Hands on Equations (for iPad) review

Hands On Equations for the iPad is intended to make algebra easier for students to learn, but it fails to take advantage of the iPad's many interactive possibilities. It may teach algebra, but it's not a very fun teacher.
Photo of Hands on Equations (for iPad)

The iTunes App Store is full of educational apps that bring interactive learning to children’s fingertips, and Hands on Equations is intended to “demystify” the process of learning algebra. With this iPad  app, students watch a short video clip explaining a concept before working on practice problems. The Hands on Equations for the iPad is easy to navigate and does the job of teaching algebra, but the app railroads students through the lessons without making the process fun or overly interactive.

Hands on Equations is broken out into three different levels. Level 1 costs $4.99 and offers six different lessons. Both Level 2 and Level 3 offers eight lessons and cost $3.99. I reviewed the “Lite” version of Level 1, which offers the first three Level 1 lessons free of charge. Whenever I was ready to upgrade to the full version of Level 1, or buy any of the other levels, I could click on the relevant buttons right on the main menu.

Each lesson offers a short instructional video and two practice problems, followed by 10 extra exercises. There is no way to jump ahead and just do the problems, because the problems are “locked,” and has a little lock icon to show that the student can’t access that component yet. Users have to watch the video before the practices are unlocked, and the practice problems have to be completed before the exercises are available.

The Hands on Equation Experience
When the app launches, it displays a main screen which has been designed to look like a lined notebook paper. A video player at the top plays a short clip explaining how to use the app, and each lesson is listed below the player. Buttons to purchase the full version of Level 1, as well as Levels 2 and 3 are on the right side of the screen.

As mentioned earlier, Level 1 Lite displays the video, practice problems, and exercises for only three lessons. When I clicked on the video checkbox on the main screen, I was taken to a different notebook page with a larger video player.

Each lesson’s video clip is about three to four minutes long, and explains simple algebraic concepts using a balance scale, dice, and chess pieces. The clips are a little boring, as it shows the instructor pointing to the iPad screen and explaining how to solve the practice problems. Considering this is an iPad app, it would have been better to take advantage of the iPad’s interactive capabilities to really create an interactive lesson, instead of making students watch the clip. After the video ends, a button appears that lets the user move on to the first practice problem.

The Hands on Equation method appears to revolve around making both sides of the balance scale have the same value, using dice to represent known numbers and chess pieces to represent unknowns. The idea is that each chess piece stands for a number (solve for “x”) and the student has to figure out what number the piece represents that would balance the scale. Every single problem in every lesson uses the exact same setup, with just the values of the dice and number of chess pieces (the “equation”) varying.

The app is really fiddly to work with. In order to select a number as the answer, the student has to select the value off a spinning wheel. There is a button, “Auto Check,” which plugs in the number the student assigned to show whether the equation balances. However, the problem is not complete until the student manually completes the “Check” equation by using the wheel to assign the value of both sides of the scale. The method for selecting the number was not touch-friendly, and the way the app handled “Auto Check” and “Check” was just pointless.

The ten additional exercises offer more room to practice, but I couldn’t figure out why the app bothered to differentiate between them. It’s not as if the two “practice problems” offered more assistance or tips than the ten “exercises.” It was just more of the same in a separate section.

A Way to Learn Algebra
I don’t expect all education programs to be entertaining, but it seems that if you are going to develop for a platform like the iPad, then you should try to make the learning process fun—or at least interactive. From the information available on the app it appears the Hands on Equations method is used in a classroom-based face-to-face setting. While it may work in a classroom, it falls flat on the iPad, and I was left wishing for something more like We Want to Know’s DragonBox app. Something that focused on interactivity and fun while actually teaching algebra.

Hands on Equations for the iPad promises to demystify algebra, and it accomplishes that goal just fine, but it railroads the students through the lessons. Since there is precious little interactivity, there’s no reason for Hands on Equations to be a mobile app. The same thing could more or less be accomplished with a YouTube video and a simple website.

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Hands On Equations for the iPad is intended to make algebra easier for students to learn, but it fails to take advantage of the iPad's many interactive possibilities. It may teach algebra, but it's not a very fun teacher.
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