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Apping Math

Authored By: 
Kate Bendrick, Math Teacher

"Photomath” is an app. It's free. Its name alone conveys its purpose: take a picture of a math problem and the app will instantly provide you a step-by-step solution to it.

This past summer, Photomath reached the status of being the top free app available on the iTunes App Store. The developers of the app claim that they designed it as a learning tool, rather than a way for students to cheat on homework. As an educator, I can empathize. As much as students may think math teachers live for making children (and their parents) pull out their hair, what we are really after is understanding: challenge and struggle that resolves into a feeling of accomplishment and contentment. The goal is to look at a situation that used to be incomprehensible, and now is far from it.

Staring at a math problem for hours, while a pile of homework assignments from other subjects sits awaiting patiently is not what educators want for their students. This is why I understand the motivation that the developers of Photomath had, because when you're stuck, you need help, so not necessarily someone to do everything for you, but an explanation as to how to stay on track. So I share the developers’ desire to provide a helping hand when the teacher is not around to offer guidance.

To think that this tool is being used exclusively as it was intended is however not something I would endeavor to argue. It is an app that can make the “problem”, i.e. an inconveniently difficult math question, disappear in a poof of white smoke. “Homework Helper” is also free, and where Photomath needs no human input at all, Homework Helper rounds up as many brains as it can in a sort of homework crowdsourcing. Students can upload a problem, and other users will compete to solve it, winning e-coins that can be used to purchase real rewards like smartphones. Talk about collaborative effort!

These apps are just two of the many options widely available. This new technological environment means that teachers have to rethink the very idea of having students do their practice work outside of the classroom. The wave of innovation is inevitable, and teachers must adjust. The innovation means, too, that information is widely and instantaneously available through resources like Khan Academy. One way to adjust, particularly in mathematics, is by having students do their practice work during class, so that those moments of hair-pulling don't turn into complete shutdown. Gone are the days when a teacher was the only source of information; for better or for worse, we are surrounded by a sea of instantly-accessible human knowledge. Let us take advantage of all that that offers.