Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Internet Service Offers Help With Homework

Doing school homework is often a task that incites groans, eye rolls and major frustration. And we’re just talking about parents. Kids and their parents, together, have long suffered through the anguish of trying to make sense of take-home assignments. Sometimes the student is confused, other times the parent is even more confused and in the worst cases both are lost.

This week, we tried a new Web-based learning service that aims to help with homework, marshaling a rich mix of video, audio, photos, text articles and step-by-step math instruction to make the job easier. It’s called Cosmeo, and it’s from the education division of Discovery Communications Inc., the big media company that owns the Discovery Channel, TLC and other cable TV networks.

Cosmeo (, which requires a paid subscription, was created with input from teachers and students and works with actual curriculum standards from every state in the country, except Iowa, which doesn’t use statewide curriculum standards. It grew out of a service Discovery runs that streams educational videos to schools, and works on both Windows and Macintosh computers, and in all major Web browsers.


Though Cosmeo is heavy on videos, it offers much more, including encyclopedia articles, links to related material on the Internet, and what it calls Brain Games, like hieroglyphic translations and building a volcano. And most of the material comes from educational sources.

We tested Cosmeo over the past week, revisiting algebra lessons from our younger days, watching cells divide in a video about mitosis, reading about Michelangelo and looking at a portrait of English author Jane Austen. Though we ran into a few technical problems here and there, we found the service to be a useful and engaging learning tool that can help students study at their own pace, in the comfort of their own homes. What’s more, parents can learn how to help their kids.

Cosmeo covers an age range of kindergarten through 12th grade and material is broken down into four age brackets of kindergarten through second, third through fifth, sixth through eighth and ninth through 12th. Its subscription costs $9.95 a month or $99 a year after a free trial period of 30 days, and includes one parent account and four student accounts.

Cosmeo’s home page, which can be customized for each user’s preferences, is broken up into five clear sections, including a “Today in History” section that taught us interesting facts — such as the fact that on April 3, 1973, inventor Martin Cooper placed the first cellphone call.

A large search box dominates the center top part of the screen, and a horizontal bar below lets you browse by one of six subjects: science, math, social studies, English, health and art and music. After selecting any of these subject sections, a new screen with a large image in the center — and four menus surrounding it — appears. Those menus are labeled Browse Social Studies (for example) with a grade-specific search option, Top Social Studies Videos, Brain Games and Trusted Links.

The overall look of Cosmeo is very clean and uncluttered. Though it offers more than 30,000 videos, 15,000 quizzes and about 200 Brain Games, it never felt overwhelming.

We started in English and navigated to the Literature section. Icons at the top of the page showed us just how many videos, articles, pictures, Brain Games, events and trusted Internet links Cosmeo had on English Literature. If we wanted to narrow our search by grade, the four age sections were also listed.

We watched a video about the novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, and occasionally switched to full-screen view. The best part about each video is that it is divided into sections, so you can skip to what’s relevant. A timeline of the chapters is displayed to the right of the viewing screen, and this shows you a brief summary of each chapter, and how long each chapter lasts.

Cosmeo: $9.95/month or $99/year.

But the videos stuttered at times. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer for Windows proved to be the most successful browser, with hardly any stuttering videos and an option for full-screen view. But while Discovery says that Cosmeo will work with other browsers, including Mozilla Firefox and Apple Computer’s Safari, both gave us stuttering problems. On occasion, in Safari, the videos quit in the middle. On two Windows computers, we had to use a work-around just to play videos using Firefox.

Fifty percent of the videos in Cosmeo come with related quizzes, identified by a “Quiz Me” section. A “Notes” section lets you take typed notes on whatever you’re studying, but we found that retrieving our saved notes for later use was a clumsy process that took too many steps.

If you find a particular section that you’d like to revisit, you can save it to a section called “My Favorites” with one click. Folders within this section help to group your materials together, and we easily created new folders just by typing in a label, such as “Jane Austen Book Report.”

Cosmeo can be especially helpful for solving math problems. It includes various sections, grouped by subject and age level, where you can input numbers from your homework problems. Instead of just spitting out answers, Cosmeo displays explanatory steps on how to get to those answers. We tried this with division and fractions, and liked the step-by-step problem solving instructions.

We had fun with the Brain Games section. Virtual Volcano instructed us to set pressure and gas levels before we pressed “Start Eruption” and watched lava spew out of our creation. All parts of the volcanic eruption — lava flows, pyroclastic flow, plume and lahar — were labeled with understandable definitions.

We read an article about chamber music from the Art and Music section, then selected “View Related Items” and saw four videos and four more articles listed.

Parents can set restrictions on what their children look at by listing keywords to block in the Parental Control Settings. Content types, like all videos, can be blocked, as can specific content. If the child tries to search for any of this blocked content, the parent’s account will note this attempt. To see how their child is progressing, parents can view a student’s history to know what they’re really studying.

Cosmeo allocates points for each activity to reward students, such as seven points for watching a video on mitosis and 10 points for playing a Brain Game. The student can exchange these points for virtual wallpaper, screensavers or simulators that will make the Cosmeo screen look a little cooler and more personalized.

Cosmeo is continually improving, and updates are all automatic because it’s Web-based. Though it probably won’t end every argument over homework, it could well allow parents to help their kids learn — while learning a little bit more themselves.

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