Exploring Inclusive Digital Math with Benetech’s Clayton Lewis

By Benetech, posted on

Clayton Lewis is Professor of Computer Science and Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. He currently serves as an advisor to Benetech’s DIAGRAM Center.

What is inclusive digital math?  

Traditionally, math is a paper and pencil subject. It’s challenging to work through math problems if you can’t see well, have trouble holding a pencil, or struggle to keep your work organized and legible. An inclusive digital math tool can help overcome these challenges by accommodating speech commands, reading your work back to you, or presenting the problems in braille. You can work with a keyboard or any other input device that produces the same signals. Inclusive digital math also makes it simple to create a clean record of your work that’s easy to read and easy to share with other students or a teacher. The key to inclusive digital math is the ability to capture a digital representation of work for all learners.

Why is inclusive digital math important?

It’s estimated that between 25-35% of students in general education classrooms struggle with math application skills. Students who struggle do so for many reasons. Maybe they have a learning barrier such as dyscalculia. Maybe they find it difficult to clearly show their work. As a result, many of these students dislike math, or even worse, assume they are bad at it. This is the status quo that inclusive digital math seeks to disrupt, especially since math serves as a gateway subject for many careers, including the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs of the future.

How does inclusive digital math benefit all students, not just those with learning differences?

Few students find math really easy, and it’s common to feel like math is a tangle of details where any little mistake can lead to a wrong answer. Even something as basic as poor handwriting can lead a teacher to deduct points or lose track of a student’s work. Inclusive digital math allows students to more clearly show and track their work. In turn, educators can see the steps students take to solve a problem, pinpoint where errors occur, and work with students to overcome individual challenges. Benetech strongly believes that any technology adopted in the classroom should benefit all learners. For students with learning barriers, that may mean the ability to interact and solve math problems for the first time. For other students, it may mean an opportunity to show their work more clearly. Everyone benefits from inclusive technology.

A piece of paper with math problems written down; a pencil is on top of the paper

What are some hurdles in creating inclusive digital math?

The math notation we’ve inherited from centuries past is complicated, with lots of exceptions and special rules. For example, you have to know that a + bc means the result of multiplying b and c and then adding that to a; there’s no multiplication sign and there’s no indication that the multiplication has to happen before the addition. Then there’s the way we usually write division, with the numerator above the denominator and separated by a horizontal line. This stuff is not only tricky for people, but it’s also tricky for a computer. Additional challenges arise when converting math notation to Braille since all text has to be on one line. Unfortunately, Braille was not originally built for math, but there are enhancements that help.

What are the opportunities? Are there any recent advances in particular that you are excited about?

A very interesting challenge that we are just starting to tackle is combining drawings and diagrams with written math. Students are encouraged to use diagrams to understand things like word problems. How can we integrate this kind of work into a step-by-step record of work? Can we develop some kind of tactile representation for students who can’t see well? Can we provide a way for students who can’t use a pencil or stylus to make useful diagrams? These are the types of challenges that excite the Benetech team and that we are dedicated to overcoming. Our goal is to make math inclusive for those with reading and learning barriers while at the same time enhancing math learning for all students by making it more interactive, engaging, and organized.

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Read more about Benetech’s work making STEM education inclusive for all students.