Math problem? There's an app for that.

New technology turns smartphones into tutors

A new mobile app that reads math problems through a camera lens may help students who cannot afford a tutor better comprehend course material, Education News reports.

Developed by MicroBlink, and unveiled at TechCrunch Disrupt this week, PhotoMath displays step-by-step work as it solves equations. Using optical character recognition technology, the app understands printed problems on a computer screen or in a textbook—although it does not yet support handwritten text.

For now, PhotoMath knows how to work linear equations, decimal numbers, fractions, and functions such as logarithms, but MicroBlink plans to teach it more through updates.

Tests by Forbes's Amit Chowdhry found a few bugs in the app, mainly that it occasionally mistakes "x" variables for multiplication symbols and the camera viewing frame cannot always read an entire problem at once. MicroBlink plans to address these and other issues in later releases of the app.

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Despite its promise for students, MicroBlink co-founder and CEO Damir Sabol says PhotoMath was not designed as a learning tool.

"We are not an educational company," says Sabol. Instead, company officials hope to harness the technology to create online banking apps and license the technology to others.

Mobile technology in online learning

Critics have pointed out the potential for students to use the tool for cheating—as Lily Hay Newman wrote for Slate: "Let's be real here. Kids are going to use this app to cheat, right?"

But others say the app has potential as a valuable learning tool. Glenn Wardell, a Nevada math teacher, defends the app in an open letter to his peers. He argues that PhotoMath can serve as the critical key that unlocks a difficult equation for a student, improving learning and reducing frustration. The app, and other learning technology like it, compels educators to rethink the purpose of homework, he says. "We need to think deeply about how we can create an environment of learning both in and outside the classroom," he writes, "because technology is making the classroom a moot point" (Decarr, Education News, 10/27; Newman, Slate, 10/22; Plummer, Tech Times, 10/23).


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