Our Algebra I Solution, part 1: The Platform

May 20, 2021

Algebra I Solution cover
Algebra I Solution cover

Technological advancements have impacted all industries and the education sector is no exception. The past months have been hard for all of us, but students, teachers, and parents did a great job adapting to the sudden need for a digital shift. Jumping on the bandwagon and contributing to digital growth in EdTech, we pushed our startup to the next level and became a grantee in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Balance the Equation Global Grand Challenge.

During the pandemic, a number of startups have come to light that promotes “virtual learning” in a variety of ways, but we at Mastory can tell quite a different story. As mathematics enthusiasts, we have always been on the lookout for promoting the subject itself, no matter in which form it is brought to life, whether that be high-, low- or no-tech. Traditional math curricula can certainly seem daunting to some, but we know what the subject holds and have come up with solutions to improve students’ understanding of its relevance long before we even considered digital technologies.

Combining these earlier experiences now with state-of-the-art technology, we intend to disrupt the way mathematical concepts and relations are being introduced to students, in school, and at home. When it comes to Algebra in particular, the existing methods of teaching this course at school commonly fail to showcase its relevance in real life. Students find it unimportant and unrelatable, and many times end up disliking and “underperforming” in a subject that has the potential to have them fall in love with the power and beauty of true mathematical reasoning.

Connecting with students the Gen Z way

Our solution is carefully designed to provide students with a clear idea of what abstract algebraic concepts are actually about and to help them engage with them emotionally while they learn. Aligned with Mastory’s general approach, our Algebra I course puts storytelling at the very core of the teaching process – with a captivating science fiction/mystery story centered around four hero characters, which we have also tested early on in our process. The goal is to bring together the in-school and the after-school layer of students’ life and bolster motivation to a degree rarely seen in today’s classrooms.

For this to work, it is vital to choose an appropriate channel through which the solution is shared with students. While our previous solutions were focused on primary education, the Algebra program we developed targets high and middle school students for the first time. Early concept tests confirmed what we had already expected: students of this age are more digitally adept, more technology-aware, and in particular, more deeply affiliated with their cell-phones than most of us probably are. It seems like to today’s youth, their cell-phone provides a perfect combination of a space of their own and a gateway to the world, especially to their social network, which previous generations had to go and find in a “secluded spot”. By consequence, any kind of content that is not synced with their mobile device and connects them with their peers to create a social experience would be at a natural disadvantage in the tough competition for students’ attention. This is why we concluded that channelizing our math solution through a mobile app is probably our best bet.

A fake-a-phone mobile app

When it comes to mobile apps, one of the first things to decide on is whether to follow the more classic path of native development or to go for a cross-platform approach. We decided in favor of the latter for three reasons: first, it is both the cheaper and faster way to cover a wide range of users and devices, compared to the need to set up and maintain separate tracks for iOS and Android development. Even though generally speaking, the majority of users in the U. S. have iPhones, it still holds true that many high and middle school students have Android phones, especially the ones with limited financial resources. Second, the market for cross-platform frameworks has matured over the past few years, and apps built with them have mostly caught up with the native ones with respect to performance. And finally, while different user experiences on the two major platforms may be an issue for other kinds of apps, we decided these are fully negligible in the case of our particular app.

So what is it going to look like?

Mastory’s Algebra I App for Students impersonates a mobile phone. That is to say, the app offers a mobile-like interface of its own – an approach known as “fake-a-phone” that can be seen in some mobile games on the market like A normal lost phone or the award-winning S.I.M – Sara is missing (although we’re definitely not entering the horror genre with our educational app). Once students have downloaded the app and opened it, they will see another home screen that displays a number of “app icons”, similar to the ones they see and use on a daily basis.

In Mastory’s app, each of those icons will lead to a particular feature related to the story and the learning process:

The “messenger app” (imagine it as a WhatsApp clone) is the students’ main window to participate in the unfolding story. As messages from non-playable characters (NPCs) arrive, they provide new pieces of information that drive the story forward while encouraging students to actively take on the new challenges they face. Students can share their ideas and post suggestions on how to best approach a given problem, leading to collective interest, engagement, and exchange prior to any “official” instruction in class. Better still, since communication is not a one-way street, our NPCs are also able to respond to students’ comments thanks to our best-in-class conversational chatbot AI!

The “CCTV app” can be imagined as a fake webcam live stream. It doesn't point anywhere really, but it pretends to do so thanks to a set of filters (dimming, distortion...) applied to an actual static image of a gauge. Students are supposed to use this app to read data on a regular basis and interpret those values adequately to collect more clues that may help solve the mysteries. Yet when they do so, it turns out that the CCTV also captures events of a very different kind that call for a closer investigation in their own right...

There is also a “Math app” inside the math app, which is mostly an interactive coordinate system for students to enter values and experiment with various types of function graphs. But unlike its more mature siblings like Geogebra, there are certain limitations purposely built-in, such as limited pan area and zoom level, that keep students from just reading off a value that they are actually supposed to calculate with greater precision.

We include an icon to access a “secret folder” which is password protected by one of the non-playable characters. The importance of the contents of this folder is highlighted through repeated mentions throughout the story, but it appears impossible to unlock until its owner suddenly disappears. Now it is up to the students to find a way to hack themselves into the folder – which might contain important hints that help trace him down.

Finally, Mastory wouldn't be Mastory anymore if we didn't make math tangible to our new audience, similarly to our successful primary school program. We incorporate two kinds of real-world extensions in our Students' App: the first one is an augmented reality (AR) extension that turns a student's phone into some sort of “dimension filter” to discover exciting new experiences. The second real-world extension is about a small IoT robot device (the “Rover”, meant for in-class use) which students will be able to control from their phone through appropriate function equations ...

Have you ever used math to hack into a space mission similar to NASA’s current mars rover? Stay tuned to learn more about this exciting new IoT device, the story, and other parts of our Algebra I course system in the upcoming parts of this series!

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