Friday, February 26, 2016

AI maths app that students love and teachers hate

We’ve all been stuck on a maths problem. Look up a textbook – hardly ever helps, as the worked examples are rarely close to what you need and explanations clumsy and generic. What you really need in help on THAT specific problem. This is personalised learning and an app called Photomath does it elegantly using AI. Simply point your mobile camera at the problem. You don’t even have to click. It simply scans and comes up with the answer and a breakdown of the steps you need to take to get to the answer. It can’t do everything, such as word problems, but it’s OK for school-level maths.
Getting there
The app is quite simple at the moment and only solves basic maths problems. It has been criticised for being basic but it’s at this level that the vast majority of learners fail. But it’s getting there and I don't want to get hung up on whether Photomaths is as good as it says it is. or better than other maths apps. For me, it's a great start and a hint of great things to come. In fact Wolfram Alpha is a lot more sophisticated. But it is the convenience of the mobile camera functionality that makes it special.
The problem that is maths
Maths is a subject that is full of small pitfalls for learners, many which switch off learners, inducing a mindset of ‘I’m not good at maths’. In my experience, this can be overcome by good teaching/tutoring and detailed, deliberate feedback, something that is difficult in a class of 30 plus students. This subject, above all others, needs detailed feedback, as little things lead to catastrophic failure. This approach, therefore, where the detail of a maths problem is unpacked, is exactly what maths teaching needs. It is a glimpse of a future, where performance support, or teacher-like help, is available on mobile devices. AI will do what good teachers do, walk you through specific problems, until you can do it for yourself.
Students love it, teachers hate it
Predictably, students love this app, while teachers hate it. This is a predictable phenomenon and neither side is to blame. It happened with Google, Wikipedia, MOOCs,…..  and it’s the same argument we heard when calculators were invented. The teachers’ point is that kids use it to cheat on homework. That depends on whether you see viewing the right answer and steps in solving an equation as cheating. In my opinion, it simply exposes bad homework. Simply setting a series of dry problems, without adequate support, is exactly what makes people hate maths, as help is so hard so find when you’re sitting there, on your own, struggling to solve problems. Setting problems is fine for those who are confident and competent, it often disheartens those who are not.
Sure the app will give you the answer but it also gives you a breakdown of the steps. That’s exactly where the real leaning takes place. What we needs is a rethink about what learning and practice means to the learner (and homework) in maths. The app is simple but we now see technology that is, in effect, doing what a good teacher does – illustrating, step-by-step, how to solve maths problems.
Homework causes no end of angst for teachers, parents and students. Some teachers, based on cherry-picked evidence or hearsay, don't provide any homework at all. Many set banal and ill-designed tasks that become no more than a chore to be endured by the student. I personally think the work 'homework' is odd. Why use the language of the workplace 'work' to describe autonomous learning? In any case, we must move beyond the 'design a poster'  and get the right answer tests, to encoring autonomy in the learner. This means providing tasks where adequate support is available to help the learner understand the process or task at hand.
AI in learning
AI is entering the learning arena at five different taxonomic levels; tech, assistive, analytic, hybrid and automatic. This is a glimpse of what the future will bring, as intelligent AI-driven software delivers, initially assistance to students, then teacher-level functionality and eventually the equivalent of the autonomous, self-driving car. It's early days but I've been involved in projects that are seeing dramatic improvements in attainment, dropout and motivation using AI technology in learning.

I’ve been using AI in a tool called WildFire that uses semantic AI to create online learning content from ANY document, PowerPoint or video. No lead time, sophisticated active learning and a massive reduction in cost. We’re starting to see a new generation of tools that use smart AI techniques to deliver personalised learning. AI is fast becoming the most important development in the advancement of teaching we’ve seen to date.


Aaron Maurer said...

Best piece of writing I have read all week. So many loaded ideas and thoughts to debate whether intentional or not. So good and thank you!

Emma said...

Love the idea of based on cheery-picked evidence or hearsay, - no doubt both kids & teachers are cheery when they've not got to think about doing/setting/marking homework ;)

However, fully agree with the other points, getting enjoyment in maths is critical, often not helped by having primary teachers who didn't have great role models teaching them maths.

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