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Digital homework tools should be more than just the textbook as an app

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Schools are increasingly incorporating digital technologies into their teaching practice, raising questions about whether these technologies actually enhance the learning process.

We’re particularly interested the role of technology in homework. Is homework – particularly in digitally aligned STEM areas such as mathematics – any different on a digital device? And, if not, should it be?

We have found that the range of educational websites and apps currently available fail to capitalise on the unique opportunities of digital technology. Working together, technologists and educators could design tools for digital homework that are interactive, instructive, and allow teachers to monitor their students’ progress – leading to better learning outcomes for all.

The (negligible) value of homework

Despite the prevalence of homework in many schools, the research community is still unsure whether homework actually provides a benefit for students. Recent research from CQUniversity indicates that homework for primary school students is of negligible value, and students are better served by spending this time engaged in structured play or improving their reading abilities.

Even for students in high school, the traditional write-and-check style of homework has shown very little benefit for students. After all, if you don’t know how to do a problem, then how is more practice going to help?

But shouldn’t the interactive and intelligent nature of digital devices make mathematics homework more beneficial for students?

More than a practice problem book

We started reviewing different educational sites and apps addressing mathematics and found they fell into three groups:

  • traditional tutorials
  • minimally digital tutorials
  • digitally enhanced tutorials.

The more traditionally designed online maths tutorials, such as Basic Mathematics and Ezy Math Tutoring, provide a decent amount of depth in their instructions, but they lack a proper curriculum, and any sort of video tutorial or feedback mechanism.

The minimally digital tutorials, such as Study Ladder and Mathletics, have a well-designed curriculum, but lack quality tutorial videos and feedback on the work students do.

The digitally enhanced, such as Khan Academy and Maths Online, provide a well-designed curriculum for any age or grade level, comprehensive instructions, videos, and feedback on student work. They still, however, lack any sort of tutorial prompts during the quizzes.

Enhancing the ‘e’ in e-homework

As you can see, even the best mathematics technologies are not really technological at all – apart from the fact that students use them on a computer or a pad. All the different websites or apps aimed at helping student in mathematics are missing the technological components of technology.

The tools are not interactive. Questions do not increase or decrease in difficulty based on the student’s response to the last question. It would be useful if the practice questions students worked on intuitively increased in difficulty based on the success the student has on the previous question.

None of the tools provide instructive cues to remind students of steps and procedures. And they don’t provide cognitive scaffolding when students are struggling, such as instant instructional advice if a student misses a question.

The tools also fail to provide teachers with data collected about the reason for errors. If they did, teachers could create a learning analysis overviews and specialised learning programs for each student they teach.

It’s clear we need better digital design in our education apps, and particularly those used without a teacher present. But how do we do that?

Bringing educators and technologists together

What need to establish a closer connection between the technologists and the educators.

The tech people need help designing the technology, and they need to design more than just the textbook as an app. Educators can help technologists envision what instruction could look like if the digital device had to do the teaching (and not just the practice) – and then build apps and sites that are innovative and interactive.

Educators also need to learn from the technologists so they can maximise the use of the devices in their classes. Many educators lack training to use the technological devices to their full potential.

Finally, digital technology designers must consult with educational psychology specialists who provide training for teachers.

We need new technology that isn’t just a copy of educational tools that already exist. Only then will we see the benefits of true digital homework.

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