How to Select Effective Digital Math Tools

Whether schools have been implementing virtual learning, selecting supports for the in-person classroom, or a hybrid of the two, digital tool choices have never been more available and more necessary. Many of the tools and techniques that math teachers have come to rely on will continue to be must-haves long after the pandemic is over.

When these teachers turn to education technology on their own, it’s frequently to support a classroom routine or the teaching of a specific topic. (Examples include Didax, which offers free virtual manipulatives that help students visualize relationships, such as parts of a whole with fractions, and Desmos for dynamic graphing to observe transformations of functions in algebra.)

As math teachers look around the corner at what’s next, several key points need to be considered when it comes to selecting and using digital tools.

Selection Criteria

Value: Clearly define the purpose of the digital tool in particular contexts. Will it be used to introduce and spark curiosity, teach new material, reinforce, go deeper, cover a gap, or assess learning? Does the tool offer the best approach to address the need—and is it necessary? For example, do you really need a graphing calculator for a simple arithmetic problem?

Ease of use: What’s the learning curve? Is it easy to use (for both you and your students, if they use it too), and is it reliable? If it takes longer to log on, or if the site crashes from too many users, is it worth the time (or financial) investment? Teachers and students need tools that enhance teaching and make a task easier, not more difficult, complex, and frustrating.

Serving learning goals: If you have a choice of tools, does this tool align with your curriculum? No matter how good it is, if it is on a different trajectory or covers different topics, it may detract from what students should master in that time frame. For example, Cuisenaire rods are colorful manipulatives used in teaching fractions. However, if they are not part of your curriculum, using a virtual version of them might be confusing for students and add more trouble than value.

Equity: The digital divide is real, and teaching and learning experiences during the pandemic exposed deep inequities among students and the resources they have available at home. If you introduce digital tools, particularly if they require students to access them from home as well as in the classroom, make sure all your students have equal access to them.

Quality: Tools vary greatly in terms of quality. If you have options, consider these additional questions:

  • Is the tool developmentally appropriate? Sometimes the content works, but the delivery mechanism doesn’t. (Imagine, for example, a math assignment that requires a young child to manipulate scissors before they have the dexterity to do so.)
  • Does it provide meaningful tasks as opposed to setting students up to do tedious busywork?
  • Does it help personalize learning and allow students to work through problems?
  • Are the answers and feedback tailored to the student’s responses and not prepublished for students to access prior to trying to solve the problem on their own—similar to an answer key in the back of a textbook?
  • Who are the presenters and writers?
  • If there is a video or online session, are qualified teachers, using high-quality instructional materials, connecting with you and your students?
  • Is the tool and/or its site secure, without pop-ups and redirecting links?

Balance of Instruction

Technology should support educators, not take their place. As powerful and engaging as the digital presence is, teachers and students remain the heart and soul of the classroom. Sometimes direct or guided instruction, an exploratory project, or another method is the best strategy. A teacher is uniquely qualified to understand the nuances of an expression, uncover an underlying misunderstanding in a discussion, or find an entry point to a lesson for a student.

Introducing and assimilating a new classroom tool is not easy, so achieving that balance can sometimes be more challenging than you’d expect. For example, the introduction of an online graphing calculator can sometimes be rocky in the classroom; at least some of that rockiness can be headed off, however, if the teacher learns how to use the tool, anticipating operational difficulties that students will encounter, and then carefully incorporates it into coursework. That approach lays the foundation for explaining concepts well and also saves precious classroom time.

The generation of students currently in school has grown up with technology. It touches every aspect of their lives—entertainment, communication, and learning. Digital learning has an important and critical role to play in education. It is our responsibility as educators to curate digital tools and integrate them effectively.