Redefining "Cheating" With Homework

B. Gilliard

Technology is often blamed for encouraging bad behavior, particularly when it comes to academic dishonesty. There's the notion, for example, that it's much easier to plagiarize now thanks to the ability to copy and paste information from the Web into a term paper.

So at first blush, the new homework help Web site Slader might be accused of fostering just this sort of cheating behavior. The site offers the answers to homework questions in most major high school level math textbooks, and depending on how much you use it, there's a fee. Students can pay for answers. Answers to all the questions, not just the odd ones. And answers with explanations and "proofs." But it's not as straightforward a transaction as it looks.

Though the site was originally launched with answers written by math tutors and teachers, the plan going forward is to use the peer-to-peer model -- students helping each other on the site. The most useful answers will be rated with stars to distinguish them.

Of course, students have long shared their answers the old fashioned way --  turning to one another for help, sharing their answers and solutions -- whether over the phone or face-to-face, whether transcribed word-for-word from another student's paper or solved thanks to the help and support from a peer. And that will be the model used for Slader: homework answers for students written by students.

Anticipating the criticism, the New York-based startup believes it's a mistake to dismiss this simply as cheating; rather they say the aim is to provide real-time help to students to work through their homework -- an online study hall, if you will. The startup is providing the tools for students to share their work and teach and learn with one another.

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That teaching element is important to recognize, and co-founder Scott Kolb says the site is much more of a tutoring resource than simply a place to go look up and jot down the right answer. It's a type of "microtutoring," he says.

That "micro" element doesn't just mean simply that Slader offers help on a specific math problems rather than, say, hiring a math tutor for more generalized help with the subject. The Web site also features "microtransactions." In other words, there's an intellectual and a monetary exchange per answer, handled via points and via a per-answer access. While there is a free version of Slader, there are limitations on the number of answers users can view per day (two).

With a paid subscription, that limitation is still in place: subscription rates range from $2 to $4 per month with the ability to view 5, 15, or 30 solutions per day. Users can also purchase more views (in case of math emergency, I suppose).

It's worth pointing out here that the site is designed with the recognition that most high school students probably don't have credit cards to pay for these sorts of online transactions. As such, one can pay for points via parents' credit cards, but points can also be gifted to another person or offered as "bounties" to answer other questions. And most interestingly, users can also earn points that can actually be "cashed out."

One way to earn points: contributing one's own homework answers back to the Slader community.

It's an interesting way to encourage students to help one another and to share their homework solutions: doing so allows them to earn royalties of sorts on the work they do. Slader pays points each time a solution is viewed. So ideally the better the solution, the more views, and the more earnings. Users can actually "cash out" too, withdrawing the money they've earned via the site.

The ability for students to earn money from their homework is certainly an interesting twist on "the work" they are doing.

In order to create a platform that can handle math homework (all that mathematical notation and such), the Slader team has created a number of tools, including an equation editor that captures the step-by-step process of moving through a solution. The team has also seeded the site with solutions to the homework problems in most high school level math textbooks. That's no easy task with approximately 100 textbooks in their various versions and editions (so roughly 275 textbooks in all). To create the answers (and it's worth noting too that there are multiple answers to the same question, demonstrating there are multiple ways to solve math problems), Slader enlisted the help of some 2,500 math majors and math teachers.

But the startup's demand for answers to every single homework problem in every single math textbook may be an obstacle that Slader will have to cross if it plans to expand. As is, it's incredibly challenging to keep pace with the ever-changing textbook industry. And right now, much of this work on Slader's part is done by hand. This isn't a mechanized system; this is the Slader team verifying correct answers as well as verifying the pages and exercise numbers in textbooks. Things will be further complicated if, as the startup plans, it expands beyond math to other subject areas.

And the startup also faces competition from a variety of other online homework help sites: Cramster, for example, or Yahoo Answers or Homeworkhelp.com. Googling "I need help with homework" makes evident that there are a lot of questionable Web sites out there, ones with questionable answers and questionable fees. That will make it challenging for Slader to win an SEO game against some of these sites so that the startup actually shows up in searches. But it's also a challenge on the "social" search aspect as well. After all, students want the "right" answer, but they also tend to want to hear it from sources they trust -- and oftentimes that's their friends.

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As Slader expands, it will have to win over interest (and pocketbooks) of high school students to convince them to move their homework activities to its online community. It will also have to win over teachers and parents (something that the startup already makes a great effort to do), to help them understand that this isn't about cheating. Rather it's about students teaching and learning and sharing with one another. It's about recognizing that they've always done this. And as such, it's about helping students with the tools and a service so that they can benefit in doing so -- benefit intellectually as well as financially.

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