Last September we wrote about a fascinating project that, if successful, may ring in the future of digital curricula for K-12 education. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a major publisher of textbooks with an abiding interest in technology, embarked upon a large scale pilot project in digital education.
As soon as their new Holt McDougal Algebra 1 textbook was finished, it was decided to re-imagine it as an iPad app named HMH Fuse Algebra 1. The app would include exactly the same content as the 950-page book, but it would also contain over 400 videos, animations, a graphing calculator, multiple presentation methods and numerous other features. John Sipe, the general sales manager of HMH, blueprinted what he wanted the app to be and worked with developers to bring it to fruition.
The free app, which weighs in at 141 MB, only gives you a taste of how it all works, but it doesn’t include any course content. Seeing that requires a US$59.95 in-app purchase. Loading all the content takes up a whopping 4-6 GB of space, but chapters and videos can be downloaded, erased and reloaded at any time.
HMH took this quite seriously and poured some major money into a full-year pilot project; four California school districts were chosen, and teachers were asked to volunteer to teach a number of classes using the textbook and other classes using the app for the entire school year. HMH wanted to measure if students tested better using the app over the textbook and explore attitudinal changes in both teachers and students. All classrooms using the app needed to be Wi-Fi enabled. There was no intention of replacing teachers or turning them into mere facilitators in the HMH Fuse classes. Sipe and HMH wanted to see if delivery methods affected learning, and if so, how?
The Pilot Project
HMH bought and donated 400 64 GB Wi-Fi+3G iPads to schools in the Long Beach, Riverside, Fresno and San Francisco unified school districts. Eighth grade students in the test classes were loaned the iPads. Another 600 students took classes using only the textbooks. The same teachers taught both the test and control classes.
There was no possibility of front-loading classes with the better students getting the iPads since HMH had no control over which classes would be using the textbook or the app. The makeup of classes were determined as they always had been — through standard class rosters provided by the school districts. The teachers who volunteered to take part knew that this would be more work than usual, and the technical capabilities of these teachers varied widely — most of them had never touched an iPad. One day of iPad training was provided by HMH; some teachers had as little as three hours of instruction, and then HMH went away. The only contact HMH had with the schools and teachers was to provide technical assistance. Assistance was also available from representatives in the Apple educational division.
Empirical Education, a large testing company, was employed to conduct the study; it started in September of last year and will finish at the end of the school year this June when data will be compiled and presented to HMH. The major intentions were to see how the impact of multimedia and multiple presentation methods affected student perception, achievement and usage trends.
Outside of test scores, Empirical collected information on topics such as how many times students watched a video or took a quiz. Teachers were asked to periodically complete qualitative surveys on their reactions to the app, with questions ranging from how using the app affected their teaching to their impressions of student reactions. The main thrust, however, was on the students who comprise the target market.
The study began with all 1000 students using the textbook for one month since the HMH Fuse Algebra app wasn’t completed until early October. All the content, including multimedia components, was available to the textbook classes on a site provided by HMH, and textbook class teachers were allowed to use all of these assets by projecting them to their classes as often as they liked. Just as students get to take home their textbooks for homework, the iPads were taken home every night by members of the HMH Fuse classes. It was left up to the teacher whether to lock down the iPads and only allow use of HMH Fuse, or to open them up to be general-purpose devices.
After tracking site usage and finding that students weren’t visiting anywhere inappropriate, most teachers left the iPads open, and students were encouraged to download apps and music for their personal use. This was often decided after discussions took place with teachers, parents and students. A component of the study was a student’s sense of ownership of the iPad.
Each iPad contained a unique identifier that was mapped to an individual student. When a test or quiz was taken, the results were immediately transferred to a teacher reporting site that provided not only the grades for a quiz or test, but also how the students fared on each relevant skill set in the assessment. In addition to assisting the teachers, this data was also harvested for the pilot study.
How One Teacher Conducted Her Classes
I interviewed Jeannetta Mitchell, a math teacher at the Presidio Middle School in San Francisco, who is currently teaching three textbook classes and one HMH Fuse class. She seemed quite impressed with the app and the effect it had on her students.
She was always interested in technology, but she didn’t own an iPad or know much about them. Since a number of her students were quite familiar with varying technologies, the students and teacher learned together. “They all became teachers on how to use it.” If there was a problem she could contact HMH or Apple, who were both quite responsive. HMH provided technical support but didn’t assist regarding the course content since doing so would muddy the findings. Although everyone in class had their own iPad, she decided to put students in groups of two. If one person couldn’t figure something out, the other usually could. It seemed to work very well.
It was important to the study that the pacing of the course be the same for all classes, so each class session, whether textbook or iPad, concentrated on the same course content. No one was allowed to get ahead. The “neat” factor and novelty of using iPads quickly wore off. By the second grading period it was gone. Surprisingly, there was no backlash from students in the textbook classes over not getting iPads. The videos embedded in the app were shown twice a week to the textbook classes using the HMH support site. Videos in her iPad class were only projected once a week, but students had instant access to watching them as many times as they liked while the textbook students could review them from home using the support site. Everyone in her textbook classes had computers at home, but no computers were used in school during class time.
