Years ago, a lot of students didn't have a computer at home to assist them in homework assignments. Having a computer was a luxury and a privilege. Nowadays, most students have access to one or many computers.
With the Internet, there is a world of knowledge at our fingertips. Some people may argue that this open access to technology is a positive supplement to a student's learning. Others say that having access to sites like Wiki, Google, and SparkNotes, inspires more cheating than studying.
With SparkNotes.com, students can search the name of almost any work of literature, and the information they receive is endless. SparkNotes, advertised as "Today's Most Popular Study Guides," provides the context of a book or play, plot overview, character list, analysis of major characters, themes, motifs and symbols, and individual chapter summary and analysis. It also explains important quotes and key facts, and provides study questions and essay topics. The only thing it doesn't do is write the essay.
On the surface, SparkNotes appears to be a well-intended website to assist students struggling to understand reading material. At the same time, it is easily abused. The chapter summaries make it easy for a student to skip over their assigned reading, and the list of themes, motifs and symbols opens the door to the typical high school essay assigned on symbolism of themes in literature.
SparkNotes was originally created by Harvard students, and was called The Spark. It was bought by Barnes and Noble in 2001.
"SparkNotes originally began as a tool for cheating, but the site tries to justify its existence by selling itself as a study guide website. Ironically, this attempt to clean up its image has actually turned it into a strange combination of the two: a website meant for cheating that actually serves as a decent study guide," said Attleboro High English and history teacher Larry Carpenter.
Another controversy over SparkNotes is how much or how little a teacher should encourage their students to use it. Teacher expectations clash with the student's ability to decide for themselves how much is too much.
"It is futile to attempt to forbid students to use the site," said Carpenter. "To attempt to do so creates a needlessly adversarial relationship between the students and teacher.
"As teachers we need to teach students to utilize all of the tools at their disposal in a responsible way. Students can use SparkNotes to better understand difficult text that they may not have understood on their own. In this way it is being used as a supplement to better understand a difficult reading that the student would otherwise not be able to access."
The foolproof way a teacher can monitor the site's use is by creating assignments with questions that cannot be easily answered by just visiting SparkNotes. Teachers must assign literature and corresponding assignments that dig deeper than the surface information that SparkNotes provides. It is up to the teacher to make sure that using SparkNotes to complete an assignment is not a possibility.
"My responsibility as a teacher is to design meaningful assignments that can't be mindlessly completed by not reading the text and using SparkNotes instead," said Carpenter. "I also know to read the SparkNotes myself so that I can recognize if a student is not analyzing the text for himself but rather simply parroting the analysis on SparkNotes.
"Essentially, if my assignments can be completed without the students needing to read the book, then I need to change my assignments."
It is not solely that teacher's responsibility to discourage the use of SparkNotes. In the end, it is up to the student to draw the line between studying and cheating. If a student is not reading a book assigned in class, and is instead reading the chapter summaries online, SparkNotes is being abused.
"SparkNotes is abused by run-down students looking for an easy way out," said AHS senior Katelynn Tucker. "Even the most avid learner is tempted at some point to take the shortcut and save themselves a few hours worth of reading. In doing this, however, they miss out on the work of the literary masterpiece that is the novel."
When SparkNotes is used in place of actual text, students do not receive the same effect they may find while reading the novel. Browsing the SparkNotes page of "Great Expectations" cannot be compared to actually indulging in the classic novel, following Pip through his hardships.
"SparkNotes' value depends on how it is used," said English teacher Cathy Kaiser. "I turn to SparkNotes if I want to review quickly a chapter previously read.
"Of course, many use SparkNotes in place of reading the original work. Here the value is relative - it's perhaps a way to pass a quiz or enable a student to discuss a work they haven't read - so no doubt the student considers it valuable. However, students who rely solely on SparkNotes are only cheating themselves."
One SparkNotes feature that has been assisting students is "No Fear Shakespeare." This shows the actual text from any work of Shakespeare, next to the modern day "translation" of the text. This tool is very helpful for students reading Shakespeare because the real text is beside the modern interpretation. Without using "No Fear," many students would be unable to understand what they are reading.
SparkNotes, similar to College Board, also provides students with SAT, ACT and AP exam preparation services. It provides a section where students can research colleges, and a non-educational Spark Life section for entertainment.
Tools like "No Fear Shakespeare" and practice quizzes are helpful for students who struggle with difficult material. In this way, SparkNotes is not abused, but taken advantage of responsibly.
"Many English teachers are incorporating more obscure books into their curriculums, which cannot be found on SparkNotes," said senior Gabe Amatruda. "Even for novels that students can easily find on SparkNotes, English teachers test comprehension by assigning guided reading questions, or by quizzing students on specific points from the literature that was assigned. The abuse of SparkNotes is becoming obsolete."
Today's advanced technology has provided students with resources that were unavailable to students in decades past. Students may find it difficult to sift this overload of information, and make responsible choices as far as how to utilize the information given. With a joint student and teacher effort, the abuse of online educational supplements can be avoided.
THE PAGE runs every Tuesday in The Sun Chronicle and is written by area high school students. If you go to high school in this area and are interested in writing for The Page, contact Features Editor Ken Ross at email@example.com.
