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Teaching with cell phones

Students in South Africa township learn by calling Dr. Math on their phones.

South Africa students
Students at Ibhongo High School in the heart of South Africa's biggest township, Soweto. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo caption:Students at Ibhongo High School in the heart of South Africa's biggest township, Soweto. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In a country where most classrooms lack computers and only 10 percent of the entire population has internet access, it would seem that South African students are being left behind in the digital age of learning.

But South Africa is instead going a different route. Students are increasingly using their cell phones as a learning tool, seeking math help and improving their reading skills through mobile social networking applications.

Take, for example, Dr. Math, a project that connects students with live math and science tutors using MXit, a wildly popular social networking application for mobile phones.

“We wondered if teenagers would use their own personal cell phones, at their own cost, with their own air time, to get math help,” said project developer Laurie Butgereit of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Meraka Institute.

The project began modestly in January 2007 at one high school in South Africa’s North West Province, where posters were put up advertising Dr. Math. Butgereit says that the developers were going to shut down Dr. Math for the Easter holiday but received complaints from schoolchildren in other provinces. Word had somehow spread from that one high school to other parts of the country.

Since then, more than 10,000 schoolchildren have sought help from Dr. Math, including 2,500 users who are now active. “We don’t do any advertising,” Butgereit said.

“There is a real need for math and science help in South Africa,” she added.

University professors report a precipitous drop in math knowledge among students. According to one study, 93 percent of freshman university students lack the math skills necessary for their first-year mathematics course materials.

Students use MXit on their cell phones to ask math questions to tutors, who are active during certain hours of the day and may be fielding 20 conversations at one time using the Dr. Math software.

“From the kids’ point of view, it is one-on-one communication,” Butgereit said.

The Dr. Math project relies on unpaid volunteer tutors, most of whom are in South Africa but some from overseas, since they can tutor from any internet terminal in the world. There is a code of conduct in place since adult tutors are dealing with minor children, and all conversations are recorded and spot-checked.