PhotoMath app…is it a good thing or a bad thing?

This week, connected educators have been all over social media talking about a relatively new app to hit the scene – PhotoMath.  This is an app, which you can download for free from the App Store or Windows Store, which uses your device’s camera to scan – AND THEN SOLVE – Math problems.  Yes, it actually solves the problems.  Not only that, but then you can click on the “Steps” button, and it shows you step-by-step how the problem was solved!

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When I first read about this app, I was thinking about Math problems like 7+4 or 18 – 9.  As you can see from the picture above, however, this app knows algebra!  Here are the mathematical features that the app currently claims to be able to solve:

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For all of those students who have teachers who mandate, “Show your work!”, this is a dream come true.  Seriously!  The student point-of-view on this is going to be pretty consistent – this is awesome technology!

For educators, though, there is much debate and a lot of mixed feelings about PhotoMath.  I’ve been following the tweets and several blog posts, and many educators fear the implications of an app like this.  They say that if an app can solve problems for students, they’ll “cheat” and just use the app rather than learn the valuable problem solving skills themselves. This camp of educators feels that there is tremendous value and even a critical need for students to practice the logical steps involved in Math calculations.  They call for stricter rules about BYOD use, and fear that unsupervised students will exclusively use this for homework.

Teachers on the other side of this debate claim that it’s a great tool.  They say that if technology is available that makes it possible to skip lengthy processes, why not use it?  Their subsequent thought is that skipping all of the problem solving by relying on the PhotoMath app will give students an opportunity to use those results in higher-level, deeper thinking, real world problems…more time for PBL stuff and ‘taking it to the next level’.

As for me, I’m torn.  I understand both sides.  As a primary school educator, I just can’t get past feeling the necessity of students learning their basic Math facts.  I want students to be able to know how to do multiplication and long division.  I guess that’s an old-fashioned value from someone who’s supposedly a forward-thinking tech geek like me.  On the other hand, however, I tried the PhotoMath on some of my son’s high school Algebra problems – and it worked – and I gasped with delight!  Both he and I were able to look through the steps of the problems and see how they were solved.

A couple of educators I follow on Twitter had interesting ideas and thoughts.  One teacher was planning on having his students solve the problems manually and then again with the PhotoMath app, to be followed by an analysis of the accuracy of the app and how closely the steps modeled their own steps.  (Some reviews on the app’s website claim that the answers aren’t always right.)  Another clever teacher was going to use it as a point-of-view writing exercise:  choose whether the PhotoMath app is a good thing or a bad thing and defend your answer.  I guess that writing teacher wouldn’t be too pleased with me.  I take both sides.

Below is a video that shows how PhotoMath works.  Check it out, decide for yourself, and let me know your thoughts.  You can reply at my blog at kerszi.wordpress.com, @kerszi on Twitter, or on Facebook as My Primary Techspiration.

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