The Future of Education, As Glimpsed Through an iPhone

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just what it looks like

For a variety of reasons – which are big data rather than baseball related, regardless of what you’ve heard – I’m going to be taking a statistics course at the Harvard Extension School beginning in January. This is interesting to me for a variety of reasons, none more so than the preparation.

As you might imagine, the Harvard Extension School has a math placement exam. It’s not difficult for someone with high school algebra, I’m sure, but then high school was the last time I had algebra. Which posed something of a problem: how does one get back up to speed on math?

When I arrived at Williams for my undergrad education, one of the first tests I took was to determine whether or not I needed remedial math. In what the Vatican has since acknowledged as a miracle, it was determined that I did not. So when I say I hadn’t done math since high school, I mean I had not done math since high school. Apart from basic arithmetic and the occasional baseball formulas, anyway.

A quick spin around the web turned up a wealth of resources, but most were either too advanced or too simple, and they were all too boring. Some math I like more than others, and algebra wasn’t high on my list. So it was going to take something reasonably interactive.

At which point I thought of my iPhone.

Searching the app store for “algrebra” turned up dozens of applications; after a bit of research, I picked one by Modality called AlgrebraPrep: Factoring, for a reasonable cost of $2.99.

And was absolutely blown away.

Not by the application’s technology: it does nothing that I haven’t seen done before. There’s not much that’s innovative about processing multiple choice selections via a touchscreen or displaying video. Nor do I believe it’s all that differentiated versus the other dozen plus algebra applications competing for your attention.

But I’d never really digested, on a personal level, just how different education is today, and will be going forward. More than the sum of its technologies, AlgebraPrep is the kind of thing that might have made a difference if I’d had it. Emphasis on the might.

When I started the application, I was presented with a screen like this:

relearning algebra

Those of you who know math are probably thinking: “and?” If you haven’t had math in a while, on the other hand, you might sympathize more with my initial reaction: “good lord, what the hell am I supposed to do with that?” And this is the easy stuff. Vague recollections of multiplying the sides times x aside, I had no idea how to begin.

So I clicked the view example button, and got this:

with help

An educated and intelligible professional walking through the problem slowly, explaining each step along the way. Each video is directly related to the problem you’re to solve. Need to view it again? Go back. Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. And now I can factor polynomials, do quadratic equations: all the fun stuff that will make me the life of the party.

My progress was, ahem, a bit uneven. Even with the examples, I kept making stupid errors – it’d been a while since I worked anything out on pencil and paper – and I got a 50% the first time out. The second time I did a bit better, 63%, which was still galling. The next several, however, I aced. Because it was explained to me clearly, repetitively and at my own pace. How did I learn math without an iPhone, again?

Unfortunately for me, the course entrance exam wasn’t just about factoring and high school algebra, so I didn’t ace that. But as far as I can tell I did well enough to get in. And if the preparation thus far is any indication, I’ll be learning as much about the future of education as I will statistics.

Which is fine by me.


  1. You ought to audit my Winter Study class SPEC 29: Applied Statistics. You can do all the work from a distance and the material is likely to be much more useful for your daily work.

  2. Of course, you won’t be getting anything like that from Harvard. Their entire position on broadcast digital education can basically be summed up as ‘if you can’t come to Cambridge for it, FOAD.’ (MIT is substantially more enlightened.)

    Really, the academy needs to be radically reformed; hopefully small, for-profit examples like this can be part of that attack.

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  4. […] O’Grady ‘97 on the future of education: When I arrived at Williams for my undergrad education, one of the first tests I took was to […]

  5. Hi,

    I’m at the same point you were in 2009, trying to revive my math skills to take the placement test so I can take statistics at HES!

    So did you take the class? Which one? How was it? Can you share a little bit of your experience?

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