My dilemma – ethical math help

By Murray Bourne, 30 Nov 2011

I often get advertising inquiries from companies offering math products and services.

I’m fussy about what advertisements I include on the site, since I don’t want you, my readers, to be ripped off by some shady operators. I have rejected many of these offers.

Here’s a mail I received recently (I have removed identifying information):

My name is *** and I am an Academic advisor with *** company. We have something that might be helpful to you.

We help students with their assignments and homework. We are equipped with highly qualified academic experts and their expertise will certainly cater to your needs. Our motto is to meet the deadlines and offer affordable rates for assignments and homework.

If you are interested, please call me at ***.

I checked out their site and was not impressed. Their business model involves students uploading homework assignments and paying a fee, then the "tutors" at the company will do the homework, then return the answers.

There is no attempt whatsoever to teach the student anything. The company just does the homework and gets paid. So instead of "We help students with their assignments", if they were honest it should say "We do students’ assignments for them".

There’s a big difference. The student could hand in the answers they have paid for while having no clue about what the math means or how it works. The student gets a grade, sure, but what have they learned? And is it ethical? Certainly not.

Of course, the student could study the solutions provided by the company and learn something, but I doubt too many would. It’s not how it works for most people.

My dilemma

So far in this story, there is no dilemma. I politely replied to that company saying there were no advertising opportunities.

My dilemma comes from some of the software-based problem solvers I write about and have embedded on the site.

For example, Wolfram|Alpha will solve problems for you. It won’t handle word problems usually, but it will certainly solve most algebra problems and in most cases, it will show you the steps.

So is there any difference between getting a machine to do a student’s math homework (which I fundamentally think we should be doing more of anyway), or paying a human to do it? Is it ethically the same?

What we teach in math, and how we teach it should change dramatically now that more of us have ready access to computing power. But while this approach is not expected or even allowed in most math classes (and certainly not in any math exam – yet), what are we to do?

I’d be interested to hear your views on this. Please respond in the comments below.

See the 16 Comments below.

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16 Comments on “My dilemma – ethical math help”

  1. Alan Cooper says:

    Thanks for taking an ethical position re the ads and for continuing to point out to your many student readers the importance of learning to think for themselves.

    Actually, I think it is irresponsible for an instructor to give more than nominal credit for homework. I tell students that they should make sure to have everything right, by hook or by crook, *before* they hand it in, and that the token mark is intended as a “give-away”, but I also say that if they don’t make the best effort to do it first without aids then they will probably suffer for that later on the tests and exam. I hate the “just do it” services as much as anyone, but my main complaint about them is that they cheat the student rather than the system.

    With regard to technology, I have gone on before about the strategy of making assessment questions for which it is not helpful, but I do see value in suggesting that students perform some calculations by hand in order to see how things work. But again, if they don’t take my advice that’s their look out.

    cheers,
    Alan

  2. Sue VanHattum says:

    But wolframalpha is free, and an ad just tells more people about it. Teachers need to know about it, and revise their expectations accordingly. More teachers than students visit your site, I imagine, so you’re likely doing a service.

  3. Philip Petrov says:

    I have the following viewpoint – if somebody pay to somebody else to do his homework, then:

    1. He is totally “out of the subject” already;
    2. There was nobody to teach him well on the subject anyway.

    Reaching the point to pay to somebody else to do your homework is critical for your future pathway. From that moment you have to choose to “recover” and make up for the loss of time to earn knowledge OR you give up and degrade uniformly. Usually the “rich students” (who don’t care giving money) end with the second case.

  4. Murray says:

    Thanks all for your input.

    @Alan: Your point about how much credit to give for homework is a key one for sending the right messages. Sadly, most instructors I deal with believe students will only do a thing if substantial marks are allotted to it, so they like to give a lot of marks for substantial amounts of homework.

    @Sue: Yes, teachers and students should know about these tools! Actually, the majority of visitors to IntMath is students, and the proportion of students to teachers is around 25:1. See Who are you? Visitors to the IntMath site (a bit old now – the majority of visitors use Chrome browser now – IE continues to die :-) )

    @Philip: Thanks for mentioning something I meant to. The unfairness comes when the rich can afford to buy answers, while the poor cannot. While Wolfram|Alpha is free (well, the browser-based version is but the iPhone app will cost you), it won’t solve most word problems. So you still need to go to a human to get help.

  5. Steven Nickerson says:

    When a student gets a wrong answer to a problem they often have no idea if the issue is with their setup or mechanics of the solution. That leads to frustration, a feeling of total failure and of being overwhelmed. By using the computer as an aid to the mechanics, the student may discover which side of the fence the issue is on and then concentrate more effort where it’s needed. Knowing they have the correct setup gives them enough confidence and drive to find the issue with the mechanics. Finding the setup to be in error lets them know that is where to put more effort. I do assume this is not in doing basic mathematics.

  6. Philip Petrov says:

    Translating the real life problem to the math language (I call it “defining the math problem”) – this is the most important thing for every math student! Exactly that ability separates the real mathematicians from the regular people. Regular people use tools and gadjets. Real mathematicians help engineers to invent tools and gajets.

    Of course you cannot invent something using tools if you do not know how they work. Therefore knowing the calculations is also “a must” for a professional; however on my opinion it’s on the second place. Humans are different from the machines with their thinking, not with calculations. Thinking is important!

