Asher Wallen is a friendly guide through the rite of passage known as algebra class.
An eighth-grader at Buist Academy in downtown Charleston, Asher is helping his fellow students navigate Algebra 1 via an online program called Algebra Nation, which South Carolina is spending $1.5 million on this school year. Every school district has the option of using it.
Algebra Nation is accessible by smartphone, tablet or computer and features video tutorials, practice problems and an interactive homework help page called the Algebra 1 Wall.
For students Asher's age, the glow of handheld device screens in the classroom was already a familiar sight before Algebra Nation added one more tool. He said he's been using an iPad at school for five years now, and districts around the Lowcountry have been making multimillion-dollar investments in Google Chromebooks and other devices for classroom and home use.
"We have our technology at school and we're already staring at it seven hours a day just at school," Asher said. "If we're going to be so absorbed in the technology anyway, it's worth doing educational stuff with the technology, as well."
Algebra Nation was created by the University of Florida's Lastinger Center for Learning in a partnership with the company Study Edge. Since Florida began offering the program to its students in 2013, pass rates have increased dramatically on end-of-course algebra tests there, particularly among minority and low-income students.
'Don't give the answers'
The Algebra 1 Wall resembles a series of comment threads from Facebook or other social media platforms and lets students ask for help on problems and give each other help. It's where Asher chimes in with advice for his fellow students.
A handful of adult "study experts" hired by Algebra Nation can jump in to offer corrections and tips and to award "Karma Points" for students who provide helpful input.
"Just don't give the answers — that's the biggest rule," Asher said.
The site tracks the top earners of Karma Points each month, and statewide winners can receive prizes such as iPads for their good deeds. Asher topped the charts for several months in the fall, slipping to second place in December when his family traveled to India.
No one is close to catching Asher on the all-time leaderboard, though. Through helpful hints on quadratic equations and the finer points of linear functions, he has racked up 89,600 points to date — more than twice the total of South Carolina's next student.
"It helps me if I want to tutor," Asher said. "It helps with my communication skills."
Asher's teacher, Judy Blitch, is a longtime math instructor who has never been shy about bringing technology into her classroom. She brought a personal computer into a kindergarten classroom in the late 1970s, starting with a clunky Radio Shack model before upgrading to the Apple IIe.
When Charleston County schools adopted Algebra Nation, Blitch quickly added the videos to her classroom repertoire and encouraged students to use them to review old material or work ahead on advanced problems.
"It doesn't necessarily change it, but it supplements what I do and it ties into the way I teach really well," she said.
"They seem to like it," Blitch added. "And anything that they like, I'm in favor of."
Too soon to tell
Several states and counties have inked multimillion-dollar contracts to offer versions of the program aligned with their own state standards, including a $1.5 million statewide rollout in Michigan last school year and smaller pilot programs in Mississippi and Alabama.
Algebra Nation began vying for a South Carolina contract in 2016. In Charleston County schools, which already was working with the Lastinger Center on literacy coach training, Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait expressed interest in the program during a December 2016 school board meeting. The Charleston area's Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative got on board with the idea after reviewing it with leaders from nine state colleges and universities, according to CEO John Read.
"They found this was a pretty effective way to supplement teaching and learning in the classroom with some online and workbook-based help to grasp the basics of Algebra 1," Read said.
Algebra Nation also ran a full-court press in the Statehouse as budget talks began last year, paying $20,000 to lobbyists in the first half of 2017, according to state Ethics Commission filings.
The state Legislature approved Algebra Nation as a pilot program for the 2017-18 budget year, setting aside a one-time sum of $1.5 million.
By last month, 65 of the state's 82 school districts had opted into the program. Algebra Nation staff had trained 1,100 educators on its program, and more than 27,000 students had logged onto the site. Last school year, about 62,700 students took South Carolina's Algebra 1 end-of-course test.
Most of the state's largest school districts have joined in, with one notable exception: Horry County Schools, the third-largest district in the state. It considered the program but decided not to use it, spokeswoman Lisa H. Bourcier said.
"HCS already has digital content in place to support math instruction, and we decided not to implement an additional program at this time," Bourcier said.
Algebra Nation has earned a few skeptics elsewhere. When Michigan implemented its Algebra Nation program last year, some district leaders said they found the program redundant with their existing math intervention programs.
South Carolina has no hard data on the program's effectiveness yet. After this school year ends, the Education Oversight Committee will look at scores on the state's end-of-course Algebra 1 test and present its findings to the legislature. Then lawmakers are expected to decide whether to make the program permanent, at an estimated cost of $1.5 million to $2 million a year.
About three-quarters of South Carolina students who took the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam last school year passed it, according to the S.C. Department of Education. But scores skewed toward the bottom end, with only 9 percent earning an A, 13 percent earning a B, 22 percent earning a C, 30 percent earning a D and 25 percent earning an F.