In the field of educational technology, some apps might be getting too smart.
More and more apps are delivering on-demand homework help to students, who can easily re-purpose the learning tools to obtain not just assistance, but also answers. Whether or not that’s cheating—and how to stop it—is one of the concerns surrounding a new app that can solve math equations with the snap of a camera. While the software has inspired teachers to create real-world homework problems that can’t be automatically solved, that strategy doesn’t hold up to other apps that tap into real-life brains for solutions.
Here’s a look at 7 apps that can do your homework for you, and what they have to say about cheating:
Availability: iOS, Android app coming in early 2015
The new, seemingly magic app allows users to take pictures of typed equations, and then outputs a step-by-step solution. As of Wednesday, the app is the number one free app on the App Store. But the biggest issue, one teacher argues, isn’t if students will use the app to cheat, because many will. Rather, it’s about how teachers will adapt. A PhotoMath spokeswoman said educators have welcomed the app with positive reviews, but the software remains “quite controversial.”
“We didn’t develop PhotoMath as a cheating tool. We really wanted kids to learn,” said Tijana Zganec, a sales and marketing associate at tech company MicroBlink, which created PhotoMath. “If you want to cheat, you will find a way to cheat. But if you want to learn, you can use PhotoMath for that.”
Whether you’re a high schooler with eight periods of classes or a college student tackling dozens of credits, there’s one thing you’ve got for sure: a mess of assignments. iHomework can help you keep track of all your work, slicing and dicing it in a variety of ways. Sorting it by due date, week, month, or by course, the app is more organized than a Trapper Keeper. And in integrating data from Questia, you can link your reading material to your assignments so you don’t have to dig through a pile of papers to find the right information.
A scheduling feature can help you keep track of those random bi-weekly Thursday labs, and you can even mark the location of your courses on a map so you don’t end up on the wrong side of campus. And finally, with iCloud syncing, you can access all this information on whatever Apple-compatible device you’re using at the moment — no need to dig for your iPad.
Google Apps for Education
Taking the search giant’s suite of free browser-based apps and sandboxing them so they are safe for school use, Google Apps for Education is an excellent alternative to the mainstream installable productivity software, but this one has a perk that almost school board will love—it’s free. Packaging together favorites like Gmail, Hangouts, Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Drive with Classroom, a digital hub for organizing assignments and sending feedback, the goal of this collection is to make learning a more collaborative process.
Though Google Apps for Education is cloud-hosted, the programs can be used offline, ideal for when your student needs to escape the internet and work distraction-free. And since it works on any device, it also helps students avoid buying overly expensive hardware. That means more money for extracurricular activities.
Price: Free, but some homework services require payment
Availability: iOS and Android
HwPic is a tutoring service that allows students to take send pictures of their homework to tutors, who will then respond within minutes to your questions with a step-by-step solution. There’s even an option to expedite the answers if a student is in a hurry. HwPic Co-Founder Tiklat Issa said that the app was initially rejected by Apple’s App Store, which believed it would promote cheating, but he successfully argued that just because someone uses the app in a way that it’s not meant to be used doesn’t mean the app should be punished.
Issa added that HwPic prohibits cheating in its terms and conditions. Tutors don’t solve homework that has words like “Quiz” or “Exam,” and they often know if a student is sending a photo during a test if they’ve paid for expedited answers, and if the photo is dim, blurry and taken under a desk. “We’ve minimized cheating,” said Issa. “We haven’t eliminated it. That’s kind of unrealistic.”
Availability: iOS and Android
Wolfram Alpha is similar to PhotoMath, only that it targets older students studying high levels of math and doesn’t support photos. The service also outputs step-by-step solutions to topics as advanced as vector calculus and differential equations, making it a popular tool for college students.
“It’s cheating not doing computer-based math, because we’re cheating students out of real conceptual understanding and an ability to drive much further forward in the math they can do, to cover much more conceptual ground. And in turn, that’s cheating our economies,” said Conrad Wolfram, Wolfram Research’s Director of Strategic Development, in a TEDx Talk. “People talk about the knowledge economy. I think we’re moving forward to what we’re calling the computational knowledge economy.”
Availability: iOS and Android
Chinese Internet search company Baidu launched an app called Homework Helper this year with which students can crowdsource help or answers to homework. Users post a picture or type their homework questions onto online forums, and those who answer the questions can win e-coins that can be used to buy electronics like iPhones and laptops.
The app has logged 5 million downloads, much to the dismay of many some parents who argue that the students spend less time thinking about challenging problems. A Homework Helper staffer admitted to Quartz, “I think this is a kind of cheating.”
Price: Free, but some homework services require payment
Slader is a crowdsourcing app for high school and college students to post and answer questions in math and science. While students can post original homework for help, many questions in popular textbooks have already been answered on the app, according to Fast Company. An Illinois high school said earlier this year that it suspected students were using the service to cheat on their math homework.
Slader argues that it’s “challenging traditional ideas about math and education,” and said that the ideas behind its app “aren’t a write-off to teachers,” according to its blog. Slader told San Francisco media outlet KQED that it shouldn’t be dismissed as a cheating tool, but rather considered a way for students to access real-time help.