GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Last year, when 59 percent of Florida high schoolers who took the state's new Algebra I end-of-course exam passed the test, state officials were pleased.
Although the pass rate was better than expected, the other 41 percent of the students who took the test — more than 66,000 kids across Florida — failed and would have to retake the test in order to graduate.
"It was really disheartening," said Boaz Dvir, of the University of Florida's Lastinger Center for Learning.
So the Lastinger Center teamed up with Gainesville-based tutoring company Study Edge to see how they could help.
They came up with a mobile application called Algebra Nation, which Dvir said has been used by 900 schools in all 67 Florida counties since the app launched in January. About half of all algebra instructors in the state have signed up for Algebra Nation.
The state Legislature recently forked over $2 million to expand the project.
Don Pemberton, director of the Lastinger Center, approached Study Edge last summer, said Study Edge co-founder Ethan Fieldman. The company already had Web-based and mobile applications for their tutoring services, which include videos filmed by tutors in front of a green screen. The Lastinger Center wanted to use the same platform to reach students.
"We thought it was a great thing for the state, and we agreed," Fieldman said.
The Lastinger Center reached out to its statewide network of teachers, pulling in algebra instructors from Miami to the Panhandle to help develop content for the app.
About 30 teachers got in front of a camera to make algebra videos. Fieldman said several full-time tutors from Study Edge, who are adept at being filmed teaching, also made videos.
The app contains study guides and features an algebra wall, where users can ask and answer questions. Tutors monitor the wall and correct wrong answers, but Fieldman said the vast majority of activity on the wall is from students answering their peers' questions.
Within six months, the Algebra Nation app was up and running. It's accessible through Facebook or at algebranation.com, and it works on computers, iPhones and Android phones.
"It was almost like a minor miracle," Dvir said.
The Lastinger Center and Study Edge formally launched the app at an event in Jacksonville with students from St. Petersburg's Dixie Hollins High School. Since then, Algebra Nation videos have been viewed more than 116,000 times.
Alicia Stephenson's Algebra I students at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School were among the first in the state to use the app.
Stephenson said she heard about the app from a Lastinger Center employee last summer, when the project was just getting started.
She got involved and recorded a few videos, "then I just fell in love," Stephenson said.
The Facebook platform really made a difference.
She noticed that even her students who never spoke up in class were posting on the algebra wall, asking and answering questions.
"It gave those students who were afraid to talk in class a voice," she said.
Another effective feature, she said, is that students are able to see different teachers' explanations of the same concepts. Users have a choice between a faster- or slower-paced explanation by a tutor or algebra teacher, which appeals to students' different learning styles, Stephenson said.
Dvir, of the Lastinger Center, said that peer teaching, which happens on the algebra wall, is also one of the more effective ways to learn.
Stephenson agrees. "It gives them so many other opportunities that they don't have when they just have one teacher in a classroom," she said.
Stephenson's students also love the karma points — points awarded to students who provide a correct answer to another student on the algebra wall. The student who racks up the most karma points in any month can win an iPad.
Stephenson said she'll continue to use Algebra Nation this school year to help her students learn and to keep track of what concepts they have trouble with, so she can tailor her teaching to their needs.
Study Edge and the Lastinger Center try to stay responsive to teachers' and students' needs, too. A few months after the app launch, as the 2013 Algebra I end-of-course exam approached, teachers started requesting study guides from Algebra Nation, since they weren't always able to print out full packets for an entire class at school. Study Edge responded by printing out entire 150-page booklets of the 12 study guides contained in the app and selling them to teachers for $2, including tax and shipping, Fieldman said. In the two weeks before the end-of-course exam, teachers ordered 3,000 of the booklets. Some teachers even used their own money.
This year, 64 percent of students passed the Algebra I end-of-course exam.
Dvir said the creators of Algebra Nation don't want to take credit yet because the focus this year was on getting the content out, not tracking effectiveness.
Part of the $2 million awarded by the Legislature will go into studying how much Algebra Nation helps students. "We're at the University of Florida, so we have to study things in a scholarly fashion," Dvir said.
The money will also be used to buy more equipment and create better animations for higher-quality videos, expanding the app to include more features, refining the content, doing outreach with more schools and adapting the material to meet the Common Core State Standards, a more rigorous expectation for learning that Florida has signed onto.
Hopefully, Fieldman said, all that will translate into more and more students passing the Algebra I exam, a graduation requirement, so they can go on to be successful after high school.
"It's a pretty complex solution, but it's also a complex problem," he said.