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Smartphones doing homework. Can learning apps endanger your child’s education?

| 09 Apr 2022

Difficult maths problem? Just take a picture, send it to an app, and get a solution with an explanation. Homework from a textbook? Use your phone: search for the book in a database and see the results! Current learning apps make it easier for children to find answers to all their questions. Is this a new, simplified path to cheating? Or can these apps actually educate your child?

From books to the internet, from the internet to the smartphone

Children often reach for their phones to deal with various matters: combating boredom, communicating with their friends and family, and completing homework. Until recently, the debate regarding children’s use of the internet for educational purposes was mainly focused on encyclopaedic sites, such as Wikipedia. At first, it was believed that they threatened children’s education. This was partly due to the occasional unreliability of online sources but mainly because the internet significantly simplifies the kids’ access to solutions. A similar judgement was associated with using YouTube videos for learning, even though channels are directly intended for education, such as Khan Academy. But is there really a difference between searching for answers online and looking for them in a book? In both cases, merely copying the provided explanation can be viewed as cheating, but when children filter, collage, and rewrite the critical information, they may, in fact, learn and comprehend the given issue more thoroughly.                                                                   

With the development of technologies, students can now search for information online and use specific apps that do the work for them. For instance, on Photomath, children can upload pictures of maths examples and quickly get the results together with a step-by-step explanation of the methodology. Then there is Socratic, which focuses not only on maths but also on philosophy, literature, and social studies. The app offers information on various issues and makes the answers suitable for young students to understand. Wolfram Alpha functions similarly but is mainly targeted at college students. There is also Brainly, an app on which users can ask school-related questions and get answers from other students. A similar app HwPic offers responses to questions by selected tutors. How do we approach these new learning apps that provide specific solutions to the school tasks and make it seems unnecessary to do any information assortment at all?

Prohibitions from schools versus the good intentions of the creators

As learning apps are becoming ever more commonly used by children, both teachers and parents are forced to react to the challenges that the new study aids can bring. For instance, Bethlehem Central School District has decided to discourage kids from using such apps, reassuring them that when they need help, they can always approach their teachers rather than their smartphones. Still, the creators of the apps highlight the teaching potential of their products. PhotoMath, for example, was established by an engineer who had issues assisting his children with solving maths homework. He found it difficult to simplify the explanations he gave his children, and he believed many other parents faced the same dilemma. His invention was supposed to help both children and their parents, enabling cooperation between them. Several other apps likewise make their case by encouraging teachers and parents to work with them and employ the technologies as a learning tool. Brainly, for example, urges parents to create their account, connect it to the profile of their child and use it to see what answers the children need or find information about their current topics at school.

However, the creators of the apps are aware that their products can be used for cheating. In response to the issue, HwPic prohibits cheating in their terms and conditions and refuses to offer answers to any papers that have the word “quiz” or “exam” on them. Conrad Wolfram, Wolfram Research’s Director of Strategic Development, defends the Wolfram Alpha app by claiming that “it’s cheating not doing computer-based maths, because we’re cheating students out of real conceptual understanding and an ability to drive much further forward in the maths they can do, to cover much more conceptual ground.” So, where does the truth lie?

It all depends on the use

When learning apps are employed for learning and not cheating, they can benefit a child’s education. When no one can be of help, the apps make it possible for kids to find answers to their questions and use them for their learning. This is especially useful to only children or kids whose parents may be too busy to help them with all the school assignments. Jarmila Tomková, a psychologist, explains: “Not all children have supportive families or siblings to help them with school preparation. This way, they might not be discriminated against due to their lack of resources, and they may be able to manage school prep themselves.” On the other hand, apps can also serve as a tool for parents to work together with their children: “A parent can be a supervisor of such learning, and manage the situation instead of passively considering the app as a replacement for their role,” Jarmila Tomková adds.

Some apps may work for those children who enjoy studying alone rather than in a group, while others encourage kids to cooperate by sharing their knowledge and helping other users. Through teamwork, children can learn that even though they might not be the most skilled in some fields, they may still assist their peers in other subjects. As a result, such apps can help children gain confidence – which is a significant plus. Finally, there are kids whose first language isn’t English. Through apps, they are forced to practice their language skills, which makes the technology an excellent tool for interdisciplinary learning.

Psychologist Jarmila Tomková emphasises the social aspect of the apps as one of their main benefits: Peer-to-peer communication can strengthen the child’s skills and support their self-esteem, which is an essential aspect of everyday life. Kids who assist their peers must elaborate their knowledge to formulate their messages clearly, while the recipients see that kids their age can master the knowledge. Before these apps, gifted kids were often at risk of being excluded because they were “too into learning”, but now they have an environment where they feel needed, and others welcome their knowledge. The apps are also a chance to co-create a community, meet new people, and mix kids of differing ages, genders, and social contexts. We might say that these aspects show how digital tools may help to strengthen sociability rather than isolate people.

As parents and teachers, we can use the apps together with children and project our views of education onto the way we employ the mobile learning tools. Suppose we perceive education only as learning to memorise information and get good grades. In that case, we may unknowingly support children in abusing the apps for cheating and getting just enough results to pass a subject. But when we emphasise that education is mainly about comprehending things and understanding the processes behind complex issues, we can inspire children to use the apps for their good and learn with their peers. While PhotoMath, Socratic, Brainly and others can provide children with information, kids need to know that copying these answers into their notebooks without thinking about them is not enough – that, at best, the apps serve to give them tools with which to build their knowledge.

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