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.

References

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.

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