Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Is the iPad ready for education?

Is the iPad ready to replace the traditional pen and paper in schools?

We at MGL have been testing the iPad as a potential replacement for pen and paper since the release of the first iPad in March, 2010.  It wasn’t ready back then despite some exciting advantages over laptops. 

iPad1 had multi-touch technology and a beautiful screen that made consuming content so much more natural (than a laptop).  Reading or watching content on the iPad was a far more superior experience than the similarly priced (and even high-end) laptops.  The second standout feature was battery life, at 10 hours of normal use.  In contrast, the laptops in 2010 were lucky if the battery lasted 4 hours.  In fact, most of the laptops had a battery life of about 2 hours.  The top laptop’s battery today still lags behind that of the iPad.   Lastly, the thinness and light weight design of the iPad added to the portability and convenience of using the iPad in everyday activities.  iPad2 was even a bigger improvement on this feature.  The weight of a device, which could potentially replace all notebooks and textbooks, is a huge factor.  Despite these advantages, it lacked some fundamental features.  
  1. The iPad lacked file system where students could easily store and transfer files. 
  2. It lacked Microsoft Office or the ones that exist lacked too many features of Office (i.e. word, excel, power point), which are crucial for students. 
  3. More importantly, it didn’t have a suitable App which could replace the pen and paper for students take notes and study.

To put it simply, iPad was terrible when it came to creating content.

However, drastic improvements were made in the in the last two years.
In the same order as above:
  1. Dropbox:  Dropbox is a cloud solution for a file system.  Any files in the iPad can be stored in Dropbox and can easily be accessed through your desktop or laptop.  As long as iPad is connected online, this is an amazing solution to store all of your files.  One caveat: there is a limit of 2 Gig of storage in the free version of the app.  However, this should be plenty for school notes.
  2. Apple Apps: Pages, Numbers, Keynote are now excellent replacements and should be able to do everything the Microsoft office suite should be able to do for students.   There are also, unlike 2010, excellent Bluetooth keyboards like Logitech Ultra-thin keyboards to work just as efficient as you would on a laptop.
  3. Notablity: an excellent note taking/organizing app.  Notability is an app with students in mind.  It allows you to type and hand write (with a stylus or finger).  It further allows you to organize all of your notes by topic in folders.  You can then search your notes by name and date (which is far more efficient than a ring binder notes).  It will take a little bit of time for students to get used to taking the notes on the iPad but once used to it, students shouldn’t need paper or pen/pencil anymore.  There are also other apps that do something similar such as Note Taker HD.  Comparing these apps in detail should be left to a separate post.  But ultimately, I found Notability to be the best designed app of the bunch, especially for students who will need to type as well as hand write.

When I say, “Is the iPad ready schools?”, I’m thinking for subjects like Math, English, History, Social Sciences, Sciences, Business and Accounting.  The iPad is ready to replace pen and paper for these subjects.  There is one exception: computer science.  Programming environment cannot be set up on the iPad.  For computer science (namely, programming), desktops and laptops are the way to go.

We at MGL have been making it mandatory to do all the math programs on the iPad for all of our students for about 3 months and have been testing it on a sample groups for 6 months prior to that.  Most students’ first reaction was intrigue and all students were highly engaged in doing their math on the iPad.  Among the 100 students only two students complained that they would rather go back to paper.  Watching some of the grade 6 to 8 students and how good they interacted with the iPad, I can’t imagine them using pen and paper by the time they get to University over an iPad. 

To implement the iPad in schools will still require someone who is very knowledgeable about the iPad, Apple eco-system and the apps I mentioned above.  Despite significant improvements made on the iPad in terms of ease of usability, the teacher still needs to understand the way students can potentially abuse the iPad in the classroom. 

Many parents and students also asked me “Does it have to be an iPad”?  The answer for now is yes, only the iPad will work for this purpose.  This is primarily because of the lack of good apps on Android tablets for taking notes.  I think this will quickly change as tablets like Microsoft Surface as well as the interesting Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 comes on the market.  When I do get my hands on these two tablets, I will put another post which describes whether these can match or better the iPad in terms of being used for academic purposes.   In the long run, educational content (i.e. electronic textbooks and educational material) and which ecosystem they become more prevalent will dictate which tablet is the number one choice for students and teachers.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Small Intro of MGL

Since this blog will mostly be about my work at MGL, allow me to give a small introduction of MGL.

MGL was officially found in May of 2005.   It was found during the boom of Hakwons(Korean word for after-school academies) in Toronto.  I use the word Hakwon here because it is different from what most Canadians expect from an after-school program for math.   Canadians think "tutoring" when they think about extra help: a one-on-one set up between a teacher and a student.   Hakwons in Korea are class/group based where a teacher delivers a pre-determined curriculum.   The student selects a particular program that is suitable for them.  MGL was a Hakwon in this sense.  Our aim was to have our own program that sufficiently helped students to better prepare for university in math and sciences than the programs in school.

