What happens when AI does the homework? The ethics of cheating apps

cheating apps

By Kiki Schirr, {grow} Contributing Columnist

As marketers, we should regularly ask ourselves if the work that we do is actually benefiting society. Good marketing creates growth and brings attention to quality products. At its worst, marketing can be manipulative and annoying.

Each of us already knows whether we our moral compass would allow us to accept money to help sell cigarettes, addictive medications, or other dangerous products. But it’s harder to anticipate the danger that new technologies can present.

Over my next three columns here on the {grow} blog, I’ll address three ethical challenges for marketers:

  1. Mobile “cheating apps” facilitating academic dishonesty
  2. Games deliberately written to initiate addictive behavior patterns
  3. Social media sites that trigger anxiety or depression

Today’s article will be a detailed analysis of cheating apps — technology students are using to cheat themselves out of actually learning a subject in school.

Socratic by Google and the cheating apps

A few weeks ago, Google announced its bold foray into providing students instant answers to any homework question through an app called Socratic. Socratic by Google allows students to quickly access not only the answers to their questions, but any work necessary to find those answers.

The ethical implications of solving a student’s homework problems for them should be obvious. At least one Socratic founder publicly addressed his app’s ethical problems. In 2017, Shreyans Bhansali was asked about how the app is reducing the difficulty of committing an academic honor violation to a few simple phone gestures. Time quoted him:

Every student today goes to the Internet, goes to Google, to ask all of their questions — this is something that’s happening anyway.

This callous dismissal of the responsibilities of his company should be unsettling to us all. 

But it is likely that Bhansali and his cofounder Pedregal were not always so detached. Despite its current focus, Socratic was not initially designed to assist students attempting to avoid academic work. The app began as a social Question and Answer forum populated with user generated content (UGC). This model encouraged students to help each other and aided joint learning, even if it still might have violates  Academic Honor Codes.

And then it gets worse

Socratic recently launched a photo-based solution search. By taking a picture of their homework or test problem, students receive an answer formulated by qualified academics, as well as any work involved in finding that solution. At this point, use of the app for graded assignments would violate almost every school’s honor code.

Socratic by Google is now further streamlining their process. Their latest version is beginning to eliminate human experts in favor of artificial intelligence. This is another point of ethical concern, and will be addressed later.

The financial benefits to assisting academic dishonesty

Helping students cheat is lucrative. According to App Annie, Mathway is one of the top ten highest grossing education apps. It earns more than established apps like Rosetta Stone and Lumosity. Those two apps had marketing budgets large enough to afford expensive television commercials.

But the expense of advertising is unnecessary for the cheating apps industry. If you build them, students will come.

Beside creating revenue, cheating apps also have potential to make money through acquisition. Although it is unclear how much Google paid to purchase Socratic, it is known that the company had already raised two rounds of funding — totaling $7.5 million in capital.  

As a result of their demand and money-making potential there are many apps designed to “help” with “homework.” On the Apple App Store 3 of the top 100 apps overall and 10 of the top 100 education apps are cheating apps: 

  • #3 – Photomath
  • #9 – Mathway
  • #14 – SnapCalc – Math Problem Solver
  • #16 – Socratic by Google
  • #19 – Slader Math Homework Answers
  • #33- FastMath – Take Photo & Solve
  • #45 – Brainly – The Homework App
  • #56 – MathPapa – Algebra Calculator
  • #69 – Chegg Study – Homework Help
  • #86 – Cymath – Math Problem Solver

Student reactions to cheating apps

Many of these apps have top-ranked user reviews detailing how the apps helped them bypass effort and achieve grades they didn’t necessarily deserve. They often also take time to insist that using the app isn’t really cheating. 

In the review of Photomath titled “This app saved my life” a user said:

An IXL that would usually take me two hours only took me ten minutes… its [sic] not cheating either, it actually explains the problem step by step to help you…

For Socratic by Google the #1 most helpful review titled “Freaking. Life. Saver.” Says:

Saving yourself time looking up answers to some random question from the caption of a picture in a random textbook isn’t cheating. 🙂

I think I might need an app to help me solve that logic. I’m guessing they meant that if a problem is hard, you’re allowed to cheat.

The marketing of cheating apps

Most of the apps make an effort to state that the purpose of their service is to assist in learning during practice — as opposed to doing the work for you during a test, for example.

However, a careful read of the app descriptions and photos show that their key features are aimed at cheating. 

Often the description is blatant like this one from SnapCalc – Math Problem Solver :

SnapCalc does the math for you. Just snap a picture of a math problem, and voila — the answer is displayed on your screen. From algebra to calculus, the app has solutions to a wide range of topics – and it recognizes handwritten problems too! 

For now, cheating apps are generally focused on math problems. Math is a good niche both because many people dislike or fear these problems and because solving a math problem is usually straightforward and pattern-based. There’s generally only a single solution, and only a handful of methods to find it. 

However, a few apps such as Socratic by Google and Chegg Study – Homework Help have branched into new disciplines. Socratic’s latest app update blurb boasts that they now cover most high school subjects and many common disciplines in college.

And Google’s new goal of ending their reliance on experts to create answer repositories through Artificial Intelligence should be another red flag.

Employing AI means that the number of answers is no longer limited by the availability or cost of utilizing experts, thereby allowing even more students access to easy means of cheating. And institutions such as MIT and IBM are vocal about AI being biased by programmer and data sets. 

The age of dumber humans

If our youth is growing up in a world where they don’t have to think, should we care? 

Perhaps there is a small light of hope, a one-star review of SnapCalc from a student tired of his classmates cheating their way through school:

…at my high school, for example, half of the class used a photo calculator and ALL of those kids struggled because you’re providing an easy way out for kids, and they don’t know better. If you have morals and understanding you’ll take your app down, do society a favor, but it’s so lucrative that you probably won’t care.

The company did respond to the 1-star rating: “There is always room for improvement.”

Come on, folks. We’re better than this.

What are your thoughts about this? Is there a step that can be taken or has education been disrupted forever?

KikiSchirrKiki Schirr is a freelance marketer who enjoys absorbing new trends within the tech scene. In response to a challenge issued by her father, she has also started to write a novel during small pockets of free time. She is most easily reached via Twitter.



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