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Is it cheating for students to use homework apps?

Posted February 16

Apps can now completely solve any question in your child's homework. These could be wonderful teaching tools for parents and students. But when an app does the homework, is that cheating? (Deseret Photo)

Apps now exist in our digital world that can take nearly any homework question or problem and solve it instantly, leaving parents and students with the decision whether or not to use these apps. Some call it cheating; others call it learning.

Parents, think back to when you were in high school doing homework. I recall having complicated calculus assignments that my mom wouldn’t even attempt and that stumped my father, who was an engineer. He would spend the evening reading through my book to remember how to do the equations and then try to teach me.

Even now with my teenagers, I have to study before I can help them with their math homework. And I’ll admit that most often, I send them to my husband who has a better mind for such things. I can help them with any literature, English, or language, but math was never my forte. So, I started getting help for teaching my kids from an app I featured on my radio show years ago.

The Photomath app is a simple and genius concept. You point your phone’s camera at any math problem and the app gives you detailed instructions on how to solve it. And it’s free. So if students use this to do their homework, is that considered cheating?

It definitely could be. But it could also be a wonderful teaching tool, especially for students who are good independent learners. Apps like this could also be amazing for a student who doesn’t mesh well with a certain educator’s teaching style. Students can visualize how to solve the problems on their own timeline and terms.

Students have a teacher to answer questions while at school, but what are they supposed to do when they are at home? Sure, a parent may be able to help, but there's also the possibility that their parents never finished high school.

Recently, the app Socratic sat atop the list of the App Store’s Free Education apps. It works a lot like photomath, but for many different subjects. Again, you scan any question with your phone and the app gives you the answer.

The question may be from English class, “How is antithesis different from paradox?” Socratic will give you the perfect answer. That example may not be much different than just Googling the question. But the creators of this app took hundreds of thousands of student-submitted questions and had teachers break them down into core concepts.

After months of refining the algorithms, Socratic’s artificial intelligence can predict which ones a student needs to learn to solve the problem. The app’s website has this example of an organic chemistry question, “How is acetophenone phenylhydrazone catalyzed into 2-phenylindole?”

Now, if my child came to me with that homework question, I would likely fall on the floor laughing. But besides artificial intelligence, this app has carefully chosen real life Socratic Heroes like Ernest Z. to answer questions.

He’s a retired professor from Acadia University who taught organic chemistry for two decades. Ernest Z. has been with Socratic for three years and in this case gives a perfectly explained solution to that question with step-by-step instructions.

Cheating? I say learning. Professor Christopher Boyle, a psychologist and teacher based at Exeter University, agrees, saying this app could be an excellent tool.

The app’s co-founder, Shreyans Bhansali, believes kids are asking Google all their homework questions anyway. He says at least Socratic goes a step further by teaching students what they need to know to answer the questions.

A final example of homework helper apps is Brainly. This website and app uses crowdsourcing to answer homework questions. It’s like a gigantic worldwide study group. Brainly believes students are smarter together and uses the tagline, “No one knows everything, but everyone knows something.”

Students can post questions about assignments and a fellow student will answer within minutes. You can also search millions of previous questions and answers. Moderators make sure all the questions are school related and that answers aren’t copied from other websites.

Like most technology, parents will need to monitor their kids using these apps. Students could definitely just use them to copy down correct answers for their homework. But everyone would know the truth once test time rolled around. If students use these apps to learn concepts and problem-solving — ideally with help from parents — they could be a huge asset in a student’s path to a diploma.

Amy Iverson is a graduate of the University of Utah. She has worked as a broadcast journalist in Dallas, Seattle, Italy, and Salt Lake City. Amy, her husband, and three kids live in Summit County, Utah. Contact Amy on Facebook.com/theamyiverson

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