Mathletes: A new way of making learning maths a game that’s worth playing

A free online maths tournament is a gamechanger in maths education – already one in ten Irish children have signed on

Teacher Breda Morrissey, working the students in the Mathletes Challenge at Balbriggan Community College, as Irish students are now competing online on this free maths gaming website funded by the Kahn Academy. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill /The Irish Times

Teacher Breda Morrissey, working the students in the Mathletes Challenge at Balbriggan Community College, as Irish students are now competing online on this free maths gaming website funded by the Kahn Academy. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill /The Irish Times


What excites kids? Computer games, sports tournaments, mixing online. Definitely. Maths classes? Not so much. However, over the past two months one in 10 Irish children has signed up for, a maths game causing a stir in Irish classrooms.

It’s a national maths competition, based online, that features all the ingredients of a good gaming with levels, energy points, leaderboards and bracing competition. It’s exactly the kind of stuff that distracts children from their homework. Three thousand kids, from around 4th class up to sixth year of post-primary, now compete on Mathletes, with some spending more than 10 hours a week, voluntarily, doing maths exercises online. For fun.

It all began with former hedge-fund analyst Salman Khan. Khan was helping his cousins in New Orleans with their maths, remotely from his home in Connecticut. He put the tutor sessions on YouTube, so the cousins could return to them if they needed. Khan was surprised to learn that other people had started to access his tutorials. As their popularity grew and he added more and more video tutorials, Khan decided to quit his job and establish the not-for-profit Khan Academy. As he puts it, “as an analyst at a hedge fund, it felt very strange to do something of social value”.

That’s the first step. Ireland came into the frame courtesy of inventor, investor and entrepreneur Sean O’Sullivan. New York-born O’Sullivan, famous for coining the term “cloud computing”, is based in Co Cork. “I’m in Ireland running a tech company and an investment firm. I noticed when hiring in Ireland I had to interview a lot of people to find the right qualifications,” says O’Sullivan, managing director at Carma, a global software company, and at SOS Ventures, a $180 million venture capital operation. “It became apparent that tertiary-level institutions here were not turning out graduates that were competitive with graduates from places like Romania, France or the United States. But I want to hire Irish people because they are more likely to stay,” he says.

“I’ve long been a believer in education. I grew up in poverty and worked out of that by going to engineering colleges and getting technical skills. I recognise the benefit technical experts have on solving problems, on improving the quality of life on the planet and on the economy.”

O’Sullivan’s charitable foundation is one of the biggest supporters of the Khan Academy in the US. He wondered if Salman Khan’s big idea could be harnessed for Irish students. Khan’s video tutorials were already being used on a pilot basis in some schools in the US, with the added value of a teacher “dashboard”, allowing teachers to track students’ use of the videos.

Khan talks of “flipping the lesson”. Far from replacing teachers with online tutorials, the idea is that students are tasked with watching the tutorials at home, then doing the homework in school where the teacher can interact and feed back rather than spending time at the top of the classroom delivering lessons.

O’Sullivan believes the Irish classroom can be flipped. “I wanted to revolutionise the education system in Ireland. I want Ireland to be the number one country in Europe for maths education. A whole series of events led me to get together in a room with the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills Ciarán Cannon to develop Mathletes,” he says.

O’Sullivan and Cannon worked with Kelly Kirkpatrick from SOS Ventures, Bernard Kirk, director of Galway Education Centre and Frank Walsh, director of Athlone Education Centre, to develop an online gaming platform using Khan’s tutorials, but shadowing the Irish curriculum. O’Sullivan describes the end product as a bit of “executional genius”.

It’s a new maths gaming initiative, unique to Ireland and it’s predicated on children’s natural attraction to computer games and competitiveness. Throw in a bit of inter-county rivalry and the race is on.

Ciarán Cannon is excited about the rapid uptake of Mathletes and, in particular, the positive response he’s getting from teachers. “Any teacher that has encountered Mathletes has been exceptionally positive: they see it as a very powerful tool. We’re training teachers in the education centres, and these volunteers are going back to the regions to teach more teachers. There is some very innovative stuff going on quietly in education centres across the country.”

At the level of the classroom, the formula seems to be working. Cannon, who says he is fascinated by the use of technology in education, has visited schools to present the first rounds of monthly awards and he’s sensing a real buzz among students.

“These children are already online, in the cloud. They’re comfortable setting up accounts, working through levels, stretching themselves in competition with other players. This is the game-ification of the teaching environment and it’s free. There will never be any charge for this.” O’Sullivan has seen to that. As well as devising and helping to build the system, and spending several hours a week developing it, he’s also funding it to the tune of €5 million, with no strings attached, he says.

“I expect to benefit hugely from this if we are able to produce smart kids. I expect to earn a handsome reward in the investment I’m making in them.”

See You can hear the complete story of the Khan Academy in Salman Khan’s TED Talk on YouTube

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