HMH Fuse: California tests a full year Algebra course on an iPad app

David Winograd
D. Winograd|09.14.10

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a major textbook company, has launched a year long pilot project with the HMH Fuse: Holt McDougal Algebra 1 full year algebra course on an iPad. The course mirrors all the content of the Holt McDougal Larson Algebra 1 2011 textbook currently being used in many schools.

The pilot project includes 400 eighth grade students in the San Francisco, Long Beach, Riverside, and Fresno, California school districts. One group is using the HMH Fuse app, and a control group is using the standard text. As far as we know, this is the first time a full year subject matter course has been rolled out as an app. The study will be conducted by Empirical Educations Inc. an independent testing group, and it will measure differences and similarities in areas of achievement and attitudes about learning. They also want to learn about how and if the students use the app the way it was intended.

Each teacher in the pilot project will teach one random class section using the app and another using the book, which may help account for differences in teaching style and his or her influence over the class. According to the testing agency, the study will eventually roll-out to 1200 students, with test reports due in the Fall of 2011. The hope is that it will be available to all California school districts in January, 2011.

The app itself, at least as seen in the video, seems quite fully featured including:
  • "Three-dimensional" functionality that combines instruction, ongoing support and intervention, allowing teachers and students to customize learning and meet individual needs
  • Tests students' prerequisite skills before introducing them to a new set of concepts
  • Every single lesson concept and example has an embedded instructional video - students can access videos at any time and can return to them to revisit difficult concepts
  • Students can animate and scroll through the steps involved in solving complex algebraic solutions
  • A built-in graphing application, math glossary and scientific calculator
  • The application will provide functionality for the student to add notes in handwriting, text and audio format, and to bookmark sections
  • Content is available anywhere. The students will have access to lessons, tools and intervention materials at all times – great use of the platform -- and all student content is archived and retrievable in the event a device is lost
  • An online Algebra Tile application to model a range of expressions
  • An in-app scratchpad since you always need some paper to test out equations
On the testimonial page of their site I can already see a dichotomy of teacher responses to the initiative. Angie Bustos of the Sequoia Middle school in Long Beach, CA, says that "It won't change the way I instruct, but it will change the way kids learn". James Mills of Hudson Valley K-8, also in Long Beach, states that "This could alleviate the need of a teacher in the room. A teacher can now become a coach". As an educator, this sends up a bright red flag. Over the years there have been a massive number of articles and arguments over whether computer-based-training will replace teachers. I don't think the teacher's unions look kindly at this concept. If a teacher becomes a coach rather than a teacher the obvious thought is that one teacher can handle more classes resulting in lowered costs to the school districts. In these times of state budgetary cuts, this can seem mighty attractive to administrators.

These sort of questions are above the pay-level of this post and have been kicked around since before I started a doctorate in Instructional Technology in 1995, but as it relates to HMH Fuse, the proof will be in the data. I would think that if any subject could be rolled into a computer program, it would be in the realm of math which is far more linear and objective-oriented than something like literature. Regardless, it will be quite revealing to see what the results provide.

I showed the video at the top of this post to a high school teacher who had two comments. The first was that the actress was far older than the eighth grade level and the second was that no school she knows of offers coffee to eighth graders. So I think we're going to need a critical eye when it comes to separating the hype from the data.

I'm trying to get a copy of HMH Fuse so I can write about it from an Instructional Design perspective and I'm waiting to hear back from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on that.
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