Virtual manipulatives made for open-ended instruction

A Mobile app development project brings instructional manipulatives online with phenomenal results

The Math Learning Center asked us to create virtual versions of manipulatives used in their classroom curriculum, ones that could be used on iPhones and iPads as well as desktops. The apps we created aren't games: they're open-ended—more like tools for exploring mathematical concepts than prompted activities. The popular apps really emphasize visual thinking, which is a powerful way to learn abstract concepts.


While working with the Math Learning Center on its online strategy, they expressed an interest in finding ways to effectively integrating uses of technology into their K-5 classroom math curriculum. The organization didn’t want merely “learning games.” They wanted open-ended educational tools ideal for elementary classrooms and other learning environments that use iPod Touches, iPhones, or iPads that could also be used on computer desktops.


From an initial brainstorm with Math Learning Center, we began work on crafting a series of apps to reinforce basic math concepts in the classroom. We took familiar real-world manipulatives—visual models used in classrooms that provide a way to talk about number value—and adapted and expanded them into virtual educational tools. From there, we applied our instructional expertise to extend and enhance the functionality to support the instructional methods and concepts being taught with the manipulatives. And finally, to provide broader access to the tools we created Web-based HTML5 versions as well.


These first of these three apps was the Number Rack, which facilitated the natural development of children’s number sense. The second was Geoboard, a tool for exploring a variety of mathematical topics introduced in the elementary and middle grades, and the third—Number Pieces—helps students develop a deeper understanding of place value while building their computation skills with multi-digit numbers. Two of the apps launched in early 2012, and a third was introduced in early 2013. Reviews have been excellent, and downloads exceed 100,000.