Making Maths Make Sense

OLICO Youth Academic Report (to Oct 2014)

OLICO Youth continues to explore the effectiveness of computer-based mathematics solutions with a group of South African township-school youth. This year, sixty-five learners from Diepsloot between grades 7-10 are participating on the programme. Between Feb and Sept 2014, OLICO learners attempted over 76,609 maths questions and achieved an average 35% increase in basic number sense as well as an average 47% increase on foundational curriculum content. The focus now shifts to improving the speed at which learners progress through these lessons and improving the retention of newly-acquired knowledge. OLICO is committed to finding a genuine solution that is effective, sustainable and replicable. 

Introduction OLICO Youth is a community-based academic support programme for township school youth with a focus on senior phase mathematics. The aim of OLICO Youth is to provide learners with a pathway into high school mathematics by bridging the gaps in foundational understanding, thereby serving as a conduit into algebra and geometry. There are currently sixty-five Diepsloot learners between grades 7-10 enrolled on the OLICO Youth programme. Learners attend 2 computer-based after-school sessions twice a week as they progress through the OLICO curriculum at their own pace. To remain on the programme, learners must attend at least 75% of their sessions and complete their homework assignments. Learners also attend on Saturday mornings for non-academic input.

At each mid-week session, learners follow OLICO’s 5-Step Process:

  1. Arrive on time for scheduled session
  2. Check in and show completed homework
  3. Log onto computer with unique username
  4. Follow OLICO’s 5 P’s
  5. Check out and receive new homework

Learners work at their own pace once they log onto the OLICO learning management system. The personalised learning environment allows learners who score 80% or more in the short pre-lesson quizzes to skip these sections. Learners who achieve less than 80% however follow OLICO’s 5 P’s which is made up of the following:

  1. Pre-Quiz
  2. Presentation (video)
  3. Practice exercises
  4. Post-Quiz
  5. Pause and review

The most pressing need for the majority of learners joining OLICO Youth is to substantially improve their general number sense skills and mathematical fluency. There are major challenges across South Africa in the shift from foundation phase mathematics (grades 1-3) to intermediate phase mathematics (grades 4-6) with most learners enrolling at OLICO Youth needing to catch up 2-4 years worth of content. Given this context, OLICO focuses on building foundational skills as a gateway to deeper curriculum level understanding. Key lessons to date:

  • Learners are highly enthusiastic about technology. There is little doubt that the computer-based approach leads to an increase in practice attempts, time-on-task, positive attitude towards maths and commitment to progressing through the lessons. The sheer volume of questions attempted by OLICO learners this year is impressive. In total,  over 76,609 maths questions have been attempted this year alone… and counting.


  • OLICO learners achieved substantial improvements in their basic number sense abilities. Since February this year, 83% of the learners completed the number sense curriculum with learners improving by an average of 35%. The number sense curriculum includes timed exercises focusing on improving mental arithmetic with questions on: single/double-digit addition/subtraction; number bonds; finding differences; friendly numbers; multiplication and division tables.


  • OLICO learners also demonstrated substantial improvements on the foundational curriculum. Mastery for foundation-level topics is set at 80% since the lessons are fundamental requirements for future mathematics understanding. Learners are permitted to progress to subsequent lessons only once they have achieved this level of mastery. As a result, the speed at which learners progress through these lessons is an important additional indicator of effective learning. Given the amount of content learners need to cover, there is a need to increase the speed at which learners are progressing but, this concern aside, the results are impressive:


On average, learners improved on their pre-assessment results by a whopping 47%:


  • Equally pleasing is the progress of the OLICO learners who were part of the original pilot phase in 2012. These learners joined while in Grade 8. They are now in Grade 10 and have consistently improved their curriculum-level results. The grade 10 learners have displayed impressive levels of commitment, dedication and a positive attitude towards mathematics which is beginning to show in their results over time:


  • In addition to the clear benefits of an increase in the amount of question-attempts and time-on-task, technology also offers instant feedback to the learner which is particularly important for effective learning. Learners can thereby shape their personal learning experiences by responding appropriately to the cues provided by the computer.
  • Finally, the numerous advantages of technology do not replace the need for a skilled facilitator alongside a context-appropriate programme. At the very least, the facilitator must have a well-developed number sense in order to intervene when learners get stuck. Technology enables a good facilitator to interact and assess learner needs (with real-time feedback) on a highly individualised and targeted basis.

5 core focus areas going forward:

  1. Over the forthcoming 6-9 months, the OLICO team is focused on finding ways to increase the speed at which learners progress through the OLICO lessons and thereby increase curriculum coverage.
  2. The OLICO team is also placing a greater emphasis on regular checkpoint interventions to ensure and better assess knowledge retention.
  3. Since English literacy remains a barrier for many of the OLICO learners, a literacy strategy is to be incorporated as core to the programme from 2015.
  4. A new custom-designed database is being built to simplify the OLICO processes and reduce administrative complexity.
  5. OLICO will continue to develop and publish open-source mathematics materials on our resources page and build a programme around Siyavula’s Everything Maths for our Grade 10 and 11 learners in 2015.

Conclusion: A significant amount of progress has been achieved over the past year, both in terms of learner progression through the OLICO maths curriculum and in the development of context-appropriate open-source content. There are strong positive indications that OLICO Youth is addressing a number of the deep-rooted foundational challenges facing SA’s learners. The key remaining challenge over the next 6-9 months is for OLICO to achieve progress on the “5 core focus areas” (as identified above). Success in this regard will determine whether the OLICO solution is indeed ready and effective enough to begin replicating in new environments.

Some programme background and history: Initially, the OLICO Youth project began by experimenting with freely-available online mathematics videos and exercises from Khan Academy. However, there are a number of challenges to using the Khan Academy platform for OLICO’s specific purposes and a decision was made to build OLICO’s own customised learning management system (LMS). The OLICO LMS thus pools together a variety of relevant open-source materials and the OLICO team has been developing additional content when context-appropriate resources do not already exist (published as creative commons). For the older grades, it also serves as a gateway into the Siyavula’s Everything Maths. The broader mathematics context: Although it is a very small sample, the profiles of the OLICO Youth learners reflect many of the broader South African mathematics challenges:

  1. The nation-wide results of the Annual National Assessments (ANAs) provide clear indications that the majority of learners require significant remedial and foundational support in mathematics. The complexities of curriculum-level content increases greatly because learners are often still grappling with basic maths fundamentals. See also: SAHRC and UNICEF (2014) Poverty traps and social exclusion among children in South Africa. Pretoria: SAHRC.
  2. The shift from foundation phase mathematics (grades 1-3) to intermediate phase (grades 4-6) appears to be particularly problematic. The transition has a deep impact on mathematics understanding as it involves a shift from additive reasoning to proportional reasoning; from concrete representations of numbers and concepts to more abstract representations; and from mother tongue instruction to English. For more on the difficulties in the shift to proportional/multiplicative reasoning, see: Hiebert, J. And Behr, M. (eds) (1988) Number Concepts and Operations in the Middle Grades, Vol 2. Research Agenda for Mathematics Education. NCTM; and Harel, G. And Confrey, J. (1994) The development of multiplicative reasoning in the learning of mathematics, SUNY press, Albany.


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