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You Must Do Your Homework Now He Said

In the field of educational technology, some apps might be getting too smart.

More and more apps are delivering on-demand homework help to students, who can easily re-purpose the learning tools to obtain not just assistance, but also answers. Whether or not that's cheating—and how to stop it—is one of the concerns surrounding a new app that can solve math equations with the snap of a camera. While the software has inspired teachers to create real-world homework problems that can't be automatically solved, that strategy doesn't hold up to other apps that tap into real-life brains for solutions.

Here's a look at 7 apps that can do your homework for you, and what they have to say about cheating:

PhotoMath

Price: Free
Availability: iOS, Android app coming in early 2015

The new, seemingly magic app allows users to take pictures of typed equations, and then outputs a step-by-step solution. As of Wednesday, the app is the number one free app on the App Store. But the biggest issue, one teacher argues, isn't if students will use the app to cheat, because many will. Rather, it's about how teachers will adapt. A PhotoMath spokeswoman said educators have welcomed the app with positive reviews, but the software remains "quite controversial."

"We didn't develop PhotoMath as a cheating tool. We really wanted kids to learn," said Tijana Zganec, a sales and marketing associate at tech company MicroBlink, which created PhotoMath. "If you want to cheat, you will find a way to cheat. But if you want to learn, you can use PhotoMath for that."

iHomework

Whether you’re a high schooler with eight periods of classes or a college student tackling dozens of credits, there’s one thing you’ve got for sure: a mess of assignments. iHomework can help you keep track of all your work, slicing and dicing it in a variety of ways. Sorting it by due date, week, month, or by course, the app is more organized than a Trapper Keeper. And in integrating data from Questia, you can link your reading material to your assignments so you don’t have to dig through a pile of papers to find the right information.

A scheduling feature can help you keep track of those random bi-weekly Thursday labs, and you can even mark the location of your courses on a map so you don’t end up on the wrong side of campus. And finally, with iCloud syncing, you can access all this information on whatever Apple-compatible device you’re using at the moment — no need to dig for your iPad.

Google Apps for Education

Taking the search giant's suite of free browser-based apps and sandboxing them so they are safe for school use, Google Apps for Education is an excellent alternative to the mainstream installable productivity software, but this one has a perk that almost school board will love—it's free. Packaging together favorites like Gmail, Hangouts, Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Drive with Classroom, a digital hub for organizing assignments and sending feedback, the goal of this collection is to make learning a more collaborative process.

Though Google Apps for Education is cloud-hosted, the programs can be used offline, ideal for when your student needs to escape the internet and work distraction-free. And since it works on any device, it also helps students avoid buying overly expensive hardware. That means more money for extracurricular activities.

HwPic

Price: Free, but some homework services require payment
Availability: iOS and Android

HwPic is a tutoring service that allows students to take send pictures of their homework to tutors, who will then respond within minutes to your questions with a step-by-step solution. There's even an option to expedite the answers if a student is in a hurry. HwPic Co-Founder Tiklat Issa said that the app was initially rejected by Apple's App Store, which believed it would promote cheating, but he successfully argued that just because someone uses the app in a way that it's not meant to be used doesn't mean the app should be punished.

Issa added that HwPic prohibits cheating in its terms and conditions. Tutors don't solve homework that has words like "Quiz" or "Exam," and they often know if a student is sending a photo during a test if they've paid for expedited answers, and if the photo is dim, blurry and taken under a desk. "We've minimized cheating," said Issa. "We haven't eliminated it. That's kind of unrealistic."

Wolfram Alpha

Price: $2.99
Availability: iOS and Android

Wolfram Alpha is similar to PhotoMath, only that it targets older students studying high levels of math and doesn't support photos. The service also outputs step-by-step solutions to topics as advanced as vector calculus and differential equations, making it a popular tool for college students.

"It's cheating not doing computer-based math, because we're cheating students out of real conceptual understanding and an ability to drive much further forward in the math they can do, to cover much more conceptual ground. And in turn, that's cheating our economies," said Conrad Wolfram, Wolfram Research’s Director of Strategic Development, in a TEDx Talk. "People talk about the knowledge economy. I think we're moving forward to what we're calling the computational knowledge economy."

Homework Helper

Price: Free
Availability: iOS and Android

Chinese Internet search company Baidu launched an app called Homework Helper this year with which students can crowdsource help or answers to homework. Users post a picture or type their homework questions onto online forums, and those who answer the questions can win e-coins that can be used to buy electronics like iPhones and laptops.

The app has logged 5 million downloads, much to the dismay of many some parents who argue that the students spend less time thinking about challenging problems. A Homework Helper staffer admitted to Quartz, "I think this is a kind of cheating."

Slader

Price: Free, but some homework services require payment
Availability:
iOS

Slader is a crowdsourcing app for high school and college students to post and answer questions in math and science. While students can post original homework for help, many questions in popular textbooks have already been answered on the app, according to Fast Company. An Illinois high school said earlier this year that it suspected students were using the service to cheat on their math homework.

Slader argues that it's "challenging traditional ideas about math and education," and said that the ideas behind its app "aren't a write-off to teachers," according to its blog. Slader told San Francisco media outlet KQED that it shouldn't be dismissed as a cheating tool, but rather considered a way for students to access real-time help.

Some schools and school districts are taking a hard look at how much homework is assigned and how valuable it is for student learning. How much homework do you have, on average, each night? Is it a burden for you? Does it mostly help you learn the material and skills you are being taught? Does some of it seem like “busy work”?

Winnie Hu reports on a “homework revolution,” in which some schools and districts are rethinking their policies on and approaches to homework:

Galloway is part of a wave of districts across the nation trying to remake homework amid concerns that high-stakes testing and competition for college have fueled a nightly grind that is stressing out children and depriving them of play and rest, yet doing little to raise achievement, particularly in elementary grades.

“There is simply no proof that most homework as we know it improves school performance,” said Vicki Abeles, a mother of three from California, whose documentary “Race to Nowhere,” about burned-out students caught in a pressure-cooker educational system, has helped reignite the antihomework movement. “And by expecting kids to work a ‘second shift’ in what should be their downtime, the presence of schoolwork at home is negatively affecting the health of our young people and the quality of family time.”

So teachers at Mango Elementary School in Fontana, Calif., are replacing homework with “goal work” that is specific to individual student’s needs and that can be completed in class or at home at his or her own pace. The Pleasanton School District, north of San Jose, Calif., is proposing this month to cut homework times by nearly half and prohibit weekend assignments in elementary grades because, as one administrator said, “parents want their kids back.”

Ridgewood High School in New Jersey introduced a homework-free winter break in December. Schools in Tampa, Fla., and Bleckley County, Ga., have instituted “no homework nights” throughout the year. And the two-year-old Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a program for gifted and talented elementary students, has made homework optional: it is neither graded nor counted toward progress reports.

“I think people confuse homework with rigor,” said Donna Taylor, the Brooklyn School’s principal, who views homework for children under 11 as primarily benefiting parents by helping them feel connected to the classroom.

Students: Tell us about your homework. How much time do you spend per night on assignments? Do your homework assignments tend to reinforce your learning in class, or does it generally feel like a useless requirement? Have any of your teachers changed their homework policies or limit the homework they assign? Do you ever have optional or individualized homework? If it were up to you, what would your school’s homework policy be, and why?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment below. Please use only your first name. For privacy policy reasons, we will not publish student comments that include a last name.