In the millions of messages that flit through the ether on Mxit every day, a call for help breaks through, thumbed in a rat-tat-tat of half-formed words and digits adrift at sea.
"Okay," runs the message from a scholar we will call Pupil, "a certain numba is increasd by 7, it will be equal 2 13 decreasd by dat numba, wat is the numba? so my equation is x + 7 = 13 – x wher did i go wrong?"
In seconds, on the other side of the equation, the SOS is reeled in, decrypted and held up to the light by a contact of the most calculating variety: Dr Math.
"Hmmm," types the doc, sitting at a distant computer terminal. "Let me c."
Dr Math: It's correct, now take the -x to the other side
Pupil: Ohkay so it become x + x = 13 – 7? Ryt?
Dr Math: Yip
Pupil: 2x = 6
Dr Math: Therefore x = …
Pupil: Oh … Thanx x = 3 lol yeah thanx
Dr Math: 🙂
Sealed with a smiley, the consultation reaches a crescendo in a blaze of revelation as Dr Math chalks up another victory for basic numeracy and the joys of mobile learning.
Except here there is no chalk. Just fingers touching keys and minds meeting minds across the neural pathways of a system that owes its very being to the beauty of numbers.
Not everyone can grasp them. Not everyone can follow the steps that lead logically to the unmasking of x. But Dr Math is here to help.
Every day, when the final school bell has rung, Dr Math goes online, ready to help with homework and answer queries for the more than 30 000 Mxit users who have registered for the free service at primary and high schools across South Africa.
To avoid interfering with class or being sneakily consulted during an exam, the live-chat service is only available after school hours.
During school hours, users can play math-based games, answer quizzes or find definitions for formulas.
But who, you may ask, is the mysterious Dr Math, solver of problems, prover of theorems, elucidator of Euclidean conundrums?
Invisible, voiceless, genderless, ageless, the Mxit mathematician is an enigma about whom only two things are known for certain. Dr Math knows maths.
And Dr Math is human — a multiplicity of humans, in fact, in the form of a corps of Pretoria University undergraduates from the faculty of engineering, built environment and information technology, who volunteer to act as online maths tutors as part of their community service obligations.
Sitting at their laptops or desktop workstations on campus, at home or in internet cafés, they individually assume the persona of the friendly, wise and helpful Dr Math, an avatar of enlightenment who speaks not just the language of numbers, but also the language of Mxit.
Dr Math: Helo! How can I help u 2day?
Pupil: Hw can i find beta if cos 2 beta = -0.5
Dr Math: What?
It is not always easy. But Dr Math perseveres, learning through teaching, cracking the code, following in the footsteps of the archetype, the role model, the first to wear the mantle and facilitate a marriage between Mxit and mathematics.
This is an edited extract from Mobinomics: Mxit and Africa's Mobile Revolution by Alan Knott-Craig with Gus Silber, published in May by Pan Macmillan South Africa. For more information on the book go to panmacmillan.co.za or call 011 731 3440
Dr Math is the flagship of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's mobile education initiative. Its origins, and the ethical framework it developed to offer this service to children, will be described in these pages next week