MGL started with a group of my friends at University of Toronto, Trinity college.  Math was taught by myself (Hon. Bsc. in Computer Science and Math), physics was taught by Joseph Mocanu (Hon. Bsc. in Molecular Bio and he went on to receive his M.B.A from Richard Ivy and Ph.D. in Mol. Bio. at U of T), chemistry was taught by Peter Yoo (currently a Pharmacist), biology was taught by Dennis Kim (M. Sc. in Genetics) and english was taught by Monica Lee (then a recent graduate from Law School from Western University).  All of us had a passion in education and were very serious about teaching.   We started with the intention of providing the best possible classes to prepare students properly for math/science related programs in university.

However, there was a problem.  MGL didn't have an exit strategy.  We were all committed for about 2 to 3 years but one by one, my co-workers/co-founders decided to leave.  For most of my co-workers, MGL wasn't going to be their career.  We hired new teachers but finding teachers as passionate and serious as the founders, I learned, was impossible.  Inevitably, the quality of the classes that were not taught by myself started to fluctuate, a lot.  I realized then, I needed to build a "system" that was much less reliant on the quality of the teachers.

Essentially after the first two years of MGL, I started looking for ways to build a system.   It was a difficult task.  I also realized, because my specialty was in mathematics, I had to first focus on building a system for mathematics before even attempting to build a system for all of the other subjects we provided at the time. As a result, in 2008, MGL stopped providing all courses except for mathematics.

It was a difficult time for MGL financially, but it was a fun time for me.  I was free to be creative and try to come up with new ideas for a "system" for teaching mathematics.  I was particularly interested in using teaching videos and online tools to deliver videos that complemented the in-classroom experience.  About a year after I started making lecture videos at MGL, I discovered Khan Academy, which was gaining huge support in the U.S..  Seeing similar developments in the U.S. was a welcome confirmation to me that I was headed in the right direction.

Fast forward to summer 2012.  MGL launched the first program that relied heavily on the system we built.  The system consisted of:

  • Over 600+ pre-made work sheet modules for every level from grade 7 to Univ. Calculus
  • Modules were organized in a way for students to work through them in at a steady but challenging pace  
  • Each work sheet covers typically one to two major concepts
  • Approximately 30 modules per grade level
  • Each work sheet module consists of pre-recorded video lectures that were recorded live from previous years
  • Each problem in the work sheet has a corresponding video solution which replicates homework take-up in the classroom
  • All the content above is wrapped in an online cloud system through our site where we manage student accounts allowing an easy way to assign relative content to the students

This summer was the first time where MGL did not depend on myself teaching the math classes.   In fact, I did not teach a single class of any kind.  Students used our system to self-study with assistance from our teachers.

Teachers assisted students in two different ways.   The first involved students approaching the teacher when they had a question.  We also had a management system which stored each student's daily work done in the classroom.   The cloud* based system allowed instant access of a student's work to both the student and the teacher.  The teachers marked and managed student's work daily. The second way the teachers assisted students was to approach the students when they noticed any difficulties the students were having during the marking process.

*For those who are not familiar with the term "cloud", cloud is used to describe a storage system (hard drive) that is outside of a user's computer.  The storage is typically set up in a powerful computer with larger bandwidth capacity that allow many users to access it anytime through the internet.

The overall system described above is called PrepAnywhere.  Using PrepAnywhere we were able to run a program where no student got lost and every student went at their own pace with the support that they needed.  It was an amazing summer with record breaking student enrolment and positive feedback.  It was so successful, in fact, that MGL is only focusing on the PrepAnywhere classes in the fall term.

The system is not perfect but neither was the older traditional classroom setting.  I feel that with this new system, we are able to zone into each individual student's needs in a group setting.   I also discovered that students love doing math when they are engaged.  Students have a hard time being engaged in mathematics when they get stuck.  Being stuck causes frustration, which is something that happens a lot when working alone at home for many.   Not only did our students have PrepAnywhere and teacher assistance but also peer support.  Having other students that are engaged produces an environment that was conducive to focusing.  Each session was 2.5 hours in length but many students told me that time flies by and 2.5 hours seem short!

Wow, my short introduction ended up a little longer than I expected.  Let me try to wrap up here and tell you that there are many things about this new system that we are continuing to refine and innovate.  I think we are on track to provide an excellent program that can compete with one-to-one tutoring by a very good tutor at a fraction of the price.

First Post

I have been meaning to start a blog based on my work at MGL for a while.  Many entrepreneurs will find that they spend so much time doing the work and have little time left over for things like blogs.  I'm so focused on giving the students the best possible tools and attention to succeed that I sometime forget the importance communicating with the parents.

I hope to clarify and leave a means of open communication to the parents and others in general that are interested in education in Mathematics.  My focus in is in

  1. Methodology and philosophy to foster good Mathematics education.
  2. Innovating with technology to come up with a genuine method which will benefit, first of the students, and second of all the parents.

I experiment with a lot of technology in hopes to come up with interesting ways to integrate them into education.   I do this not because I have to but because I really enjoy playing new and smart technology!  Time to time, I would also like to blog about these technology that currently I am excited about, despite the fact that I have yet to find a good way to integrate them into classrooms at MGL.