Is it cheating to use a homework app?
Upon hearing of the Socratic app - which obligingly answers every homework question your child taps in on their phone - my first reaction is: "Should I panic?"
My kids' approach to learning is as changeable as the weather.
If inspired, they'll tackle an assignment with gusto. But sometimes they just want the work finished, by fair means or foul. Is this app (slogan: "Make learning easier"), which uses artificial intelligence technology to tackle English, science, maths and history, enabling its 11 million users to cheat - or is it a handy educational resource?
I download it to my iPhone, for free, to see how it copes with my 12-year-old's latest project: a light analysis of romanticism. "What is Wordsworth saying in his poem 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud'?" I type. The first answer is a near-illiterate paragraph from Yahoo Answers.
However, it gets better. Swipe right and the app presents five more resources, including a thorough, thoughtful analysis from enotes.com, and, thrillingly, a scan of a manuscript of the poem in Wordsworth's elegant scrawl.
There's also a chatty summary that cites from the diary of his sister, Dorothy, detailing the day she and her brother chanced upon a "little colony" of "daffodils so beautiful".
TEACHERS NEVER RECOMMEND A LIBRARY BOOK
Essentially, the app has done what Conrad, 12, and I, more painfully, did at the weekend: googled it. But Socratic's search was more efficient, and its sources snappily brought the subject alive. Less a cheat - more a helpful aid.
Maths is different. I try a question from my 14-year-old's syllabus. It quickly solves the problem 3x + 2y = -8 (giving each stage, and the answer as x=-4 and y=4). Press the "lesson" option and it directs you to the Khan Academy - a brilliant online resource that provides "a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere", comprised of YouTube videos and lectures (see, for instance, "What's inside blood?").
Despite my initial suspicion of the Socratic app, the truth is that our children already research the bulk of their homework online.
Teachers never recommend a library book for my 10-year-old, it's always the BBC Bitesize site. And if they don't understand a maths question, the Socratic app does provide the opportunity to learn, as it details each step of the solution.
Professor Christopher Boyle, a psychologist and teacher based at Exeter University, agrees that cheating is an issue.
However, he believes the Socratic app "could be an excellent tool. With maths, for instance, it actually shows you how to work something out; it goes through the process, and that's key." He also notes that for students who "don't have access to tutors, and have limited resources, it could in some ways provide that bit of extra tuition".
LOTS OF TECH SHORTCUTS FOR HOMEWORK
But kids also crowd-source answers among themselves. Lucy, our 14-year-old neighbour, says often a classmate "completes the homework, posts a photo of it on group message and everyone copies it. But that only works for linear subjects like maths. It looks suspicious, in English, if the whole class makes the same three points."
Meanwhile, my teen has quit his habitual "shortcut" of using Google Translate for French in favour of more arduous learning from the textbook (on advice from his teacher that the former was almost always wrong).
Copying chunks of information from Wikipedia, needless to say, is a no-no.
I investigate another free app, Brainly: Study & Homework Help, "the world's largest social learning community", to see whether any of the 150,000 students who use it can answer 14-year-old Oscar's geography question: "What issues faced the World Climate Change Summit in 2015?"
Brainly users are mainly US- and UK-based, and gain "points" for quality responses. Within minutes, "Mariah" leaves a rambling description of "the Paris talks on climate change on Saturday night??? the debating chamber was full", etc. No details of any issues. I leave a polite comment. No response.
I suspect that unless they're paying, or relying on the kindness of friends, the chance that your child is getting a third party to complete their homework is small. The truth: if they are determined not to learn, kids can blindly copy answers from the internet, or classmates - as Boyle notes: "Tech is not going to change that."
So if they are cheating, our real problem as parents isn't the latest homework-answering app. It's why our kids are so unmotivated, and what we can do to help them.
The Telegraph, London