Foster kids pick up speed with online program

Sean C. Morgan

Foster School students are getting an instructional boost this year through two on-line programs aimed at improving their mathematics skills.

District Curriculum Director Tim Porter wanted a school to pilot a program using the Khan Academy program, said Title I teacher Katie Adams. “We did some training, and we started with the fourth- and fifth-graders.”

The Khan Academy is a nonprofit organization created in 2006 by Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT, to provide a high-quality education to anyone anywhere. The website provides free online instructional videos in math and a variety of other subject areas.

The online instruction is supplemented by a program at IXL learning was founded in 1998 to advance education through web-based technologies. The website provides practice in math at every grade level.

Foster had been using IXL as a teaching tool in classrooms since last year, Adams said. The school used IXL’s free practice questions to generate problems for classwide participation. Class members would work through the problems together.

“In December, we piloted it, with our third-graders using it as a practice opportunity for our kids,” Adams said. After Christmas break, Foster licensed it for use with 150 students in grades three through six. It’s available for lower grades, but the school hasn’t started using it in the first two grades yet. Right now, six teachers are using the programs.

The addition of IXL was instigated by Foster School, Adams said. “We were having some success with Khan Academy, but we were feeling its limits on elementary (math instruction).”

“It was kind of one of these experimental things,” Porter said. “We were looking for some teachers who that were willing to try it out.”

It wasn’t required, and he thanks them for taking on the project.

The two online resources provide different benefits, Adams said. “Khan Academy is a combination of teaching videos and practice opportunities. It is geared more to secondary students, junior high and high school.”

For the fourth through sixth grade, it provides more limited options, she said. IXL is just practice. It doesn’t have the teaching videos.

If a student misses an answer, they can click on it and see how to do the problem with IXL while Khan Academy gives students a little extra instruction.

“IXL is more geared to elementary students,” Adams said. Khan Academy is geared more toward the progression of math, starting with the basics and advancing quickly to more advanced math. IXL also ties into students’ state standards.

Katie Adams talks with Foster students as they interact with From left, they are Bill Hawken, second grade; Hailey Green, third grade; and Torree Hawken, fourth grade.

Both programs track student achievement as they work through concepts and problems, Adams said. They each have achievement badges and digital prizes as students master skills and grade levels. Those are translated into real certificates for achievement.

For example, “When they hit 20 skills, they get a certificate at assembly,” Adams said. “It seems silly, but they get excited.”

Even when students struggle, they receive rewards for simply keeping at it, Adams said, and that helps motivate them.

Foster is able to use the online programs using a technology grant that has provided it more computers than any of the other District 55 schools, she said. It’s easier for Foster to have kids online with the school’s mobile laptops.

The students can get online at home and work on problems too, Adams said. “Both programs – kids can log into from anywhere.”

The program corrects each problem instantly, and they can see immediately how they’re doing, Adams said. In class, when each student has his or her own specific problems, teachers can see quickly who needs more help.

After Adams teaches a lesson, instead of giving students a worksheet, she gets the computers out. She walks around the classroom, looking over students’ shoulders.

She still instructs students, but she can do a lot more one-on-one or small group instruction where it is needed.

“The Khan Academy itself is just one of those free resources out there that is a great way to get kids to do math,” Porter said, and the teachers are able to gather some amazing data about their students.

The programs seem to be helping, Adams said. It’s still too soon to evaluate them properly, but “I see signs that it’s improving student motivation.”

She is seeing improvements on students’ weekly skill checks, she said, and “kids are much more motivated to practice.”

“It was really cool,” said Liz Adams, a fourth-grade student. “It was better than just doing it on our papers. You can focus on getting the prizes, and that’s fun. You can do it at home. It’s (IXL) one of the best math sites I’ve been on. It’s just really helpful.”

“It has pretty much all the skills you need to learn,” said Kate Hawken, and students can see what will be on the state tests.

It’ll even show what score a student would have on the test if it were actually the state test, said Marissa Green, and it tracks the time a student takes to do the test.

“You work harder because you get the prizes,” said Torree Hawken.