B. Gilliard

Technology is often blamed for encouraging bad behavior, particularly when it comes to academic dishonesty. There’s the notion, for example, that it’s much easier to plagiarize now thanks to the ability to copy and paste information from the Web into a term paper.

So at first blush, the new homework help Web site Slader might be accused of fostering just this sort of cheating behavior. The site offers the answers to homework questions in most major high school level math textbooks, and depending on how much you use it, there’s a fee. Students can pay for answers. Answers to all the questions, not just the odd ones. And answers with explanations and “proofs.” But it’s not as straightforward a transaction as it looks.

Though the site was originally launched with answers written by math tutors and teachers, the plan going forward is to use the peer-to-peer model — students helping each other on the site. The most useful answers will be rated with stars to distinguish them.

Of course, students have long shared their answers the old fashioned way —  turning to one another for help, sharing their answers and solutions — whether over the phone or face-to-face, whether transcribed word-for-word from another student’s paper or solved thanks to the help and support from a peer. And that will be the model used for Slader: homework answers for students written by students.

Anticipating the criticism, the New York-based startup believes it’s a mistake to dismiss this simply as cheating; rather they say the aim is to provide real-time help to students to work through their homework — an online study hall, if you will. The startup is providing the tools for students to share their work and teach and learn with one another.

That teaching element is important to recognize, and co-founder Scott Kolb says the site is much more of a tutoring resource than simply a place to go look up and jot down the right answer. It’s a type of “microtutoring,” he says.

That “micro” element doesn’t just mean simply that Slader offers help on a specific math problems rather than, say, hiring a math tutor for more generalized help with the subject. The Web site also features “microtransactions.” In other words, there’s an intellectual and a monetary exchange per answer, handled via points and via a per-answer access. While there is a free version of Slader, there are limitations on the number of answers users can view per day (two).

With a paid subscription, that limitation is still in place: subscription rates range from $2 to $4 per month with the ability to view 5, 15, or 30 solutions per day. Users can also purchase more views (in case of math emergency, I suppose).

It’s worth pointing out here that the site is designed with the recognition that most high school students probably don’t have credit cards to pay for these sorts of online transactions. As such, one can pay for points via parents’ credit cards, but points can also be gifted to another person or offered as “bounties” to answer other questions. And most interestingly, users can also earn points that can actually be “cashed out.”

One way to earn points: contributing one’s own homework answers back to the Slader community.

It’s an interesting way to encourage students to help one another and to share their homework solutions: doing so allows them to earn royalties of sorts on the work they do. Slader pays points each time a solution is viewed. So ideally the better the solution, the more views, and the more earnings. Users can actually “cash out” too, withdrawing the money they’ve earned via the site.

The ability for students to earn money from their homework is certainly an interesting twist on “the work” they are doing.

In order to create a platform that can handle math homework (all that mathematical notation and such), the Slader team has created a number of tools, including an equation editor that captures the step-by-step process of moving through a solution. The team has also seeded the site with solutions to the homework problems in most high school level math textbooks. That’s no easy task with approximately 100 textbooks in their various versions and editions (so roughly 275 textbooks in all). To create the answers (and it’s worth noting too that there are multiple answers to the same question, demonstrating there are multiple ways to solve math problems), Slader enlisted the help of some 2,500 math majors and math teachers.

But the startup’s demand for answers to every single homework problem in every single math textbook may be an obstacle that Slader will have to cross if it plans to expand. As is, it’s incredibly challenging to keep pace with the ever-changing textbook industry. And right now, much of this work on Slader’s part is done by hand. This isn’t a mechanized system; this is the Slader team verifying correct answers as well as verifying the pages and exercise numbers in textbooks. Things will be further complicated if, as the startup plans, it expands beyond math to other subject areas.

And the startup also faces competition from a variety of other online homework help sites: Cramster, for example, or Yahoo Answers or Homeworkhelp.com. Googling “I need help with homework” makes evident that there are a lot of questionable Web sites out there, ones with questionable answers and questionable fees. That will make it challenging for Slader to win an SEO game against some of these sites so that the startup actually shows up in searches. But it’s also a challenge on the “social” search aspect as well. After all, students want the “right” answer, but they also tend to want to hear it from sources they trust — and oftentimes that’s their friends.

As Slader expands, it will have to win over interest (and pocketbooks) of high school students to convince them to move their homework activities to its online community. It will also have to win over teachers and parents (something that the startup already makes a great effort to do), to help them understand that this isn’t about cheating. Rather it’s about students teaching and learning and sharing with one another. It’s about recognizing that they’ve always done this. And as such, it’s about helping students with the tools and a service so that they can benefit in doing so — benefit intellectually as well as financially.

