A Shanghai resident surnamed Qin contacted ThePaper.cn on August 30 to share the story of how he smashed his son’s iPad when he caught the boy using a “homework app” to deal with his summer break assignments.
According to an investigation by Sohu Education in 2014, some 38 of 50 Beijing students reported using the app Zuoyebang to deal with classwork. Developed by Internet giant Baidu, the app allows students to solve homework questions by photographing their assignments and waiting for solutions.
But with more students using the app to get out of schoolwork, its educational benefits have come under suspicion.
Homework-solving apps first appeared in China in 2013. But even before the creation of dedicated apps, students used the question and answer product Baidu Zhidao to buy solutions to homework problems with virtual coins.
The fusion of online education and big data in Zuoyebang offered a better solution for students needing quick answers. The app’s homepage claims it can find almost any answer within several seconds.
While most homework apps say they are intended as an educational supplement – to offer answers when teachers are unavailable – that is not how they are being used.
Students are using these apps to power through piles of summer homework in a single day. Zueyebang is not limited to math, physics and the hard sciences – it can also solve Chinese and English homework. It returns beautifully written assignments on almost any subject.
Quest Mobile published its research on the app in June. In the first six months of 2016, homework apps including Xiaoyuansouti, Xuebajun and Zuoyebang received 70 million downloads. According to the research, each user spends 15 minutes per day in the app between noon and 1 pm and 7 to 8 pm.
Pros and Cons
While students are more than happy to shed their academic burden, Chinese parents are less enthusiastic.
Wang, the mother of an 8th grader, said the existence of these apps is a dilemma for most students and their parents.
“I download this app because I was worried I couldn’t help my child solve one of his problems,” Wang said. But within days she found the child had become lazy and developed a dependence on the application.
An 9th grade math teacher who refused to be named said he suspected many of his students were using the app to get through their homework. While most received excellent scores on their daily assignments, their grades dropped rapidly on quizzes and exams.
“If they rely on the homework app, they will lose faith in their ability to answer questions on their own,” the teacher said. “When teachers see all the students are getting the right answer on certain types of questions, he or she may skip further explanation in class.”
Beijing Daily pointed out another problem: there is little quality control in homework apps, and it’s very possible they may lead students blindly toward the wrong answers.
The companies behind homework apps are considers turning their free applications into pay-only programs. On Zuoyebang, students can choose an “Ask the Teacher” option to get one-on-one service. The cost is 19 yuan for three days.
Other platforms offer online lectures for 3 yuan each in major disciplines.
“The paid online lectures have a high chance of misleading students since they are skipping around the current education framework,” said Lu Xiaoming, a professor at Fudan University.
A True Solution
“The Internet should be a tool to provide students with the best learning experience. If it isn’t doing this, it’s a shame for the whole online education market,” said Zong Chunshan, director of a Beijing legal inquiry center.
Zhong advocated for educators to reform their teaching practices to counter the effect of homework apps.
Education experts have reminded parents about the downsides of students becoming dependent on such applications. Many teachers are giving students questions with more open answers to keep them out of the homework apps.
Developers have discussed transforming their products. An online education app “Call Call Teacher” recently won an investment of $1 million. The platform allows students to post questions and teachers compete to respond fastest and win the bounty. The platform has already attracted more than 3,700 teachers.
Yu Minhong, founder of New Oriental Education, said he expected online education to bring a surge in education efficiency. “But in the end, online education won’t change education itself,” Yu said.
From one viewpoint, the emergence of homework apps is a symptom of China’s spoon-fed and goal-oriented education system.
Even if educators succeed in striking back at the current round of apps, new technology will arrive to serve the same need until educators reconsider just what purpose their mountains of homework serve.