An Open Letter to Users of Yahoo! Answers

Dear Yahoo! Answers Users,

For every guy who has dreamed of looking like a Hoobastank concert attendee, or for every girl who has dreamed of looking like a Bratz doll, Yahoo! Answers provides you with a forum to not only construct the avatar of your dreams, but also to ask questions on a variety of topics, and get real answers from real people.

She only loved him for his soul patch.

Unfortunately, as a math educator, I feel compelled to offer criticism regarding the Mathematics section of your site. The existence of this section is not what bothers me - it is the user behavior, both of those asking questions and those answering them.

Let's start with the askers. I'll be blunt: please stop using the internet as your interactive cheat sheet. There are a number of users of Yahoo!'s service who have no qualms asking for answers on their homework - many do it blatantly, and with no regard to the importance of these formative years in their mathematics education.

Consider the following examples:

Exhibit A: Fractions help please =/ ughh math is so hard!?

The question is as follows:

1.) 2/3-1/2

2.) 1/2-1/8

3.) 9/5-1

4.) 3/4-1/8

5.) 1- 5/9

6.) 6/9 - 1/6

7.) 2/3 + 1/9

8.) 8/9 - 2/3

9.) 1/2 + 1/2

No attempt is made to give any sort of context: what part of these problems is difficult for this individual? Moreover, since these problems are all solved in exactly the same way, it is clear this person is only looking for quick answers to their homework, and not an understanding of how to solve these types of problems.

Exhibit B: Is there a website tht i can type in math problems and will me the answers?

This one is pretty self explanatory.

Of course, these are some of the most obvious offenders, but there are numerous other examples of students (mostly younger ones) abusing the privileges given to them by the folks at Yahoo!.

Needless to say, this is something that should be discouraged. Parents taking a more active role in monitoring their child's internet habits will help, of course. But it is just as important to change the behavior of those answering the questions, because no matter how obvious it is that you are trying to cheat, somebody will answer you, with no questions asked.

In the case of Exhibit A, as of the time of this writing there are 16 answers to the "question." Of these, 8 give answers to all nine parts of the question, and of those 8, 3 give answers without showing any work whatsoever (note that giving an answer is not the same as giving a correct answer). My favorite response is provided by a gentleman who chastises the questioner by saying, "It's not fair to use Yahoo! Answers to solve your maths homeworks," and then proceeds to write down the answer to every question.

There is only one answer to exhibit B, but sure enough, it is a link to a website that will do all the work typically asked of a middle school student in math. Not a word of reprimand is offered.

We have all heard the old adage praising the benefits of teaching someone to fish, rather than simply giving someone a fish. The people who answer these types of questions, however, don't just give you the fish: they clean it, cook it, serve it, cut it up into tiny pieces, then chew it for you and spit it into your mouth. All that's left for you to do is receive the regurgitation, like baby birds. The difference being that baby birds don't need to know how to add fractions.

The thought of his daughter never learning how to
fish is enough to make this man cringe.

What can be done? While mathematical abuses at all levels of education seem to be occurring on Yahoo! Answers, it is more prevalent with the most basic material, suggesting the most common culprits are the very students who most need to build a mathematical foundation. For more advanced levels or mathematics, I shift the blame more towards the questioner, but for younger students, who may not see what long term harm a lapse in their mathematical understanding can have, the onus moves to those answering the questions, who should know better than to sell out their knowledge for some measly Yahoo! Answers "points" (the purpose of which is still not entirely clear to me).

It is with this in mind that I implore you, Yahoo! Answers users, to stop spoon feeding middle school homework answers to students. You do them a disservice, and by failing them, you are failing our collective future.

I should mention that not all of the mathematics category is corrupted. There are plenty of examples of people asking intelligent questions (questions aimed at understanding material and not just getting the right answer, for instance), and there are also many examples of people answering the questions only partially, but giving full details for the parts they do answer so as to help guide the student's understanding. This is all well and good. But as long as someone can get answers to their homework without having to think, our work is not complete.

In conclusion, letting the internet do your homework for you is most likely a bad idea. Using the internet to help you understand your homework is, in general, a good idea. So parents, make sure you know whether your child is using the internet for good or for evil. The distinction could cost them an understanding of mathematics - or even their lives.

Well, maybe not their lives. But certainly this behavior should be discouraged.

I thank you in advance for your cooperation.

With lukewarm regards,


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