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

Tue, Apr 8, 2014, 03:00

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 mathletes.ie, 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.

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