Redefining “Cheating” With Homework 5 January,2012Audrey Watters

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm. Audrey, seems like everything you write elicits a swirling mixed reaction in me. In this case, my first reaction is that I’m glad I teach writing, where “getting the right answer” isn’t really part of the equation. For those of us who truly engage with our student’s writing from the first day of class, it is pretty much impossible for them to take shortcuts.

    • Anonymous

      Uh oh — mixed reactions, eh?  Is that good or bad? 🙂

      And I agree, as a former writing teacher myself, that I often have a hard time imagining about how some of these new systems would work for my field.  I think about this a lot when it comes to some of the artificial intelligence grading systems that are currently being developed.

      But in the case of online homework help, I do think that we should encourage more p2p sharing/teaching/learning.  Have you heard of Kibin? (https://kibin.com/)

      • Anonymous

        Hey, from a writer’s perspective, any reaction is a good one, right? You definitely know how to get my attention. : )

        I am ALL FOR as much response to student’s writing as possible. I encourage them to use peers, the Writing Center, Mom, etc for input. Online response could certainly be added to the mix (especially for more advanced writers), but it’ll never be as potent as sitting beside someone talking over their piece of writing (especially for less advanced writers). 

        Thanks for telling me about Kibin. I’ll check it out.

    • Personally, I think that there needs to be more of a balance in mathematics education between the ‘right answer’ and a good process. Too much focus on perfection IMHO, and not enough on mathematical thinking.

      I tutor a student who’s mathematics teacher does not allow them to show work on their tests. She only accepts final answers, and all of their work has to either be done in their head, or on a separate piece of paper. That’s a completely ridiculous practice based on the mistaken notion that if kids can just get the right answer, they can do mathematics. Doing actual mathematics is much more involved than just getting a bunch of solutions to calculations.

  • amathteacher

    2 things:
    1.  Homework is part of the learning process and should not be graded for accuracy in my opinion.  The student is preparing to demonstrate learning with homework.  If they are not participating in the process, it will reflect in the assessment.  Some people may not need to do homework at all to get a concept, at least in math.
    2.  In the real world, you have to collaborate with others, and you have to perform as an individual.  Watching others is a great way to learn, hence traditional education (watch me then do it).  Practicing is a great way to learn and get better.  This website facilitates learning if the user uses it in that way.

    Its time to hold learners accountable for learning. This type of web based learning helps people learn.  If students are not learning or caring about learnng (just cheating), it will catch up to them.

  • Robert

    Hopefully, tools like this will help us redefine what homework is. Students don’t need to complete 2-36 even every night for homework. They could be working with more difficult, real world (non text book) problems or watching math lectures on-line and spending class time workshopping difficult problems or debunking myths related to the lecture.

    • Dfitzwell

      You’re a lazy idiot.

      • ?? I think someone who writes such a simple response to a complex idea needs to rethink who is calling whom a lazy idiot.

    • gamerdarling

      If proficiency is the question that teachers are attempting to answer I believe tests are meant to handle that. I’ve always thought that assignments should be open book and collaborative.

      I don’t think it’s lazy so much as recognizing that homework is about learning the subject, not proving you understand it…given that repetition is not always the best method. 

  • teacher333

    What’s to stop a student from not even attempting to do any of the work, just go onto the site and get the answers?  It seems with each passing year, students are not as willing to put forth the extra effort needed to think for themselves…there is less sticking with a problem until it is solved and less effort on their pat.  I am all for technology and the collaborative/cooperative effort, but as long as they still sit alone and take a standardized state test and get assessed for what they know, this is not the way to go!

  • Shama Noman

    homework is for revision and reassurance…besides it should be achievable and attainable…challenges should be welcomed in classrooms in the presence of teachers and peers…nothing can replace the learning in a discussion or argument…

  • Thomas Seager

    Remember pback in the 1970’s when calculators supposedly were going to ruin math education?  Now they are required by advanced High School math classes (and they are not cheap).

    Technology changes a lot faster than educational norms do.

  • Manish kumar verma

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  • JEA

    “What’s to stop a student from not even attempting to do any of the work, just go onto the site and get the answers?”

    And this is exactly why I have asked for the site to blocked on our school computers. This won’t keep them completely away from it, but it will make it a little more difficult.

    Answers are one thing to give…but detailed solutions that offer a way for kids to pass off work as their own teaches them nothing about learning it themselves.
    Rarely will

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