIO, has increased by more than 150 percent.
The benefits of edtech for math
The increase in digital tools during COVID-19 has helped illuminate many of the benefits they bring to math instruction and learning for students and teachers.
For teachers, a key benefit of using an online math tool is the ability to generate thousands of math problems using symbols and formulas in just a few short clicks. Online math tools give teachers the ability to customize problems to the appropriate grade level and to teach students how to solve math problems of varying complexity, whether virtually or in person.
These digital tools also make it easy for students to show their progress and often have the capabilities to transfer the student’s work into a Google Document as an example. Through the online math tool and a Google Document, the teacher is able to review the student’s work and give feedback in real-time. Students are able to learn and improve their skills along the way instead of days later. Having a digital copy of a student’s work and providing instant feedback has shown to be a major benefit to using an online math tool in the classroom for students and teachers.
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Digital math tools can also make math more accessible in many ways. Using technology in the classroom can provide new opportunities for students with learning differences or certain accommodation needs. For example, students with visual impairments, who may not have been able to engage with traditional instructional materials, can now have math problems read aloud. Digital math tools can make it much easier for these students to engage in math with considerably fewer barriers.
Lastly, remote learning and the swift adoption of digital tools over the past year have bolstered digital literacy among educators and helped math teachers “future-proof.” While many educators were once not comfortable using digital tools, they’ve now realized the benefits these tools can bring to the classroom. Even more, they’ll continue to use digital math tools to enhance in-person instruction as students return to the classroom.
Even beyond the current pandemic, snow days and other events that disrupt teaching and learning will most likely look different. Now that digital tools enable educators to seamlessly carry on with lessons, teaching can resume whether in the physical brick-and-mortar classroom or in an online environment. This may ultimately limit the effect that sudden learning environment changes could have on student achievement in math.
The future of math education
I believe that as the current school year progresses, and in the years to come, we will see the teaching and practice of math continue to evolve through the use of education technology. Online math tools have changed the game – teachers are able to teach from anywhere, students are able to show their work and receive instant feedback, and teachers and parents are able to work together to track students’ progress. I believe that in the future, thanks to the growing use of digital tools, we’ll see educators, schools, and districts are able to easily transition from one learning environment to another with minimal disruption from outside factors because of these tools.
During Math Awareness Month this year, I am hopeful and inspired by what the future of math education will look like. The pandemic brought to light problem areas that influenced new and evolving ways in which math is taught and learned. I am looking forward to seeing where we are this time next year.
Martin McKay is the founder and CEO of Texthelp, a leading technology company focused on helping all people learn, understand, and communicate through the use of digital education and accessibility tools. Martin has spent his work life developing education technology. His current areas of R&D include learning analytics and the automated assessment of writing and oral reading fluency.