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Dr Math: A mobile mathematics tutoring system

MXit is fast becoming a household name to the youth of South Africa. This mobile instant messaging platform provides instant messaging and social networking between users at a minimal cost. The popularity of MXit amongst teenagers led researchers at the CSIR Meraka Institute to develop a mobile tutoring service, Dr Math, which allows users to receive maths tutoring by accessing tutors on their cell phones via the MXit network.

Dr Math provides real-time support and assistance with mathematics homework and revision. The service, likened to a text-based call centre, was initiated in 2007 and has had over 25 000 registered users to date, mainly through word-of-mouth ‘advertising’.

How to use Dr Math
Learners can access Dr Math by registering on MXit and adding Dr Math to their contacts,  and navigating to Tradepost / MXit Cares / Education / Dr Math.

There are additional features available via Dr Math, which can be used by learners when the tutors are not online. This information includes definitions of mathematical terms (such as asymptote and parabola) and the definitions of formulae such as trigonometric identities, geometric calculations of area and perimeters, and logarithmic identities. Games and competitions, which hone mathematics skills, have been included and have proved to be very successful and popular with learners. A scientific calculator has also been made available.

Tutors are people trained to act as Dr Math. They have a strong mathematical background, are required to understand how to use the system and conform to a strict code of conduct. Dr Math tutors are managed similar to call centre agents and are available Sundays to Thursdays between 14:00 and 20:00. There are currently 110 volunteer tutors from around the country – most are engineering students from the University of Pretoria.

Potential tutors can register online at http://c3to.meraka.csir.co.za/c3to. To ensure their ethics clearance, tutors will be emailed a code of conduct that they must sign and return along with a copy of their ID or passport before they will be authorised to ‘chat’ with pupils. The safety and security of minor pupils are most important.

Dr Math was initially developed as a stand-alone service. The CSIR has, however, over the past six months developed a generic set of tools that enables anyone to set up service similar to Dr Math. The toolset is known as ‘C3TO’ (Chat Call Centre Tutor Online), which currently uses the MXit platform as a channel, but can utilise other platforms that support Google Talk.

A service such as Dr Math can thus be made available via most mobile instant messaging platforms (e.g. MTN’s NokNok, Vodacom’s The Grid, Mig33, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Instant Messenger) and also via PCs running a Google Talk-compliant instant messaging client.

Into the future
The CSIR strongly supports the notion that the Dr Math service is an investment in the growth of mathematics skills of learners in South Africa. The CSIR is currently working on licensing Dr Math to an independent organisation that will be able to offer the service nationally and grow the initiative to achieve its maximum impact. The intention is that learners should be able to use the service free of charge or at minimal cost.

More information

Laurie Butgereit

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