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Math Editor: Not Just Another Virtual Calculator

2017 November 27
by Sue-Ann Ma

We know what you’re thinking: does the world really need another stand-alone, virtual calculator? Well, let us stop you right there because that is not what Benetech’s Math Editor is.  Much more than a calculator, it’s an accessible way to show your work. If you have ever worked with students who have had trouble in math because they have a visual disability, a cognitive disability, a physical disability that makes using pen and paper impossible, or even just illegible handwriting, then you’ll want to check out this tool that lets students show their work digitally.

In response to community feedback urging for tools for editing digital math, the DIAGRAM Center, with the help of Dr. Neil Soiffer, is developing an accessible math editor that makes it easier for students with disabilities to do math online. Showing and communicating one’s work online (a Common Core criteria) is challenging for students and educators and especially difficult for students with disabilities. When the DIAGRAM team began reviewing digital math education tools, we were disheartened to learn that none of the 70+ tools we investigated had three educational features that are critical to digital math education:

  •  Inclusive tool that all learners, with and without disabilities, can use, with accessibility
    features for learners requiring different input and output modes;
  • Enabling students to show work and demonstrate comprehension, particularly important as Common Core standards require students not only to do the math, but also to explain how they do it;
  • Ability to manually manipulate equations by moving or crossing out
    components, without having the platform simplify the math automatically.

While tools like digital scratchpads for math are often available on the online platform, they are typically inaccessible for many students with disabilities, such as visual impairments, learning, or motor disabilities; they also tend to be incompatible with assistive technologies. Our early classroom observations uncovered huge gaps in existing tools that support students doing math online and allow students to communicate their work to their teachers. As a result, we wanted to provide alternatives for students with physical disabilities or issues with fine motor skills that would allow them to explain math problems verbally. For students with intellectual disabilities, we wanted to reduce the cognitive load of complex math problems by allowing students to review their work step by step. And for students with visual disabilities, we wanted to make sure there was adequate screen reader and braille compatibility so that students could work independently.

While learners were the primary target users of Benetech’s Math Editor, our early user feedback tests revealed that such a tool can also provide huge benefits to teachers. By keeping a true history log of each student’s work with user explanations attached, educators are provided more information to accurately assess the level and needs of each individual learner. Furthermore, a platform that records a student’s steps and explanations throughout the problem-solving process minimizes the amount of one-on-one time required by educators to grasp the thought process of a particular student.

Last month, the DIAGRAM Center and Dr. Soiffer completed the initial prototype of the Benetech Math Editor. While still in the alpha stage, we are incredibly excited about the potential for this tool both with students who have disabilities and for students in mainstream classrooms. A seventh-grade math teacher told us: “It makes me so happy to see all the academic vocabulary being used in their explanations, and actually being able to read their thoughts as they work through the problems! You all really thought through this problem and came up with a great solution.”

Students also responded favorably. In our most recent round of testing, four out of five students preferred the math editor over using pencil and paper (which, until trying Math Editor, was their first choice). “This tool gives me the ability to review my work and steps before submitting it to my teacher; it also helps me break the problem down into smaller steps.” said one student. Another student was thrilled because “it helps people with messy handwriting – now my teacher doesn’t have to guess what I wrote.”

We’re excited to receive such positive feedback so early on in the project and look forward to receiving more feedback from students and educators representing various disabilities. If you or a student you know are interested in being a tester, please contact Sue-Ann (

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