I am a software developer based in the New York area currently developing a program that does its best to simulate a private Algebra tutor, something I did to augment my income when I worked as a math teacher years ago.
The software is due to be released in three to six months, but the core capabilities are there and I want to start now to round up possible alpha and beta test sites, so I will be previewing the software in midtown NYC in a couple of weeks. Details below. First, some background:
Math for America (http://www.mathforamerica.org) says: "To teach mathematics effectively, one needs strong knowledge of mathematics, solid pedagogical skills and a disposition well suited for the classroom." I like that because one of my mantras is that good teaching /software/ must be expert at its subject. Few Algebra products include an embedded expert system capable of solving Algebra. Instead they rely on hard-coded solutions to set examples. This prevents them:
* from working with the student's own homework or classwork; * helping with intermediate steps in a solution entered by the student; * and worst of all means they do not recognize and will mark as incorrect answers in mathematically correct but unconventional form, such as 3yx instead of 3xy.
With MfA, I also like to say good educational software must be expert at teaching, giving neither too little help (frustrating) nor too much help (no learning). The design principle of my software is simply to replicate as well as possible the things I did working as a private tutor. The key features of the software are:
1. "Old school" Algebra I content and explication. 2. One-of-a-kind student-friendly WYSYIWYG math editor. No cryptic ASCII encoding such as (x2-1)/(x+1) 3. Enter any problem. Not limited to built-in examples. Use with any textbook. But no cheating. The software will help with but not solve problems entered by the student. 4. Step-by-step assistance as if a private tutor were by the student's side:
* Progressively more helpful hints suggesting the next step in the solution * Solved examples similar to the student's work, randomly generated on the fly. The tutor offers textual annotations and/or visual highlighting to explain and illustrate its work as it proceeds. This is similar to solved examples in a textbook, but the software lets the student control the tutor interactively and have it explain or illustrate specific parts or steps of a larger problem as they see fit. * Incorrect steps (not just the final answer) are flagged immediately and must be corrected before continuing. The flip side is that, when an intermediate step is correct, the student knows so at once, reducing math anxiety. * The software awards points and penalties for each correct step and mistake, providing an incentive for students to wean themselves of automatic checking and hints (which reduce the points earned).
No, it is not a game. Another guiding principle for me is that no one who does not enjoy mathematics for itself should be teaching mathematics. A game format tells students "we know math is boring and painful, so we have sugar-coated it". The best math teacher appreciates and convey the beauty of math to their students. And math is fun, as any successful math student will tell you. Are they oddballs? No. One needs look no farther than the current suduko craze or the popular puzzle page of tabloid dailys to know that people simply enjoy solving things--as long as they can. I believe the learning aids offered by my software -- feedback, hints, solved examples -- will put success within the reach of vastly more students.
Past experience confirms this. I sold a similar product called Algebra I HomeworkTutor back in the 1980's and 90's, under the company name Missing Link Software. Here are some review sound bites (I have the full reviews somewhere if you would like to see those):
* "The best algebra tutorial program I have seen." Macworld, 4/1991 * "For students requesting extra assistance in Algebra, a useful software alternative to the human tutor." Math & Computer Education, Fall, 1990 * "An interactive tool to help a student solve homework or practice problems...unobtrusive monitor correcting errors...several levels of excellent instructional hints." MacGuide, August 1989
With MfA I agree great teachers can always teach Algebra effectively. My software hopes to be at least a good tutor itself, but -- unlike even the best teacher -- always be there to work with students one-on-one, inthe classroom, computer lab, or at home. Perhaps software like mine is another way to make more good teaching available to students?
If you would like to see for yourself, I will be hijacking the November 14 monthly meeting of our NYC Lisp computer programming user group for a live demo of the software, which should be on the market as a commercial product (for Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux) within six months, covering the first half of a conventional Algebra I course. The full Algebra I curriculum should be in place by summer. The focus of my presentation will be on math education, not programming. The software is pretty far along and I want to start the process now of finding folks interested in trying the software out on real students, or at least in trying out the software themselves and offering feedback.
Would you like to come check out what I am doing? We will be meeting Tuesday, November 14th, from 7-9 pm at a place to be determined once I know how much interest there is. If you need more information, just write or call and I will be happy to talk with you about what I am doing. And please feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.
Ken Tilton, MEd, NJ Certified Elementary and HS Math teacher Tilton Technology 2112 Baileys Corner Rd Wall, NJ 07719