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.
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 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
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.