Helping learners with mathematic problems through mobile chat applications

Dr Math is a mobile tutoring service that allows learners to use mobile instant messaging services on their cell phones to access tutors who provide real-time support and assistance with mathematics homework and revision.

Albert Einstein once quipped, “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you, mine are still greater.” His were reassuring words, and of course loaded with irony to remind us that ‘generally’ we all have ‘relative’ difficulty with mathematics.

Many school learners in South Africa struggle with the subject, but cannot afford the services of private tutors when teachers are unavailable after hours. The CSIR has responded to this challenge by creating an online tutoring service called Dr Math. Dr Math helps primary and secondary school learners with their mathematics homework. The pupils use chat platforms on their mobile phones and send messages to the tutors about their mathematics homework.

The service is only offered after school hours, and complements what learners are taught at school. Learners log in after school and send their questions using a mobile chat platform like MXit. Volunteer tutors, most of whom are from the faculties of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology at the University of Pretoria, then help the learners figure out the answers to their own questions. Since its launch in 2007, the service has helped approximately 70 000 individual learners. In 2014, a new platform was designed, which extends the service to a mobile app and improves user experience.

Dr Who?

Dr Math started as a research project. Researchers wanted to better understand some of the common mathematics problems that learners face in class, as well as understand mobile chat language for linguistic purposes.

Conversations with tutors and learners are recorded. Dr Math is the name given to all volunteer tutors. Thus, tutors do not divulge personal information. Tutors simply identify themselves as Dr Math when interacting with learners.

When a tutor signs up as a Dr Math volunteer, they specify the highest grade level that they wish to tutor. This ensures that they answer questions that they are qualified and equipped to answer. Dr Math connects students and learners in a teaching process that is readily accessible, interactive and effective.

The CSIR is looking into licensing Dr Math to an independent organisation that will be able to offer the service nationally and grow the initiative to achieve its maximum impact. In addition, opportunities are created for other organisations and institutions to recreate similar services. The intention is that learners should be able to use the service free of charge or at minimal cost.


Dr Adele Botha



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