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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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  1. Use simple calculator-like input in the following format (surround your math in backticks, or qq on tablet or phone):
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    \( \int g dx = \sqrt{\frac{a}{b}} \)
    (This is standard simple LaTeX.)

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