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Mduduzi Mathe, a high school principal in Soweto, South Africa, with a class of Grade 9 students. Mr. Mathe, who has a PhD in math education, has turned his school around and is helping students to achieve impressive math and science results. But overall, the numeracy skills of South African students fare extremely poorly in international rankings. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail)
Mduduzi Mathe, a high school principal in Soweto, South Africa, with a class of Grade 9 students. Mr. Mathe, who has a PhD in math education, has turned his school around and is helping students to achieve impressive math and science results. But overall, the numeracy skills of South African students fare extremely poorly in international rankings. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail)

Students dial M for math Add to ...

A cellphone-based math tutor is no substitute for a real teacher – but for some South African students, Dr. Math is all they’ve got.

Dr. Math is a program linking high-school students with volunteer tutors through Google chat and MXit, a cellphone social networking application that is wildly popular in South Africa. It is meant to offer homework help, but in a country where many teachers lack basic math skills, Dr. Math ends up being a full-blown instructor.

Laurie Butgereit, Dr. Math’s developer, who also works as a tutor, recounts the story of a student from the northwestern city of Mafikeng who messaged Dr. Math for help. The boy said his principal had informed pupils on the first day of school that there would be no math teacher this year.

“We are getting kids who talk to us and say they do not have a math teacher, that the headmaster has given them a textbook and says they have to pass their exam,” said Ms. Butgereit, who is based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Meraka Institute in Pretoria.

Ms. Butgereit admits the program is insufficient to replace proper teaching: “We only have two inches of screen,” she said.

South Africa is ranked a dire 139th in the world in the literacy and numeracy skills of its primary-school students. Teachers fare little better: One study found that barely half of Grade 4 math teachers in South Africa could correctly answer a simple fraction question from the Grade 6 curriculum.

South African university professors report a lack of math knowledge among undergraduate students. In one study, 93 per cent of first-year university students didn’t have the skills necessary for their mathematics course materials. All of this translates into a void of qualified professionals in the math and science field in South Africa.

“There is a lack of basic skills; for example, addition of fractions, and multiplication tables,” said Mduduzi Mathe, a principal at a Soweto high school who has a PhD in math education and has managed to achieve strong math and science results with his students.

In addition to problems of sub-par math instruction, there is also the complication of language in this multilingual country, where most students speak Zulu, Xhosa or another African language at home.

“Our learners don’t understand mathematical English,” Mr. Mathe said. “English for us is a third or fourth language.”

Ms. Butgereit said the idea for Dr. Math came from looking at available technology: In South Africa, the rate of broadband Internet use is low, but cellphone penetration is high – more than 90 per cent. Unlike in Canada, cellphones are inexpensive, with handsets, SIM cards and airtime all cheaply and widely available.

And nearly a quarter of South Africa’s population actively uses MXit. It is by far the country’s most popular social networking site, beating Facebook and Twitter hands down, according to a recent survey by World Wide Worx, a Johannesburg-based market research group.

“We wondered if teenagers would use their own personal cellphones, at their own cost, with their own air time, to get math help,” Ms. Butgereit said.

Dr. Math launched in 2007 at a single high school in South Africa’s North West Province, where posters were put up to promote the program. Ms. Butgereit said the developers were going to shutter Dr. Math for the Easter holiday but received complaints from schoolchildren in other provinces. Word had somehow spread from that one high school to remote parts of the country.

Since then, more than 30,000 schoolchildren have sought help from Dr. Math, including several thousand users who are currently active. “We don’t do any advertising,” Ms. Butgereit said. “Our biggest growth has been from kids telling kids.”

High-school students use MXit on their cellphones to ask math questions from tutors, who are active during certain hours of the day and may be fielding 30 conversations at one time using the Dr. Math software. The students can also use Gmail chat to contact Dr. Math.

“From the kids’ point of view, it is one-on-one communication,” Ms. Butgereit said.

Dr. Math relies on dozens of unpaid volunteer tutors, mostly South African but some from overseas, since they can tutor from any Internet terminal in the world. There is a code of conduct in place since adult tutors are dealing with minor children, and all conversations are recorded and spot-checked.

While most tutoring is in English – with students typing in “text speak” – there have also been Dr. Math tutors helping students in the Setswana and Afrikaans languages. This year also saw an experiment to broaden the program to the French-speaking countries of central Africa.

Ms. Butgereit said Dr. Math is gearing up to expand, and she hopes to find more volunteer tutors abroad, including in Canada.

“We could get a really interesting situation of tutors anywhere in the world helping with education,” she said.

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