Friday, 24 October 2014

“Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer should be”

There’s been a lot of talk on Twitter this week about an app called PhotoMath.  It scans mathematics live and then gives an “answer” to the question.  This is a screenshot of it:



Some comments on Twitter seem to think it’s cheating whilst others think it’s the future (although to be honest most seem to mirror my experience of struggling to get it to read anything sufficiently accurately to evaluate or solve it).

Any question that can be answered by a computer should be

Arthur C Clarke once said “Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer should be”. It’s a great quote and I’d like to offer a variation on this:
Any question that can be answered by a computer should be.

The whole point of mathematics is to investigate the relationships between mathematical objects or solve real problems (I’ll skirt round the definition of “real” here!).  There are many processes that are useful in doing this but where they can be reduced to algorithms (such as solving linear equations, square rooting or dividing) there is no inherent value in performing these algorithms manually as opposed to outsourcing them to technology.

Whilst this app might not be perfect there are many (free) CAS tools that will solve equations and evaluate expressions that are typed in to them.  It doesn't worry me that a computer can solve a linear equation and that a student might “cheat” on their homework.  What does worry me is the excessive focus of many maths questions on getting students to learn algorithmic processes – technology presents an opportunity to refocus the curriculum on the important skills of making connections within the subject and solving problems.