Cellphonometry: Can Kids Really Learn Math From Smartphones?

Schools are partnering with mobile-phone companies to help kids conquer math. Are smartphone-learning initiatives more than a corporate gimmick?

In middle school, math was Taylor Scott’s worst subject by far. “I honestly hated it,” says Scott, now a 15-year-old sophomore at Southwest High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina. She’d take notes as the teacher droned on, but she never really wrestled to understand the concepts until she was home alone with her textbook — and sometimes not even then. Most of the time, her math grades hovered in the B to C range.


So when Scott learned last year that she and her classmates would be participating in Project K-Nect, a Qualcomm-funded initiative to distribute cell phones for math instruction, she was all for it. Why not? It wasn’t as if math class could get any worse, and new toys are always fun to play with.

As the year got under way, Scott realized she’d be using her school-issued smartphone — equipped with a touch screen, digital video recorder, and instant-messaging application — for more than just solving homework problems with a stylus. She and her classmates had gotten used to passively absorbing teachers’ lectures, but the new data-driven curriculum demanded intense participation. “We’d tape up big poster boards, write out how we got the solution to a particular problem, then video ourselves talking about it with the phone.” After that, students posted their videos online to aid others who might be vexed by similar problems. In the end, Scott says, “we actually ended up teaching our classmates.”

Scott and her peers are at the vanguard of a corporation-driven education craze: redefining cell phones — usually the bane of teachers’ existence — as 21st-century teaching tools. Southwest High, located in the lake country surrounding a major Marine Corps base, is just one of several smartphone epicenters that have sprung up. Project K-Nect also serves five other North Carolina high schools. Verizon Wireless has partnered with educators in Texas to implement a smartphone-driven math curriculum for fifth graders at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in the town of Keller. And expect to see cell phones in action in math classrooms all across America soon: The 2009 Horizon Report, compiled by the New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative, cites mobile devices as an educational “technology to watch” and predicts they will be adopted in many schools within the next year.

Project K-Nect began in the curious mind of Shawn Gross, the Managing Director at the education-technology firm Digital Millennial Consulting. Several years ago, he was working on a Department of Education — sponsored survey of students and noticed a pattern. “We conducted a series of focus groups — high income, low income, middle,” he says. “The one common element was that the students indicated that they wanted to be connected. They wanted to take advantage of a mobile device like a cell phone that would give them a support network. We offered them a laptop, a PlayStation — but they wanted a phone.”

One of the survey’s goals was to gather information that would help teachers engage students in math, the subject they typically tend to balk at — and struggle with — most. According to 2007 Department of Education statistics, only 31% of eighth graders score at or above “proficient” level on standardized math tests. In some school districts, high-school-algebra failure rates approach 50%.

Gross resolved to use the mobile platform to try to nudge these dismal numbers in the right direction. In 2007, he secured funding from Qualcomm. Then, along with planners at Drexel University, Florida State University, and a Boston-based tech consultancy called Choice Solutions, he set about developing math curricula tailored for mobile phones. The Project K-Nect pilot launched in 2008 at schools where a high percentage of students receive free and reduced-price lunches — including Southwest High, Taylor Scott’s school. The kids took to it instantly, churning out a storm of interactive content. “We had 75 videos generated in the first week about solving linear equations,” Gross says. “The students started forming communities, working together, and highlighting where they were running into problems.”


What stood out to Suzette Kliewer, a Southwest High math teacher, was how the curriculum engages reluctant learners. In one lesson called “Catch the Robber,” for instance, students must identify the culprit in a fictional heist by using linear equations to determine suspects’ heights from the size of their shoe prints. Southwest students used their phones to film themselves explaining the rationale they used to nail down the guilty party, then posted their videos — which Scott deemed “hilarious.”

“The kids are able to explain the material, and when they can do that, that’s when they really get it,” Kliewer says. “Sometimes it doesn’t click when I do it.” And opportunities for reinforcement are ever present. Students can take the phones home with them, so they’re able to ask Kliewer or their classmates questions about math concepts virtually 24/7. “The connectivity has been the critical element,” says Gross. “The device allows them to continue to use instructional resources when they’re on the school bus or waiting for a parent at work. If they have a specific question, they always have access to an expert, whether it’s a student peer or a tutor.”

Given that students already spend enough time texting under their desks — and teachers spend enough time reprimanding them for it — it’s fair to ask whether new pocket-size doodads create even more distraction. “Cell phones are a social tool — they haven’t been put in the category of educational tool before,” says Heidi Glidden, an assistant director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers. Figuring out whether and how it makes sense to use phones in the classroom, she adds, “is going to be a learning process, and it’s going to be a little muddy at times.”

Technology can help solve some of the problems it creates. For instance, software called MobiControl enables teachers to view all messaging on the phones, which has mostly eliminated temptations like going off topic or copying other kids’ answers.

Some naysayers are being won over by data: In last year’s pilot, students in the Project K-Nect group scored higher on state Algebra I proficiency tests than their nonconnected counterparts did. At Southwest High, every student in one Project K-Nect class notched a 100% proficiency rating in algebra; students in a non-Project K-Nect class with the same teacher averaged 70% proficiency.

Such programs aren’t obvious cash cows — Qualcomm subsidizes the handsets used in Project K-Nect schools, and Verizon and HTC donated phones and service to Texas’s Trinity Meadows. But the companies’ partnerships with schools are rich in intangible benefits: Not only do kids begin to identify with the sponsoring wireless companies, but they also provide valuable feedback about the smartphones’ strengths and limitations.


“K-Nect is what we call a ‘sandbox project,’ ” says Marie Bjerede, Qualcomm’s vice president of wireless-education technologies. “We let the students and teachers show us what using this technology means for them and their learning. What do they think makes it hard to use these devices? What are the barriers?” She says the company may launch further research into curricula for mobile devices and graduate-level tech training for teachers. (Technical difficulties proved an occasional distraction during the North Carolina pilot.)

Scott hopes Qualcomm can fix some of the hardware glitches, but otherwise, she thinks the program is more than adequate. For her, the proof really is in the numbers. “My grades have improved so much,” she says. “I got a 98 on my geometry final.” This school year, she’s tackling precalculus, smartphone in hand, and — miracle of miracles — she actually looks forward to math class.

Correction: In the original version of the article, Shawn Gross’s title was inaccurate.


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.