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I am naturally suspicious of Web-based mathematics programs, particularly those that purport to be a "comprehensive mathematics learning system," as is claimed on the Welcome page. "HOTmaths is more than just an online maths tutor or homework helper. It is a comprehensive mathematics learning system--an interactive online math learning and teaching resource for students, parents and teachers, for home, school or homeschooling (home-based learning)." However, when I logged in as a guest teacher, student and parent many of my preconceptions disappeared.

HOTmaths does indeed provide a very comprehensive program that covers the junior secondary curriculum. It is not state-specific, but then junior secondary mathematics content is very similar throughout Australia. A quick glance at the list of topics shows that it covers content in number, space, measurement, algebra, and chance and data, with at least as wide a range as in standard textbooks. Each topic is divided into self-contained lessons that can be chosen flexibly or sequentially. This offers teachers the opportunity to use HOTmaths as a coherent mathematics program or as an additional resource when useful. It also offers students the opportunity to use it as revision when needed.

However it was not the content itself that eased my initial suspicions; it was the interactivity and support that is built into the program. Each lesson contains several resources: explanations of the concept, interactive widgets, walkthroughs that step students through questions relating to the topic, questions at different levels and "scorchers" that provide questions for students to answer, which can be timed to enable them to compete with students from other schools.

The explanations are the sorts of explanations you would find in a traditional school textbook. They are clear, detailed, make good use of colour and are written in accessible language.

The widgets provide both visual and symbolic illustrations that allow students to interact with the concepts. For example, the mean, median, mode and range widget asks students to enter eight scores, and then to change one to investigate the effect on each of the measures. It is a great way to look at outliers. The factorisation widget enables students to distribute cups, each containing y bunnies, and separate bunnies onto a given number of plates as a visualisation of an algebraic factorisation. It is visual, interactive and provides, if not an authentic context for algebra, at least an approach that emphasises the meaning of a variable. While there are a very large number of other mathematical visualisations on the Internet, some of which are, in my opinion, more flexible and more interactive than those on HOTmaths, the widgets provide a one-stop, well-organised technological resource for teachers and students.

I found the walkthroughs, scorchers and questions somewhat traditional, but that may well be a limitation of providing a self-marking resource via the Internet. For example, the place value topic asked students to write numbers as "basic numerals," and required students to include spaces when the number contained more than four digits. I thought this was a little pedantic, and was quite annoyed at being marked incorrect, especially as the convention in applications such as Excel or when ordering via the Internet is not to include spaces. While this is just one example, the need to exactly match the expected answer promotes an image of mathematics as having only one correct answer that I think can be counterproductive.

Each lesson also has one or more HOTsheets, which provide more of a problem-solving aspect to the resource. The HOTsheets can be printed and copied by teachers and used as class activities. Again, they tend to be somewhat traditional in content, but they provide a useful source of games and puzzles that are much more engaging and challenging than drill and practice type worksheets that abound in many mathematics classrooms.

The online mathematics dictionary may be one of the most useful aspects of HOTmaths. It contains a comprehensive list of mathematics terms, which are all linked to lesson and widgets that illustrate their use. While the dictionary is free the links, of course, are not.

The program has a built-in system to track students' progress through topics and results in quizzes. Students can share their progress with teachers or parents, and teachers can view the progress of students in their classes.

Of course, HOTmaths cannot replace the teacher or the class environment. It does not provide activities or problems that encourage group work or that are by nature open-ended or fuzzy. It does not, for example, ask how long it would take to fill the empire state building with oil at the world's current rate of consumption (a question on the AAMT email list earlier this year)! So it is not a replacement for a teacher, however in an environment where mathematics teachers may be at a premium it may be as close as we can get.

HOTmaths is extremely user-friendly and appears to be competitively priced. It would be particularly suitable in classes where students are working at different levels, for home schooling, and as a very comprehensive homework program. It is certainly well worth signing up for a trial or having a close look at it at the resources display at one of the state mathematics teacher conferences--and it is Australian!
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Title Annotation:Reflections on Resources with Donna Miller
Author:Thornton, Steve
Publication:Australian Mathematics Teacher
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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