Ethnomathematics: an Anthropological Approach to Software in ICT4E
November 17, 2011 Editor 0
When I was in elementary school, there was one computer game that trumped all of the others: Math Blaster. In it, players would try to answer all of the math problems as quickly and accurately as possible in order to complete the space mission. Classmates and I would beg to play this game in the computer lab, and teachers were typically inclined to allot time for it, mostly because it was a productive and educational use of technology.
When monitoring and evaluating the use of technology in developing countries, many ICT4D professionals describe how, after a while, technology in the classroom sits untouched or is used only for games that are not necessarily educational.
So why not send over copies of Math Blaster?
When considering the best use of software for students in developing countries, it is important to consider their background and culture. The significance of a mathematics education comes from the fact that it is applicable to so many aspects of daily life. While students in Western countries may be able to relate to space battles and aliens based on its presence in the media, students in developing countries will not find this application as applicable to them. In essence, by providing them with software representative of Western culture, they may come to believe that mathematics does not apply to their own lives and culture.
In a research project funded by the National Science Foundation, Dr. Ron Eglash and a group of professors and students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are attempting to dispel this tendency by designing software based on ethnomathematics, a study of the relationship between math and culture. The software, referred to as Culturally Situated Design Tools, imparts mathematical concepts to students by having them create virtual designs based on original artifacts in their culture.
One application, for instance, considers Native American culture, which uses a great deal of four-fold symmetry in beadwork. The “Virtual Bead Loom” software, developed by Computer Science students at RPI, introduces students to Cartesian coordinates by having them enter x and y coordinates to place “beads” on a grid. The end goal is to produce a bead design representative of Native American culture. To students of Native American descent, mathematics becomes much more meaningful and applicable to their lives by using this software. It also enforces a sense of pride in the students’ heritage.
While the application above provides the simplest example of how culturally situated software can enhance a student’s understanding of mathematical concepts, there are several other software applications being designed to impart mathematics concepts to students in developing regions of Africa.
Math, African style
The design of this software began with determining the types of designs represented in African culture. While viewing aerial-photos taken of African communities, Dr. Eglash noticed how houses in African villages were laid out in patterns representing perfect fractals. Further research on the ground proved that fractals appear everywhere in African design, from architecture to textiles. According to Dr. Eglash, “”When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.” To hear more about Dr. Eglash’s discovery of fractals, view his TED talk.
The software developed for teaching African students math through the virtual design of original African artifacts was thus primarily based on fractal and transformational geometry. Students using this software could see the application of mathematics to their everyday lives, and it made them appreciate math and their heritage to a much greater extent.
The value of this approach to software in ICT4E lies in the methodology behind the design of its content. Careful consideration was taken to ensure that the approach to delivering education through technology was based on a thorough understanding of the background of the users. In essence, the software was designed for the students, not altered from existing software to accommodate them.
This is the best way to approach software design for education in the developing world. It is not about finding a piece of software that worked in Western culture and making it work worldwide. Anthropological research is required to design software based on the specific and unique needs, abilities, and thought patterns of the students that will be using it. Without this, students can become disinterested in not only the technology but also the topics that it is attempting to convey.
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