Controversial math apps won’t help kids cheat

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The girl at work. Photo: Rob LeFebvre, Cult of Mac
My daughter wishes these math apps worked better. Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

My math-averse daughter wanted to cheat on her algebra homework. So we downloaded PhotoMath, a free app that lets you take a picture of your mathematical and algebraic equations, solving them for you and showing the steps to the solution.

PhotoMath has been at the top of the App Store charts for a couple of weeks, hitting number one on the Education, Kids Games and Top Apps lists. Small wonder, as it seems like a great way to get out of doing homework.

However, despite the concerns of some parents and teachers, apps like PhotoMath just won’t help when it comes to cheating — they’re far too limited. Still, it’s a promising technology that, once it matures, might actually turn into the type of wonder tool for education we’ve long been promised, turning our iOS devices into useful educational tools that will help kids actually learn math, rather than simply giving them a shortcut to homework answers.

To test PhotoMath, I loaded the app on my iPhone and handed it to my daughter. That’s when she figured out just how limited the popular math app is.

She tried to use it on her worksheet, which was full of linear inequalities to graph. PhotoMath won’t do those, nor will it solve quadratic equations, functional equations, equation systems or calculus problems.

My daughter was particularly upset that it didn’t work on word problems. “What good is this app, anyway?” she asked, huffing back up to her room to actually do her homework.

Not super easy to use, either. Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac
PhotoMath isn’t super-easy to use, either. Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac
PhotoMath is the first app I’ve seen that uses the camera and optical character recognition technology to capture math problems. Android app yHomework will solve basic mathematics and algebraic equations, but you need to type them in.

These apps aren’t going to let you cheat in math class. They’re pretty limited, and — in the case of PhotoMath — tricky to get to work with a standard textbook. Most modern textbooks have problem numbers and wording around the equations that mean it takes a steady hand to capture only the important information.

My daughter was fed up with the finicky nature of capturing an equation within the first couple of minutes, and totally done with the app when we figured out it couldn’t help her solve even one of her homework worksheet problems.

The potential here, though, could be scary to those who think that kids should learn math technology-free, like they did back in the days of chalkboards. I contacted my daughter’s algebra teacher, Marla Sanders, to see what she thought of the tech.

“On the good side, they offer learners the chance to check and compare their work in real time so they are less frustrated during practice time,” she said in an email. The act of actually figuring out “what happened” in a well-worked problem is a great way to develop a richer understanding of the math processes involved.

But she cautions parents and teachers to monitor their kids’ use of this technology, especially as it matures. “If everyone stresses learning as the goal at hand rather than grades,” she said, “they won’t have room to misuse the technology.” Parents, teachers and administrators must present a unified front to hold kids responsible for learning, and to use these tools responsibly.

Take a picture, solve all your math problems -- not so fast. Photo: Microblink
Take a picture, solve all your math problems — not so fast. Photo: Microblink

At present, PhotoMath is an immature technology. You can use it to solve basic math problems or algebraic equations — and that’s about it. There’s a great potential here, though, as the software matures enough to quickly and easily solve a wider variety of problems. It’s up to us as parents and educators to make sure we continue to teach our children how to learn, rather than focusing on the “right answer,” which many kids can get using 20-year-old calculators.

What’s really important to me is that my daughter learns how to think abstractly and logically, which is what algebra does for her. If she needs a tool like PhotoMath to help her find out how a tricky math problem is solved, well, then, I’m all for it.

She’s certainly not able to use it to solve anything overly complicated or wordy, so she’s still gotta utilize that beautiful bit of hardware and software in her skull: her brain.