  7. Ruby says:

    A student paying someone to do his/her homework is just trying to fool the teacher when in the end he/she is just fooling himself/herself(same goes with cheating during quizzes, exams). In case the student does read and go over the assignment and learns, where does that leave the student in the end?

  8. Pat says:

    When Wolfram software graphs a function for me or produces the result of mathematical manipulations of matrices , I actually feel like I am learning a lot more. My understanding of the behaviour of certain functions is more clearer when I can readily visualize them, and Wolfram helps me confirm whether my approach to the solution is right or wrong, whether I am headed down the right path.
    Seeing is believing, especially for people like me who are not math experts but yearn to learn more and more math every day.

  9. Murray says:

    @Steven: Very true for the genuine student, but for the one who just wants a grade…?

    @Philip: Yes, the thinking step is what we humans do better than machines – and that’s what we should put more emphasis on in math classrooms.

    @Ruby: Yah – math is not a spectator sport!

    @Pat: That’s exactly how I use it. Give me a visual, I can immediately see what is going on.

  10. usha says:

    I think by discussing the above issue is not going to give any solutions unless there is some change in the education system. Only if the punishment and gradings are totally stopped from our educational system, students will understand the true value of education. To have this to happen first there should be change in the way how the teachers teach. Only those who love their job and children should be eligible for teaching profession. Dream day is not too far..

  11. Steven Nickerson says:

    In all areas of study there are two different type of people, those who learn best through written/word based explanations and those better served by picture based explanations. The computer serves as an invaluable tool to fill in the gaps on either side as needed. As an aside, I believe that more emphasis should be placed on the proper application of the learned mathematics, I often feel we are driven towards a full chest of tools, but not always is it clear when/which tool should be utilized; here again the computer is very helpful. Mathematics is to students as is art, some are born with the ability, some have such an interest that they learn very quickly and some find it so hard or just dislike it so much that they reject even the mention of it. We don’t force students to learn advanced painting, why force those who so strongly dislike math as to cheat whenever or however it’s possible?

  12. Philip Petrov says:

    Steven Nickerson – No, I should disagree with the last two sentences. Everybody can learn to draw and paint. Yes, not everybody can be a painter. The same way everybody can learn mathematics to excellent level. Yes, not everybody can be a mathematician, even if he was excellent.

    We DO force students to learn the subjects they dislike. This is because a single subject is nothing in education. Do you call “scientist” a person who knows ONLY chemistry? I do not. Because he do not know how to APPLY his knowledge. He is just a technician.

    A real math scientist (for example) must be excellent or at least very good in everything in the high school education – including philosophy, chemistry, biology, history… Only then he can specialize in math. He will know where to apply that math.

    But when this “real math scientist” was a child we don’t know yet if he will be excellent or not. Children change a lot during their teenage years. And yes, children do not know what they want all time time. Therefore I don’t believe that there is a child which will say “I love all subjects at school equally”. They dislike some subjects. Yes, we DO force them to learn them. Elsewhere we break the chain in the education.

    All subjects in the education are in a chain. If you miss a ring from this chain – you miss everything that follows.

  13. Arun prakash says:

    Students who are not impressed by math (in others words, who are all think math as mere procedures to be followed to find an answers for problems without knowing what it is actually) will find a way to solve problems by any means (Either using a “software” or “paying tutor”).

    “How to teach is more important than what you teach”

    If they are lucky enough to have a good teachers they will not utilize the software to solve a problems (Instead, will use it to explore the math ) or looking for a paying tutor.

    If they are not lucky enough,THEY HAVE NO OTHER OPTION.(to them Math is burdensome, they look for some shoulders to handover)

  14. Philip Petrov says:

    Having “good teachers” in comparison to the “bad teachers” is of course welcome. Students are well motivated by the good teachers and not motivated by the bad teachers.

    But what will happen if suddenly all teachers become “good”? I will tell you – it will be the same thing as it is when “all teachers are bad”. Oh, yes in my country we do have schools where all teachers are underpaid and are located in “bad regions”. What is the result? The result is that still some students are inspired by literature, others inspired by math, many inspired by nothing.

    So if all teachers are equally good (regardless good or bad on our own criteria), then the students will find their own subject.

    If only some teachers are more good then others, then the students will be tricked to learn something, which is not their vocation.

    The education is a “SYSTEM” for a reason. Part of the job of this system is to regulate “the power of inspiration” by the subjects. Even if that involves suppressing a very good teacher to lower his level to the others.

  15. Rene says:

    In these modern times, homework should be only a help for the student to train himself (herself) on the subject. It can no longer be graded or be part of the examination in any way. Actually, it is desirable to teach the student to appreciate the homework as a preparation for the test. Returning and marking the homework is just a service to provide feedback to the student. For the student returning a homework done by somebody else or found in the internet then does not make sense at all.

    The grading must be done in an examination, and only there, at controlled conditions.

    So I see no problem to publish any hints for the homework.
    To the contrary, a hint may be all the student needs to get himself going. Homework is for learning, not for examination. Many of the things I know today, I have learned by hints from others, helping me along the way.

  16. Murray says:

    Thanks all for your insights.

    @Rene: I’m with you – math homework is something like piano practice. If you don’t do it, learning isn’t as effective. But many lecturers say, “We have to allocate marks for the homework otherwise the students won’t do it.”

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