/ 11 March 2011

Mastering maths with MXit

Dr Math, first started in 2007 in North West, was recently upgraded at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) through the master’s studies of its inventor Dr Laurie Butgereit, an information technology (IT) programmer at the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) Meraka Institute in Pretoria.

“We wanted to help kids do better at maths,” said Butgereit.

“Instead of running maths camps or writing books, we felt the kids could reach us via MXit — all teenagers have MXit on their phones.”

United States-born Butgereit, who obtained a degree in mathematics at the University of California, came to South Africa in 1978 on a six-month contract for a US computer company. She ended up staying.

She started the CSIR-accredited service at the North West school attended by her own children and expected about 20 to 30 children to respond.

“I thought the kids might think mathematics contaminated their phones, like garlic on a toothbrush.” But this was not the case.

“We were unprepared for the number who responded.”

When the service closed for the Easter holidays, the organisers were inundated with complaints from children in other provinces whose schools were not yet on holiday.

“Within four months — and purely by word of mouth — Dr Math had spread to KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces.”

Today 19 000 children are registered on the server, which last year made use of 30 volunteer tutors — from South Africa, the United States and Europe — for its online tutoring services.

“The tutors — most of whom are mathematics or engineering students — log on to a web interface after 2pm and respond to the pupils’ questions. The pupils guide the conversation. We’re not there to compete with schools. We’re there to help kids when their teachers are not available.” The service is closed during examination periods.

While Dr Math is aimed primarily at high school learners, it assists younger children too.

“Children in grades two and three have contacted us.” The learners, who range from top achievers to those struggling to pass, are anonymous. “We don’t track their progress, but we often get messages saying: ‘Thank you — I got 90%’ or ‘Thanks — I passed with 45%’.”

During last year’s extended mid-year holiday to accommodate the Fifa World Cup, the service was expanded to include physics, chemistry, biology, accounting and IT to ensure that learners kept up to speed with their studies.

As the service grew, scalability (being able to accommodate the growing number of pupils using Dr Math) became an issue — inspiring Butgereit to specialise in scalability for her MTech degree, which she completed last year.

“I completely rewrote the platform. Before I started my master’s studies, it was struggling to cope with 5 000 users — now it’s coping fine with 19 000.”