Monthly Archives: May 2007

Review: “Computer support for learning mathematics: A learning environment based on recreational learning objects”

In this era of ubiquitous Internet access, cell phones, PDAs and other digital technologies, today’s teachers face a time-honored dilemma: students who won’t think in school and who avoid homework will spend all their free time on something recreational yet mentally challenging, especially Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). If we could only find an activity which motivated the kids to work as hard on learning as they do on playing!

The authors of the paper “Computer support for learning mathematics: A learning environment based on recreational learning objects” may be on to something. They describe an “electronic collaborative learning environment” and report on its power to motivate high-school math students.

The environment Lopez-Morteo and Gilberto López have built is essentially a portal populated by “portlets” (portal elements), their word for open-source objects such as Jabber (chat rooms and instant messaging) and email clients. In addition to these familiar objects, there are math objects called “Interactive Instructors of Recreational Mathematics” (IIRM). These include games, simulations and other applications, designed to encourage student involvement through problem solving.

Students log into the system and can customize the appearance and contents of their environments – exactly as users of MySpace or other social networking sites might. The authors describe a specific math object, a memory game built in Java called “ArithMem.”

Having established a full-featured environment, the authors tested its ability to motivate math students. Groups of students logged onto the system, watched a lesson presented by the teacher, and then used the interactive elements of the system (programs, spreadsheets, animations) freely. Students then filled out a survey about their attitudes toward mathematics.

Although the authors seemed satisfied with the results, I did not see any convincing statistical evidence that the environment served its primary goal: to motivate students to learn math. Rather than overwhelming evidence collected in the survey, the authors provided opinion and a few weak statistics to support this claim, along with anecdotes to back it up. Nevertheless, I would probably use such a system if I had access to a computer lab for a year and a set of classes with which to try it.


1. Lopez-Morteo, G., and López, G. (2004). Computer support for learning mathematics: A learning environment based on recreational learning objects. Computers & Education, 48(4), 618-641.

Report: Online Discussion Participation (Online Learning)

Due to technical difficulties, we jumped at the last minute into the Moodle chat system provided by the Office of Distributed Learning.  I was amazed at how quickly this was accomplished.

We spent a couple minutes finding our way – changing our profiles and avatars – and then followed the directions of [the professor] to begin sharing and discussing our real-world experiences with online learning systems.  This included defining “online learning system” and anecdotes about Blackboard and WebCT, two major players who recently merged.  We briefly touched on some tools for secondary-school teachers.

The conversation drifted into equity and access issues regarding public-school students and the Internet.  This thread also sputtered out quickly.

When [the professor] directed us to discuss Chapter 7 in the Jonassen book, we touched on a few experiences with quest- or task-oriented software.  There was a consensus that you could get kids to do all kinds of diligent problem-solving (the kind of productive activity we want them doing) if you trick them into it through games and other computer opportunities.

I found this discussion surprisingly scattered and superficial.  To some extent, participants made an obvious effort to name the person they were replying to or questioning, but careless interleaving of conversation threads continued as if we hadn’t discussed it during the last meeting.  I get the impression there are typists who watch themselves type and then hit Enter without checking to see if the time is right to actually send the drafted comment.  This was in spite of the instructor’s comment early on that we could draft our comments in Word and then copy/paste them into the chat program. (I’m not commenting on anyone’s technical skills as a typist, just on their decisions when to send their work into the stream of discussion.)

Technology skill: more Flash

I’ve had to modify my plans a bit. I’m working as I can, learning to use various features and components, prioritized for simplicity.

I’m learning a lot about what Flash is made of. I build a Cartesian plane, and a couple dots and a line, and then I wrote some ActionScript to build the dots and the line on startup. I originally built the Cartesian plane from lines in Flash, but I got the impression I was adding a lot of data (stored and loaded each time), so I made a GIF image instead and inserted that in a layer in Flash.

So then I lost the ability to draw the objects. I haven’t figured that out.

In the mean time, I’ve put some controls on the screen, along with some static and dynamic text. I wrote the first chunk of code. Now you can select your X1, X2, Y1 and Y2 values, and the application computes and displays the slope. You can see the Cartesian plane, but no lines or dots.

I don’t think I need all the buttons I originally proposed because I think once I get the line and dots re-drawing and finish the output (slope-dependent line color, equations of lines), I’ll have a nice useable application at a good stopping point.

I’ve exported this version as an SWF file.

This Windows server remains flakey. I’m shopping for a new home.




Technology skill: Flash

Because it can be delivered from any web page (regardless of O/S or web server) to nearly any client (regardless of O/S or browser), and has powerful interactivity and animation features, Macromedia Flash has become ubiquitous on the web.  I have mastered HTML, JavaScript and PHP (as well as several other server-side programming languages) and am comfortable with CSS and Fireworks.  However, I have only dabbled in Flash and have always felt this was a skill missing from my résumé.

As luck would have it, while I have an immediate need (for this class) to develop a rudimentary Flash application using ActionScript, I also find myself at the tail end of an algebra class where my students are still not comfortable with the concept of slope.

I propose to develop an application from demonstrating Flash.  The user will be able to manipulate on-screen elements and see numbers react, or vice versa.  I need to have this complete within the next two weeks in order for my students to make use of it.

The application will have the following features:

  1. Cartesian plane as a work area,
  2. A line, randomly placed on the plane when the application starts, and featuring two points.
  3. Display windows showing coordinates of each point, slope of the line, equation of the line in all three primary forms,
  4. Buttons: New Line, Flip Horizontally, Flip Vertically,
  5. Interactivity (points moveable by user, line moveable by user),
  6. Feedback (color of line changes depending on slope).

This project will require use of the graphical tools (and their object-oriented features) in Flash, as well as ActionScript.  Within the time I have, I expect to complete Features #1-3 and the first button by May 20 (in time to review for our Slope test) with other features added by the end of the quarter.


Report: Online Discussion Participation (Technology Integration)

Early on in our first chat session as a class, we went through some technical details: browsers, windows, clicking.  One user kept getting dropped; he felt this might have been caused by resizing the window.

The first topic discussed in any detail was the students’ success or challenges with the research assignment.  Some students seemed to have worked out the kinks, while others had trouble and asked for specific advice about how to do a better job.

The group mentioned the Cuban book and his research and opinions regarding effective vs. ineffective use of technology.  The group got the impression that Cuban was opposed to school districts investing in technology that was un- or underused.  [The professor] confirmed this, based on her personal experience hearing Cuban speak at a recent conference.

There was a discussion of the users’ experiences with MySpace.  Although teachers recognize it as a powerful resource that holds a lot of fascination for our students, we also know that “media hype” has prejudiced many parents’ opinions.  One anecdote was about an Internet scavenger hunt assigned to a set of 8th graders, and involving the teacher’s own (skeletal) MySpace profile.  Even though parental permission was required to participate, students were told not to log in to MySpace, and an alternate assignment was provided, a small group of parents effectively shut that down through vocal overreaction.

Woven into the discussion of technology integration was discussion of the mechanics of the chat room itself.  We considered letting [the professor] strictly moderate the discussion, but since she never explicitly agreed to that, we went ahead and typed away.  We agreed to providing more context, though, by addressing the speaker whose comments we were responding to.