“Innovative, useful, inclusive, affordable for users and educative” was how Matti Sinko of UNECA described Dr Math, an award-winning mobile tutoring service and “go-to” resource for primary and secondary students. What has happened to Dr Math since it won a Technology in Government Award at eLearning Africa 2011?
The TIGA Awards are an initiative of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the Government of Finland. They recognise African governments and institutions which are using ICTs effectively in public service delivery in fulfilling UNECA’s African Information Society Initiative (AISI). Last year, the winners in the ‘ICTs in Education’ category were announced at eLearning Africa, bringing Dr Math of South Africa under the spotlight.
Imagine a student struggling to make sense of that all-important maths homework that’s due tomorrow. Equations aren’t balancing, the set formulae make no sense, and there is no one around to offer assistance. This is where a Dr Math account comes in handy. Launched in 2007, it’s a mobile tutoring service where students receive live, on-demand tutoring from qualified teachers, lecturers and university students. The service is hosted on a free mobile application, MXit (short for “Message Exchange It”), and for less than the price of an SMS, students can interact with professionals as they work through their problem areas. Dr Math impressed the TIGA judges who described it as “Innovative, useful, inclusive, affordable for users and educative not only to users but to service providers as well.”
Adele Botha of the Meraka institute of the CSIR in Pretoria was one of the developers and says that the year since the TIGA award has seen Dr Math go from strength to strength as they now have over 32 000 students using the service. In January, Dr Math launched a spinoff project, dubbed Mathlete, another peer tutoring service still in the pilot stage. “As with Dr Math, all of our teachers are volunteers, so while we have plans in the pipeline to grow the two services, we have to maintain quality as we keep up with demand. We’ve got university students on board, tutoring as volunteers in addition to their own studies,” says Botha.
The success of Dr Math is in part due to its accessibility on the free application MXit, another South African innovation. Figures from 2009 indicate that MXit had over 8.6 million registered users and processed around 250 000 messages per day. Despite a bout of bad press about incidents of bullying, predatory behaviour, and all the other downsides characteristic of all social media, the MXit app has grown in popularity amongst youths and adults alike because of its file sharing and instant messaging opportunities. Whilst file transfers are limited to 150 Kb, it uses a GPRS connection to transfer data and can thus be used abroad. Hosting Dr Math on this platform makes for ease of use for the thousands of students, many in under-resourced areas, who need extra tutoring. Dr Math can be used on a computer, but personal computers are a rarity in poor areas, whereas mobile phones are available widely.
Laurie Butgereit who also works on the project explains that Dr Math on MXit isn’t about doing the students’ homework for them. “It’s about using a fun and exciting medium to connect instructors and students in a teaching process that is readily accessible, interactive, and effective.” Botha adds, “Winning the TIGA award was instrumental in enthusing and promoting the Dr Math project.” It’s an example of using ICTs effectively in public service delivery, and thus winning the TIGA award was a proud moment for the team.