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For 20 years, the Lastinger Center at the University of Florida has been leading educational innovations to improve teaching and learning for those who need it most. By blending cutting-edge academic research and practice, their Math Nation program is providing an equitable educational system. From 2020 to 2021, Microsoft provided over $1.5 million in grant money to help Math Nation expand the learning experience with the On-Ramp to 6th-grade tool and prepare secondary math teachers with accessible professional learning courses. Using Microsoft Azure, Math Nation is accelerating research and development in math education.

The University of Florida’s Lastinger Center, an education innovation hub, is guided by the vision of creating a world where every child and educator, regardless of circumstances, experiences high-quality learning every day to support the achievement of critical milestones that are predictive of success in life. Math Nation, one of Lastinger Center’s flagship programs, was launched in 2013 and is designed to help teachers and students bridge middle school mathematics.

Mastery of middle school mathematics, and especially Algebra, is considered a crucial step and determinant for student postsecondary success. Knowing basic concepts and foundations, such as how to multiply and divide, are critical for success in 7th and 8th-grade math. Research1  also indicates that only 34% of 8th-graders score proficiently in mathematics (National Assessment of Educational Process). Often, these challenges are magnified for disadvantaged students, and remote learning during the pandemic only exacerbated the issue, due to inconsistent student access to reliable home internet service, device reliability, and parent support.2

Educational Equity by Design

Seeing this increasing need, the Math Nation program began expanding its offerings to include a new On-Ramp to 6th-grade tool. The unique online environment assesses students immediately through an AI-based adaptive diagnostic tool. This information is then used to create personalized instructional pathways and research-based instructional support. Students are given new content based on their answers and then engaged at their own individual levels. This tool is now available to teachers and students in South Carolina, Florida, Michigan, and Mississippi, and offers quality digital mathematics tools with personalized remediation and instruction.

“Now more than ever, there is an urgent need for access to high-quality and engaging math resources,” said Stephanie Cugini, M.Ed., Senior Strategist for Lastinger Center. “The On-Ramp tool is helping position thousands of students and teachers with the additional support they need to achieve success.”

Students also have the option to choose “study experts” based on a variety of attributes such as language and tone or speed of instruction so there are no barriers to access. Many students find this flexibility of choice to provide a much more personal and engaging experience.

In Duval County, Florida, a 15-year-old boy moved from Colombia to his adopted family in 2020.  With minimal English exposure, this 9th-grader began his academic journey at Englewood High School and had to simultaneously learn both English and core content knowledge while becoming familiar with the dynamics of a new culture and family. He is adjusting to school in a new language well, but it is a continual process. He can choose a Spanish-speaking instructor who offers modules in Spanish while weaving in critical English language elements that will be used on state-mandated tests. Math Nation has provided him with a resource where he can use his native language of Spanish as he advances his mathematics learning.

One middle-schooler in South Carolina had a great work ethic but would make careless mistakes and easily give up. With On-Ramp, he began working hard to apply the skills and concepts and, after weeks of practice, he started working more independently and completed the On-Ramp to 6th-grade tool. He loved the competitions and games the instructors used to help review and master the content.

Darnell Boursiquot

One unlikely result of the Math Nation program is the newfound celebrity status for some of the instructors. Darnell Boursiquot is one of the most popular Math Nation “study experts.” When he recently visited a Palm Beach Florida middle school, he was greeted as a celebrity and flooded by students asking for autographs and selfies. Boursiquot’s Math Nation videos were viewed more than 1 million times in the 2018 school year alone. His appeal lies in his relatability, humor, and ability to encourage students to keep trying – not to mention his dabbing dance moves.

Accessible Design

One key principle of the Math Nation program is that it is accessible to every student, regardless of their circumstances. To make that possible, Math Nation provides 24-hour access to thousands of free instructional videos and on-demand support for middle and high school mathematics. Students can access the program through online browsers and a free mobile app that is compatible with virtually all devices within the past six years. The team recognized that students’ devices – if they have them – may be older, and many students won’t have sufficient internet access at home. Math Nation content can be downloaded (at school, for instance) so students can watch the videos remotely and complete the segments at their own pace.

From the teachers’ perspectives, the new On-Ramp to 6th-grade platform gives them real-time visibility to student data. Instead of relying on periodic quizzes and tests, teachers can immediately see how their students are progressing or where they need more help. The On-Ramp tool helps teachers identify and address those learning gaps and opportunities quickly and efficiently.

There is a national shortage of teachers, with two-thirds of school districts reporting shortages.3 According to Cugini, Florida alone has a 5,000-teacher shortage, with few teachers coming out of traditional teacher preparation programs in mathematics and many struggling to keep up with new state standards. Math Nation is helping address these challenges through teacher boot camps, and its curriculum can be used as primary classroom instruction. In Palm Beach County, Florida, it has currently replaced the traditional textbook and course work. Math Nation is also piloting Math Matrix, an online professional development tool for teachers to learn how to instruct key concepts and strategies in secondary mathematics education. For each concept, Math Matrix includes foundational content, along with guidance, strategies, and methods across student assessment, instruction, and intervention.  Personalized recommendations driven by Azure will help educators to create tailored learning plans in the Math Matrix.

Data-Driven Learning

The key to providing personalized learning experiences across Math Nation and the Math Matrix is their use of Microsoft Azure. Using the Open Education Analytics architecture, Azure Synapse and Azure Purview form the solution and backbone of the analytics infrastructure. These tools scale with the application and streamline queries across disparate data sets, such as learning by students in Math Nation and teachers in Math Matrix, to use advanced techniques like machine learning and integrate tools within the data platform. This helps reduce the need to download data sets for analysis in external tools and modernize learning science.

“Math Nation’s data for millions of learners will be available for the first time for streamlined analysis,” said Cathy Cavanaugh, Chief Experience Officer for the Lastinger Center. “Anonymized data will offer education researchers opportunities to study about student and teacher learning using data at a national scale. This allows for more complex and authentic research in education that will accelerate research and inform application improvements for future students and teachers.”

Math Nation by the Numbers

In just the first month of usage, the new 6th-grade On-Ramp tool saw tremendous success with over 900 students using the tool, 55% of them completing On-Ramp, and more than 40,000 student questions answered. Ninety-five percent of teachers said the tool helped fill in gaps that students acquired due to learning loss during shutdowns and modified schedules. The full Math Nation program consists of 6th through 8th-grade, algebra, geometry, and algebra 2 and now reaches more than 3,000,000 students and 33,000 teachers per year across four states.