Teacher Reactions to the HMH Fuse Class
Mitchell really liked having a graphing calculator built into the app that was always available. It was an advantage that “students don’t have to buy a graphing calculator.” Although one was available from the support site for textbook class homework, that was far less convenient and precluded students that hadn’t bought a calculator from following along to immediately see how changing a variable would affect the slope of a curve.
Often in her classes she would have students try out a problem, and then she’d ask for a show of hands of how many got it right or wrong. Eighth-grade students don’t like to be singled out, so the number of hands that went up never matched reality. The HMH Fuse app contains a built-in polling function that she called a “teacher clicker.” In the iPad class, when asked about their success on a problem, students could anonymously tap a button which recorded instant results that she could see and have projected. The anonymity of this system caused the students to answer honestly. Using the immediate information provided, it was made apparent what was well learned and what had to be re-taught. This was a great time saver.
HMH Fuse uses multiple presentation methods. When a video plays, the text being spoken appears below it. Under that is a window that shows bullet points of the main concepts. To the right is a larger section titled “Lesson Tutorials” where the problem under discussion is visually worked out step-by-step. Below that is another display that defines the meaning of words used in the example.
Since it’s been widely proven that some people learn better through sound, some through visuals and others through reading, this multiple methods approach was quite helpful in having students understand concepts quicker than just using going through the problem on the board at the front of the class. To support this, there is a “Notes” function, available anywhere in the app, where a student can record the teacher’s voice, write some information, and save a marker to the note in just the right place for later retrieval. This proved to be a great help and made the app more personal for each student.
“View in Motion,” which displays a step-by-step method of problem solving, was also quite useful.
This option starts with a problem, and a downward swipe on the right goes through the solution one step at a time. Swiping upward takes you back a step. This programmed approach was a major advantage of HMH Fuse. Being able to pause a problem in progress was quite effective, as was the ability to try out a problem and get the answer on the same screen without needing to flip to the back of the book to find the answer. According to Mitchell, HMH Fuse is “much more student- and teacher-friendly” than using the textbook.
Mitchell found that the students in the iPad class were more motivated than those in the other classes. She thought that this might have been due to the difference in student perception of being a few chapters into the book and realizing that another 800 pages need to be completed, while the iPad class only saw what was relevant and didn’t know that there was another ton of content to finish.
The iPad students didn’t give up as frequently and wound up being more focused on the task at hand both in class and in their homework. Not seeing how little they had accomplished near the start of the year was quite motivating to students in the test class. According to Mitchell, the iPad class students were far less intimidated by the content, and “they do better because they think they can do this.” This attitudinal change wasn’t apparent in the textbook classes. Students in those classes showed no change in attitude or motivation and just demonstrated a continuation of previous behavior. Mitchell found that one of the things the iPad won’t do is to provide motivation by itself. “It does affect them most of the time, but it’s not a magic wand.”
Although the pilot won’t be finished until the end of the school year in June, and the results won’t be made known to HMH until a few weeks later, some results were leaked to The Press-Enterprise, a Southern California newspaper. At the Amelia Earhart Middle School in the Riverside California district, two teachers have been using the HMH Fuse app to teach two classes. In a recent district wide test, the students in the iPad courses demonstrated a proficiency rate of 90.5 percent while the students in textbook classes scored only 60 percent. Although not conclusive, this is good news for HMH.
The Future of Mobile Curriculum Design
If this test proves successful, HMH Fuse will be become a brand for all Houghton Mifflin Harcourt mobile curricula. The second project, HMH Fuse Geometry, is already in the App Store. It contains the first chapter of content. Not including content in the Algebra app was a mistake, according to HMH’s John Sipe. The road map includes an Algebra 2 app due to be released in late spring to allow institutional purchasing for the following school year.
The intention is to expand out of math and cover other subjects. Currently HMH has a partnership with The History Channel that can provide a wealth of assets for tackling a history curriculum. The apps will be sold to both school districts and parents of students who are home schooled, which is an increasing market. Of course, individual in-app purchases won’t contain the communication and data collection capabilities of the apps in schools. The pricing will be set to be attractive to all concerned. For example, the Algebra 1 paper book used in the pilot project sells for $74, while the in app purchase of the book costs $59.95. School districts will get a 30 percent discount for volume buys.
The initial results are anecdotal at best, but it looks good, and since the HMH Fuse Algebra 1 app is the first complete curriculum developed for the K-12 market with everything else to date being geared toward higher education, HMH Fuse may well be the face of in-school mobile curricula. According to Sipe, the iPad is currently the perfect delivery vehicle.
The following video shows the introduction of the pilot project to students at the Amelia Earhart Middle School. It’s quite long, but if you jump about nine minutes in, you’ll see Dr. Edward Burger, one of the authors of the textbook and app, introducing and demonstrating HMH Fuse Algebra 1.