UN award for SA’s Dr Math mobile tool

9 June 2011

Dr Math, a mobile-based mathematics tutoring programme developed by South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, has received a Technology in Government in Africa award from the United Nations.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), in collaboration with the government of Finland, selected Dr Math as a winner in the category “ICT in Education”. The award was made in in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on 27 May.

Through Dr Math, developed by researcher Laurie Butgereit from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) Meraka Institute, learners have access to a group of registered tutors who are online on computers to receive their requests for help via MXit, a popular mobile chat service.

“Learners put through requests using MXit and receive responses via MXit. A flow management system ensures that requests are distributed to tutors who are available to help. The emphasis is on imparting skills rather than supplying answers,” Butgereit said in a statement last week.

Rewarding commitment to e-government

The biannual Technology in Government in Africa (TIGA) awards celebrate African governments’ commitment to e-government to ensure digital interactions with citizens or between government agencies.

Comments by the TIGA judges attest to the quality of the Dr Math nomination: “I loved the idea of boosting sciences in general and math in particular, especially for under privileged youngsters,” said Anne Rachel Inne, regional liaison for Africa, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

“It should be positioned to strategically work effectively for the region because math is key to future success.”

Matti Sinko, a technical adviser at the ECA’s ICT, Science and Technology Division, said Mr Math was “innovative, useful, inclusive, affordable for users … and educative not only to users but to service providers as well”.

Sharing best practice with collaborators

Dr Math is part of the HP Catalyst consortium, thereby ensuring that the CSIR shares best practice and learning with national and international collaborators.

Funding from the Department of Science and Technology, and collaboration and support from the Department of Basic Education and MXit, has been instrumental to the ongoing success of Dr Math.

Dr Math tutors are drawn primarily from the University of Pretoria. Since 2006, students from the Faculty of Engineering, the Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT) at the University of Pretoria, have been doing Dr Math in fulfilment of a compulsory community-based Project.

On a yearly basis, more than 30 students sign up for this project. Their feedback is always very positive, for example: “it was an awesome experience, but requires nerves of steel and a lot of compassion”, and “it was nice to see school students willing to spend time at home and on weekends to finish their work”.

Providing valuable teaching experience

Tutors also come from the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a centre for education and research in Cape Town.

“AIMS is proud to be associated with Dr Math through the participation of some of our current postgraduate diploma students who volunteered their time to answer pupils’ questions,” said the institute’s Dr Barrie Barnard. “This opportunity provided them with valuable teaching experience as well as introducing them to an innovative use of technology for educational purposes.”

Interactions with learners using Dr Math are defined by a code of conduct, and tutors also sign an informed consent before they receive a manual to assist them in carrying out their duties.

Questions received from learners range from finding explanations for basic definitions to calls for help on how to solve problems. “We encourage tutors to teach methods, rather than supplying the answer,” said Butgereit.

Students can subscribe to Dr Math by sending a MXit contact request to 079 992 3962. If they use Google Talk or any open source Jabber server, the contact details are dr.math.rsa@gmail.com.

SAinfo reporter

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