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Struggling with math? Local schools turn to AI
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Forsyth County School officials say that DreamBox, a new online math program that was recently implemented in the county, allows elementary students to receive personalized math instruction at their own pace. - photo by Alexander Popp

If you peek into any classroom in Forsyth County, it’s more than likely that you will see students learning with a host of different technologies, like laptops, tablets and touch-screen displays which enhance and reinforce the lessons that teachers give.

Over the last two months, a new math-based computer program called DreamBox has been rolled out to each of the Forsyth County school system’s 21 elementary schools to give young math learners a deep conceptual understanding of math topics through personalized instruction, artificial intelligence and “productive struggle.”

What is DreamBox?

According to Dr. Brian Lack, K-8 Mathematics Specialist for Forsyth County Schools, DreamBox is an adaptive online program for personalized math instruction that looks and feels fun for students without being too much like a pure video game.

In small classroom groups, during free-time at school or at home after school, students in kindergarten through fifth-grade can log onto the DreamBox program and complete “gamified” math problems that correspond to the school system’s math standards and what the student is learning in class.

DreamBox screenshot 1
Photo courtesy of DreamBox

But unlike most traditional math instruction and other online math programs, DreamBox focuses on reinforcing students’ mental math and visualization skills rather than having students just memorize the rules and procedures of math, as has been done in classrooms basically forever.

In DreamBox, students are given problems and asked to solve them without pencil and paper, using “virtual manipulatives,” or drawings and images, that represent math problems.

"I would venture to say that the vast majority, more than 90% of time spent in math classrooms, is with a pencil or paper or calculator in your hand, and so this is really pushing back against that," Lack said.

Lack said that by focusing on mental math and visualization skills, DreamBox leads students to a deeper conceptual understanding of what math is and how it works.

As students advance in the program, the math problems grow more complex. Once a student shows they have mastered a concept using visualization and the virtual manipulatives, DreamBox introduces traditional equations into the lesson.

DreamBox screenshot 2
Photo courtesy of DreamBox

DreamBox constantly analyzes the students’ work, so the program can diagnose a student’s strengths and weaknesses and then prescribe a pathway for the student.

Lack said that one of the most important parts about the program is the independence that it gives students; they work on what they need to work on, based on the mistakes and errors that they have previously made in DreamBox.

"The great thing is that at any given time, a class of 30 students could be working on 30 different lessons depending on their needs," he said.

While using DreamBox, students can always ask for help from a teacher or parent, or they can use a “hint” button included with each lesson. But Lack said the idea of “productive struggle” has been built into the program as part of the learning process.

Students are expected and even encouraged to struggle with problems until they work out the solution for themselves.

"That's all part of the ethos of the DreamBox experience," Lack said. "Students are expected to, quite frankly, just experiment, problem solve and figure it out."

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Sanjay Bandaru, left, a student at Vickery Creek Elementary School, works with a friend, Dev Gupta, on DreamBox, the new online math program that Forsyth County rolled out to local elementary schools this year.
DreamBox’s ability to work with students on an individual level, letting them succeed or fail and adjust its lessons accordingly, gets at one of Forsyth County Schools’ biggest goals, Lack said: providing personalized instruction, or “meeting students where they are.”

"A way to categorize it is that every student has sort of a personalized instructional assistant," he said. "There’s only so much that is humanly possible for [a teacher] to do, right? And so DreamBox just does a phenomenal job of leveraging the power of technology to individualize the learning for students."

Lack said that even though DreamBox uses AI, he doesn’t believe it should or could replace teachers or classroom instruction. DreamBox is just a tool that reinforces and complements what students learn in class.

“I think that [AI or online] programs are making the difference,” Lack said, “but it's the people you have in place that make the programs effective, and so far our elementary teachers have done a phenomenal job.”

How has it been received?

DreamBox was first introduced in Forsyth County at Chattahoochee Elementary School in 2015. After the first year, they found that fifth-graders who met the weekly usage recommendation (five times a week) had almost a 50% higher growth on the Georgia Milestones than students that completed less than three lessons a week.

Two years later, five more elementary schools implemented DreamBox for half a year to create a school system pilot program, with just as positive results.

"After that five- or six-month period, every one of the schools liked it so much that they continued with the implementation the following year," Lack said. "I'm very proud of the pathway of this implementation because it has been slow and methodical. A lot of times in education we just jump on fads."

The school system implemented DreamBox at every county elementary school this fall, and Lack said that they’ve had a largely positive response. According to teachers and administrators, students have connected with the element of choice and personalization the program offers them.

"They love it, they are so motivated by it, and they ask me all day long, 'Can we get on DreamBox?'" Vickery Creek Elementary School teacher Renee Crouse said as her students prepared to go on a field trip on Tuesday afternoon. "They absolutely love it."

Crouse said that the program is definitely a win-win for everyone involved. Students love it because it’s fun and new, while teachers like it because it’s a flexible, adaptive tool that gives them insight into what their students might need help with.

"It fills in the gaps; it's a math program that's on their level," she said as several of her students sat together working on DreamBox. "And then as their teacher I can get in there and look at what they are working on, what they are struggling on and be able to give them interventions." 

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Renee Crouse, a teacher at Vickery Creek Elementary School says that her students have loved the new DreamBox program, enjoying the fun and flexible math instruction it offers throughout the day. - photo by Alexander Popp

In another classroom on the other side of Vickery Creek Elementary, student Sanjay Bandaru, who has been one of the most active DreamBox users in the county so far this year, clocking dozens of lessons completed each week, worked quietly with a friend at a desk.

When asked about the program, Bandaru said that DreamBox comes in handy during class, because he’s a fast worker and often finishes assignments before the rest of the class.

"It gives me something to do when I finish my work,” he said. “Because usually I would finish my work, and then I would have nothing to do, so now I can do it in my free time.”

Bandaru said that even though a lot of the DreamBox problems he is working on are challenging, he keeps pushing through them because he likes it and he knows they are going to come in handy.

"Some of the questions are challenging, [but] when you get to the seventh- and eighth-grade it gets way harder," he said.

What does the future of the program look like?

After two months of Dreambox, students like Bandaru across the county have completed nearly 900,000 lessons, or about five lessons a week per elementary school student in the county. That’s the goal Lack said the school system was shooting for.

“The fact that we've got that tremendous amount of usage in two months is phenomenal,” Lack said.

Lack said the school system hopes DreamBox will impact Georgia Milestones results across the county, just like it did for Chattahoochee Elementary in 2015.

"And it doesn't just end there,” Lack said. “We don't want to just look at quantitative measures of success. We also want to get feedback from our stakeholders, our parents, our teachers and our students."