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New search tool gives pause to some

By Maya T. Prabhu, Assistant Editor
May 18th, 2009

A new search tool that is set to launch formally May 18 allows users to input queries and receive answers to fact-based questions. If it works as advertised, the web site, called WolframAlpha, could be another useful tool for students and researchers — though some educators say they are skeptical about the search tool.

WolframAlpha comes from Stephen Wolfram, 49, a British-born physics prodigy who earned a Caltech Ph.D. at age 20 and won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" at 21. The site computes the answers to queries using the collection of data the company, Wolfram Research Inc., has collected.

"Fifty years ago, when computers were young, people assumed … that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer. But it didn’t work out that way. Computers have been able to do many remarkable and unexpected things. But not that," he wrote on his WolframAlpha blog March 5. "I’d always thought, though, that eventually it should be possible. And a few years ago, I realized that I was finally in a position to try to do it."

Champaign, Ill.-based Wolfram Research develops the advanced math and analysis software Mathematica, and because the software includes data that have been "curated"–found and verified–by more than 100 Wolfram employees, over the years the company has built a wide knowledge base. Now, WolframAlpha lets the wider world have a crack at it–something that gives pause to some in education.

Unlike search engines that deliver links that match keywords in your query, WolframAlpha is more of a black box. If you have it perform a calculation, it gives you an answer, along with a small link for "source information." Open that and you’ll generally be told the data were "curated" by Wolfram Research.

Gina Miller, vice president and director of customer engagement for Colman Brohan Davis Inc., said she is having trouble deciding how she and her clients should handle the emergence of WolframAlpha. Coleman Brohan Davis is a strategic marketing firm in Chicago that serves national and international higher-education companies.

"I am waffling between umbrage that someone thought this was a good idea, bemusement that I haven’t heard an outcry from the government or education associations on the subject, [and] resignation that education is going the way of ‘know where to look it up so you can copy it’ versus learn the concepts so you can figure it out," she said.

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New search tool gives pause to some

By Maya T. Prabhu, Assistant Editor
May 18th, 2009

A new search tool that is set to launch formally May 18 allows users to input queries and receive answers to fact-based questions. If it works as advertised, the web site, called WolframAlpha, could be another useful tool for students and researchers — though some educators say they are skeptical about the search tool.

WolframAlpha comes from Stephen Wolfram, 49, a British-born physics prodigy who earned a Caltech Ph.D. at age 20 and won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" at 21. The site computes the answers to queries using the collection of data the company, Wolfram Research Inc., has collected.

"Fifty years ago, when computers were young, people assumed … that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer. But it didn’t work out that way. Computers have been able to do many remarkable and unexpected things. But not that," he wrote on his WolframAlpha blog March 5. "I’d always thought, though, that eventually it should be possible. And a few years ago, I realized that I was finally in a position to try to do it."

Champaign, Ill.-based Wolfram Research develops the advanced math and analysis software Mathematica, and because the software includes data that have been "curated"–found and verified–by more than 100 Wolfram employees, over the years the company has built a wide knowledge base. Now, WolframAlpha lets the wider world have a crack at it–something that gives pause to some in education.

Unlike search engines that deliver links that match keywords in your query, WolframAlpha is more of a black box. If you have it perform a calculation, it gives you an answer, along with a small link for "source information." Open that and you’ll generally be told the data were "curated" by Wolfram Research.

Gina Miller, vice president and director of customer engagement for Colman Brohan Davis Inc., said she is having trouble deciding how she and her clients should handle the emergence of WolframAlpha. Coleman Brohan Davis is a strategic marketing firm in Chicago that serves national and international higher-education companies.

"I am waffling between umbrage that someone thought this was a good idea, bemusement that I haven’t heard an outcry from the government or education associations on the subject, [and] resignation that education is going the way of ‘know where to look it up so you can copy it’ versus learn the concepts so you can figure it out," she said.

She added that she and her clients are "discussing how curriculum–particularly homework–can be developed that will assure that concepts are mastered. The current process of learn-apply-test will need to be challenged and reshaped."

Ray Schroeder, director of the Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning and the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service at the University of Illinois at Springfield, expressed a similar concern.

"I think it’s possible that students may get less of the context and more of the content of returns," he said, adding that it’s still early to pass judgment on the web tool. "There are numerous alternative search engines out there that go beyond Google and Yahoo. So this will just add to those alternative search engines. I don’t think it will revolutionize searches, but I’ll reserve final judgment until after it’s launched."

WolframAlpha tells students what the answer to their query is–without making them comb through links as a search engine would. It also will graphically illustrate answers when merited. So if a student needs to know if Spain or Canada has a bigger gross domestic product and queries "GDP Spain Canada," he or she would see a chart indicating that Spain’s economy was smaller than Canada’s most of the time since 1970 and recently pulled ahead.

The tool also can show the odds of lottery games in any state. By tapping birth stats and mortality data, it estimates there are 2.8 million people named William alive in the United States today.

While the site simply gives a user the information he or she is seeking, it does suggest ways to track down similar information from other sources, including government statistics, proprietary databases, almanacs, and the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia, which caused a similar stir when it first appeared on the web.

Spelman College Professor of Biology Mark Maloney said educators have had to wrestle with sites like WolframAlpha since students started using the internet.

"There’s a fear that students don’t know the difference between a reliable site and one that’s not reliable," he said, adding that while Wikipedia began as a site that educators were wary of, it is beginning to be accepted by some in academia.

"It tends to be reliable [especially in science fields], because the posts seem to be made by scientists in the field. So I imagine that with this new site, if it generates a lot of hits and is a place where students are going to go, we’ll run into the same thing we did with Wikipedia. There will be that initial skepticism until it’s been tested."

For now, Miller says she and her higher-education companies are thinking about what WolframAlpha will mean for education in the future.

"We are talking about the eventuality of a profusion of mobile [applications] that will
duplicate–and even eclipse–the calculation functions of WolframAlpha. We are anticipating that online testing systems used by high schools and colleges will need to move quickly to evolve. Adding a type of proctoring spyware to report on open applications won’t address the issue. Timed responses per question may inhibit cheating, but won’t eliminate it," she said.

"But mostly we are talking about how we can embrace technology like this to empower scholarship achievement, rather than look at it as a competitive threat that undermines educational quality," she added.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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