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WolframAlpha, the High-Powered Math Engine


A new Web site that performs very complex math calculations at breakneck speed is causing controversy among some math experts, who wonder if it will discourage students from being forced to work out problems the old-fashioned way.

As this nice story in the Chronicle of Higher Education rightly notes, it's a variation on the unceasing debate over the role of calculators in math classes, rewritten for the age of the math super-engine.

The online tool, called WolframAlpha, was created by Stephen Wolfram, the entrepreneur who invented Mathematica, one of the first computer math engines. It basically provides answers to questions that viewers type into a box. The site then uses a math engine, known as a ‚Äúcomputer algebra system," to pump out an answer, the article explains. (There are other easy-to-use features unrelated to math, which I tested, such as a search tool which can spit out information for any given date—such as a birthday, or a location, or a publicly traded stock.)

These online math engines are not new, the story says, but they typically charge users a hefty fee, unlike WolframAlpha, which is free. "The goal of WolframAlpha is to bring high-level mathematics to the masses, by letting users type in problems in plain English and delivering instant results," the story says.

The story focuses mostly on the implications for higher education, rather than K-12, presumably because a lot more pretty advanced math goes on there. College faculty seem divided on whether to embrace the technology or ban it. For everybody who's coped with questions over calculators' place in classrooms, this will sound very familiar. For the math teachers and mathematicians out there: Do you think WolframAlpha has the potential to affect math teaching on any significant scale in high schools, or even earlier grades?


Most calculator research is obsolete because of its usual ignorance of the advantages of natural display calculators in teaching weaker students. Similarly, teaching with Wolfram|Alpha appears enhanced in my use of it during the past month with weak students. However, for assessment or homework, Wolfram|Alpha is a disaster. I block it during online testing and now do not allow online assessment out of my classroom.

The whole concept of online distant learning in math; including curriculums like APEX, is now unreliable for evaluation. Cheating is one thing, but using Wolfram|Alpha passes most people's legitimacy "test."

In short, computerized assessment must be proctored in math. All online schools must adapt to this.

It seems to me as if students at all levels might be able to type story problems into WolframAlpha and get the answers outputted. Am I understanding this correctly?

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