Hands On Equations Lesson 23 Homework
The iTunes App Store is full of educational apps that bring interactive learning to children's fingertips, and Hands-On Equations is intended to "demystify" the process of learning algebra. With this iPad app, students watch a short video clip explaining a concept before working on practice problems. The Hands-On Equations for the iPad is easy to navigate and does the job of teaching algebra, but the app railroads students through the lessons without making the process fun.
After the initial review was posted, I chatted with Henry Borenson, the publisher of the app, about some of the concerns and have updated the review with some clarifications.
Hands-On Equations is broken out into three different levels. Level 1 costs $4.99 and offers six different lessons. Both Level 2 and Level 3 offers eight lessons and cost $3.99. I initially reviewed the "Lite" version of Level 1, which offers the first three Level 1 lessons free of charge. Whenever I was ready to upgrade to the full version of Level 1, or buy any of the other levels, I could click on the relevant buttons right on the main menu. I received the codes for the full Level 1 app and tried out the other exercises to confirm the user experience was the same for both the free and the paid app.
Each lesson offers a short instructional video and two practice problems, followed by 10 extra exercises. There is no way to jump ahead and just do the problems, because the problems are "locked" with a little lock icon to show that the student can't access that component yet. Users have to watch the video before the practices are unlocked, and the practice problems have to be completed before the exercises are available. Previous versions allowed students to solve exercises without first viewing the videos, but many of them got stuck, so the current versions require students to complete the steps in order.
The Hands on Equation Experience
When the app launches, it displays a main screen which has been designed to look like a lined notebook paper. A video player at the top plays a short clip explaining how to use the app, and each lesson is listed below the player. Buttons to purchase the full version of Level 1, as well as Levels 2 and 3 are on the right side of the screen.
As mentioned earlier, Level 1 Lite displays the video, practice problems, and exercises for only three lessons. When I clicked on the video checkbox on the main screen, I was taken to a different notebook page with a larger video player. The experience was the same when I looked at the full Level 1 app.
Each lesson's video clip is about three to four minutes long, and explains simple algebraic concepts using a balance scale, dice, and chess pieces. The clips are a little boring, as it shows the instructor pointing to the iPad screen and explaining how to solve the practice problems. Considering this is an iPad app, it would have been better to take advantage of the iPad's interactive capabilities to create an animated lesson for example, instead of just playing a video clip. After the video ends, a button appears that lets the user move on to the first practice problem.
The Hands-On Equation method appears to revolve around making both sides of the balance scale have the same value, using dice to represent known numbers and chess pieces to represent unknowns. The idea is that each chess piece stands for a number (solve for "x") and the student has to figure out what number the piece represents in order to balance the scale. Every single problem in every lesson uses the exact same setup, with just the values of the dice and number of chess pieces (the "equation") varying. In the first lesson in Level 1, the chess pieces are already on the scale, and the students have to use "reasoning or guess-check" to figure out what "x" will be.
As the concepts get more difficult in each subsequent lesson, students have to move the chess pieces and the die to set up the balance in order to work out the answer. Each lesson builds up on the concepts learned on previous ones, and each one requires more setup on the scale.
I found the app really fiddly to work with. In order to select a number as the answer, the student has to select the value off a spinning wheel. The number wheel was designed this way to make it easier for students in later levels to understand positive and negative values of x, since the wheel can spin in both directions. But in later exercises, when I had to spin and spin to get to 20, I really wished for a keyboard.
There is a button, "Auto Check," which plugs in the number the student assigned to calculate whether the equation is balanced. However, the exericse is not complete until the student manually fills in the "Check" equation by using the wheel again to assign the value of both sides of the scale. My testers grumbled it would have been easier to just type in the number instead of spinning through to select the right number. "Auto Check" displays the total values, but there's no way to skip "Check" or auto-fill the fields when "Auto Check" shows you the problem was solved correctly.
The ten additional exercises offer more problems for practice, but I couldn't figure out why the app bothered to differentiate between them. It’s not as if the two "practice problems" offered more assistance or tips than the ten "exercises." It was just more of the same in a separate section.
A Way to Learn Algebra
Since the app is intended to help school students learn algebra, after I'd had a chance to go through the lessons, I handed the iPad to three kids: one student who hasn't begun algebra yet at school but will soon, one who is currently learning algebra in class, anod another who took it last year. They grumbled about the number wheel and the fact that they still had to use the number wheel to finish the "check" step after confirming everything was correcting using "Auto Check."
It took longer for the one who already knew algebra to figure out how to use the app and its balance method, suggesting he had to do some unlearning in order to pick up the method. The other two's main feedback was that while they were able to eventually figure out the concepts, it felt like additional homework and not very engaging at all.
I don't expect all education programs to always be fun and games, but it seems that if you are going to develop for a platform like the iPad, then you should try to make the learning process different enough to keep the student's interest. The iPad could be a tremendously flexible and powerful learning tool, and educational apps should be focusing on ways to make learning feel less like work while still being effective.
From the information available on the app it appears the Hands on Equations method is used successfully in a face-to-face setting. While it may work in a classroom, it falls short on the iPad, and I was left wishing for something more like the DragonBox app from We Want to Know: something that focused on interactivity and fun while still teaching algebra at the same time.
Hands-On Equations for the iPad promises to demystify algebra, and it accomplishes that goal just fine, but it railroads the students through the lessons. While each lesson in the app is more interactive than the previous one, I think Hands-On Equations didn't take advantage of the possibilities. As it stands, it doesn't do anything a combination of a YouTube video and a Website can't do.
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