Sunday, October 26, 2014

Let Your Phone do Your Math Homework

So I have waited for the dust to settle on this one a bit before I make a formal comment but the current buzz is about this new math app called Photomath. Take a look

Yup, this app will look at your math problem, interpret it, solve it, then show you the steps. The concept is pretty impressive. In practice though it still needs work. It doesn't work on all types of problems (I tried trig and solving a quadratic but neither worked) and you have to be able to isolate the problem you want to solve in the window but for the most part it does ok once it recognizes the problem you want the answer for.
That being said, I tried it out with these four problems. You can see in the video below that some work great and others not so well. Usually though, if the answer is wrong, that means it has misinterpreted the question (ie the character recognition did not properly see the question). And character recognition is tough and doubly tough when it is dealing with math formatting. So I can cut them some slack there. That being said, I do have an issue when the question is interpreted correctly and then the math to solve it is done wrong. That is what happens with the last question. Now granted it is a complex question but with the right algorithm, a computer should be able to solve this without a problem. But watch what the app does in this case:

So the app is not quite ready for prime time yet but apparently since it's release a couple of weeks ago has amassed over 2 million downloads. So clearly there is perceived a need here but there are a couple of things to mention.
  1. if indeed this thing gets cleaned up and works then that means that math teachers will really have to rethink what it means to give homework. I am not saying that they should stop giving it or kids shouldn't practice but clearly if you give a kid a bunch of fraction problems to do at home and all they do is use the app then that could be problematic. 
  2. it is actually possible for kids to learn by seeing the patterns of many solutions done in front of them. So theoretically a student could use the app to "teach" the solution process and then move out on their own only using the app for checking. 
Now there has been a lot of discussion on the implications on the net and I think for the most part there is a large faction of teachers that are good with this since it now makes the math we give to students have to be more challenging and interesting (not that we need the app for that). There was a good discussion on Dan Meyer's blog that brought out a lot of ideas. Dan even tweeted out some of my screenshots and these even got featured in a NY Daily News article that he was interviewed for.
The general gist here is that the sky is not falling. Technology will continue to change the way we do things in class. And there are even many ways that this app can actually be used by teachers right now. For example, have students check if the app gets the correct answer. But consider this "shots fired" over the bow of those teachers who think that giving worksheet after worksheet is a great way to for kids to learn math and that just showing example after example of sample solutions is a great way to teach it. For those teachers, clearly they could be replaced by an app. That's not good. It should be a wake up call that we have to be giving something more value added than that in the classroom or we will be replaced by an app.

Now of course the real controversy is that the app was ripped off from the Big Bang Theory :-)
UPDATE (Nov. 13, 2014) - There has been an update to the app and it seems that the math is better. I ran it through the same problem that it stumbled upon above and it was able to solve it (and the mathematical form was better). So I hope they keep up and continue to refine it. You can see at the right that on the step that it stumbled prior (see above video), it now does fine (and then eventually, 7 steps later, gets the correct answer of -45)

1 comment:

ssasa said...

I work for PhotoMath and can say that we continuously improve the app and add new features. Feedback is always welcomed ;)