Over the past few hours, many news sources like CNN and Engadget have reported on the app PhotoMath. According to their website, this app claims
PhotoMath reads and solves mathematical expressions by using the camera of your mobile device in real time. It makes math easy and simple by educating users how to solve math problems.
Wow! What an enlightened view of how this app might be used.
The video below demonstrates a few of the apps capabilities.
The website or video may be a bit slow to load. This is probably because millions of high school algebra students are downloading and distributing it to everyone they know. I am sure that every one of these students will use the app as a tool for learning math.
So what is the impact on us as mathematics teachers? I think that depends on what you teach and how you teach it. The app is currently available for iOS and Windows phones, but not Android phones. I have not tried it out yet since I am a die hard android user. However, the functionality is somewhat limited. At this time, the app has the ability to work with arithmetic expressions, fractions, decimals, powers, roots, and simple linear equations. For me, its use is limited to basic math, prealgebra, and beginning algebra. Considering what WolframAlpha can do, this is not a lot.
But the “threat” comes in what it may do in the future. What if the capabilities of WolframAlpha were combined with the character recognition of PhotoMath? Would that change how you teach. I say “if”, but the reality is that it will happen. You may try banning smartphones from your class…but what about the smart watch or the Google Glasses that look like regular glasses?
At some point we need to transition to teaching mathematics in a way that helps students to write problems in a mathematical form so that these apps can do the grunt work. They will still need to have a basic competency at solving certain types of equations, factoring, ect. But what is that level? Is it more important to be able to recognize that a word problem results in a quadratic equation or to be able to solve the quadratic equation by hand (when there is an app for that)? Is it more important to be able to verify a solution by multiple methods where the app provides one of those methods?