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Collaborative Digital Classroom Environments Focus of NSF Grants

Side view of a laptop where a child is using the new program

As digital technologies and platforms become more and more integrated in the day-to-day way people communicate, collaborate and make decisions, teachers in K-12 and middle schools are looking for new ways to develop collaborative environments in the classroom.

To contribute to this effort, the Connected Mathematics Project, or CMP, at Michigan State University, in partnership with The Concord Consortium—a nonprofit research and development organization dedicated to transforming education through technology— is using two National Science Foundation grants totaling $4.5 million to explore new possibilities for CMP classrooms in a digital environment using the Connected Mathematics middle school curriculum.

The goal of CMP is to create a middle school classroom environment that supports students’ development of mathematical knowledge and understanding through the process of exploring a carefully sequenced set of contextual problems that require students to make conjectures, provide reasoning, communicate and reflect on their learning. Using an iterative design research process, both grant projects will incorporate multiple phases of development, testing and revision. The process includes close collaboration with teachers to understand the implementation and create revisions to the digital resources.

“We chose seventh-grade CMP classrooms that were using a paper and pencil version of CMP,” said Elizabeth Phillips, senior academic specialist for MSU’s Program in Mathematics Education and principle investigator of the projects. “We wanted to see if we could enhance the learning and the discourse of mathematics in the classroom in a collaborative digital environment. We design the platform and look for instances of what’s working, and what’s not working, and adjust the design. At the same time, we’re collecting data from videos, audio recordings, interviews and surveys to inform the design process.”

A close up view of a laptop using the CMP. Picture taken over a stuents shoulder.


A student uses the digital curriculum platform’s graphing tool to create a graph. Photo courtesy of CMP.

Each project has different research and developmental goals.

The first project, “Enhancing Middle Grades Students’ Capacity to Develop and Communicate Their Mathematical Understanding of Big Ideas Using Digital Inscriptional Resources,” is about helping students deepen and communicate their understanding of mathematics using inscriptions—representations of student thinking that exist on paper or the computer screen, such as written text, graphical displays, tables, equations, diagrams, maps or charts. Within the digital collaborative environment, students have access to embedded digital tools to solve problems.

This flexible workspace allows for students to dive into the problem using resources suggested by the problem, as well as other tools, to develop their own solution strategy.

“We are designing technology specifically to let students work together and to see what the others are doing,” said Chad Dorsey, president of The Concord Consortium. “Through this technology we’re letting students create inscriptions and share them and build on them in ways that let them think in news ways about one another’s ideas and let teachers monitor and use those ideas to help the whole student body move forward in the classroom.”

A video produced under the grant, Math Understanding in a Digital Collaborative Environment, received a facilitators’ Choice Award during the 2019 NSF Stem for All Video Showcase. Facilitators representing well known researchers, practitioners and policy makers, voted on showcase videos during the event.

The second project, “Promoting Productive Disciplinary Engagement and Learning with Open Problems and ‘Just-In-Time’ Supports for Middle School Mathematics,” is about how to support students’ learning and engagement in mathematics using a digital curriculum platform. The goal of the project is to study how the use of a new problem format in a digital platform can promote inquiry-based mathematics learning and engagement.

Inspired by the STEM disciplines that focus on problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration, the project is using CMP’s STEM Problem Format to more closely align with a STEM environment.


A Connected Mathematics Project teacher works with a student within the digital collaborative environment, where students have access to embedded digital tools to solve problems. Photo courtesy of CMP.

The CMP STEM Problem Format for the digital environment also provides “just-in-time” supports that give students additional options of support as they are working on a problem or give teachers the opportunity to generate prompts for students working in small groups, as needed.

Because of this collaboration, students can take their own initiative when they need help by seeing what their classmates are doing or by using the digital resources available to help get them started.

The new collaborative possibilities have generated new insights among teachers who have taught with CMP for years.

Making the textbook “come alive” is more than just making it interactive—it also makes it socially alive and integrated into the social fabric of the classroom.

“Our students are used to being social on technology, so why not use those skills in our classrooms and allow them to be social on a technology about what they’re learning,” one teacher said.

In addition to Phillips and Dorsey, MSU’s Kristen Bieda, Alden Edson, and Joseph Krajcik are co-PIs on the projects.

Val Osowski via MSU Today

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