Saturday, 11 October 2014

Effective E-Learning in Maths – connecting and collaborating

Blended Learning & PD categories

by Stephen McConnachie, Middleton Grange School

What does effective e-learning look like in Maths?

I’ve been wrestling with this question for a few years now. Most of the e-learning that I see is in Maths involves self-marking quizzes with closed questions – sure, that has its place, but if we never move beyond that then it’s just a digital version of textbooks and worksheets. If our classroom practice has moved on to collaborative activities encouraging critical thinking, why are we still settling for digital activities that sit right back on the “drilling skills” end of the spectrum?

I figured that I wasn’t the only one grappling with this, so got talking to a few people and started the NZ Maths & Statistics ICT Community. The group picked up particularly after the NZAMT Conference in 2013 where several workshops focused on e-learning in Maths and people started to connect.

A project I’ve been working on lately is to design activities that build higher-order thinking using web applets. I recently ran a brief action research project with a class of Year 9 students at Middleton Grange School using a very simple tool – an Excel spreadsheet designed to check if a given 3x3 square is a “magic square” or not – and gave them some investigative questions to guide their group-work. It was a huge success, and I’ll be using it as a model for a series of activities that will be shared in the NZ Maths & Statistics ICT Community.

Screenshot of the Excel tool. Only the 9 cells in the grey box were editable by students.

If you’re interested in the research behind why I chose that model, I’ll be writing it up in a bit more detail on my blog in the next couple of months. The short version is that using open-ended “exploratory” online tools as part of an investigation has been shown to improve students’ conceptual understanding – that is, the higher levels of thinking, rather than the lower levels of procedural understanding that come from drilling skills. I certainly found that to be true in my trial.

I’m discovering that while drilling skills has its place, the way forward with effective e-learning – the way to critical thinking – involves collaborative, creative activities where students can explore concepts and “get their teeth into it”. I’m still working out exactly how to implement that, but I’d love for you and your Maths colleagues to join in our journey.

Stephen McConnachie is the e-Learning Coordinator and a Mathematics teacher at Middleton Grange School. You can connect with him on Twitter: @s_mcconnachie


  1. Thanks for this post, Stephen. I agree completely that we need to push right on past the Substitution part of SAMR. There are so many great digital tools for enhancing maths understandings but sometimes I find it hard to track them down- but I know they're out there! One thing I know for sure is that is an amazing resource and I couldn't teach without it.
    I've been using our LMS a lot more for personalising the learning- Ss do initial assessment to find their learning pathways and design their own course based on their own needs. What I really struggle to find is digital tools that are rich and inquiry based- Do you know where I might find resources like that?
    Thanks for sharing your reflections with us.

  2. Great post Stephen. I was interested in the Maths on Moodle work as sometimes teachers feel Moodle and eLearning don't work well in Maths. Very useful resources on your Maths and ICT Community page as well. Thank you for sharing.