Wolfram|Alpha -the end of traditional Maths Homework?

For those of you who haven’t played with Wolfram|Alpha it is a great new concept in search engines with a very worthy goal

Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.

While much of the information has a decidly US centric vent it is still possible to discover some interesting information – watch the introductory video for ideas. Other people have also been blogging about it’s potential impact in education http://slav.globalteacher.org.au/2009/05/19/wolfram-alpha/

As I delved a bit deeper it became immediately apparent that it will easily function as a free CAS (Computer Algebra System) and give worked solutions to almost all routine Mathematics homework problems and you can bet as soon as the kids have discovered this is the case they will be using it. Just as many teachers in other subjects prefered setting assignments BG (before Google) because at least the students needed to read the information they were plagiarising (as they were copying it word by word from the encyclopedia), I think that Wolfram|Alpha will have the same impact on Mathematics tasks.  I know that CAS have been available for a while now – but they have not been as easily accessible or free.

For example I am currently setting a homework assignment for a NSW 2 Unit Mathematics class studying Linear Functions. Typical question that might be asked are sketch Equation . Normally a student would have to find the x intercept and the y intercept, then sketch – a key skill that the question is assessing. However those less capable students could get this from W|A

Plot

Or if the student was asked to find the point of intersection of 2 lines Equation
they would normally have to solve them simultaneously then sketch both lines labeling key points (once again key concepts the question is designed to assess) . Or from W|A the simultaneous solutions

and then the lines can be plotted as in the first example.

Mind you both of these simple examples can be solved in GeoGebra (free software being included on the Laptops being issued to all students in NSW 9 -12) see below

These are only trivial examples (relevant to what I am covering right now!) and are no different to issues arising from the introduction of graphics calculators in other systems (NSW does not currently allow them in 2 Unit or Extension Mathematics).  However W|A is capable of far more complex interations for example a typical Extension 2 question normally a case for integration by parts which W|A gives as:

Full working and everything!

Of course student understanding of these key concepts will still be able to be assessed using in-class tests, but it is obvious that simple drill and practice homework assignments will most likely be solved by time-poor students using technology – why wouldn’t you?  (Typical student note to conscience – “I understand and I’ll practice it later-  I’ve just got to get to work and earn money right now and the assignment is due tommorow”)

However it is not all bad!  In fact I am very keen to investigate further how Wolfram|Alpha can be used to enhance student learning of Mathematics in the same way that some (rich?) schools have used Mathematica (the big brother of Wolfram|Alpha) See http://library.wolfram.com/infocenter/BySubject/Education/Precollege/ for some examples.

So as Mathematics teachers do we bury our head in the sand for a while and hope that the students don’t discover these powerful tools until later, then attempt to adjust our tasks accordingly?  Not this little black duck 🙂 I’m going on the front foot and showing my students what these tools can do for them (if I can get a room with internet connection tomorrow!) and putting the Wolfram|Alpha search bar on the blog I maintain for my students

As for the Linear Functions assignment for my 2 Unit class – looks like it is back to the drawing board so I had better stop procrastinating. But it is clear – the days of traditional drill and practice homework are over!

4 thoughts on “Wolfram|Alpha -the end of traditional Maths Homework?

  1. Oops. Sorry Simon, told most of my classes about Wolfram about a month ago – really liked the sound of it but can’t affect my subject as much as yours. You make a vaild point about how it could potentially put an end to typical homework assignments in Maths etc

  2. That’s okay – I told them too but didn’t really show them how much it could do.

  3. Microsoft math 3.0 does all this too n will be on the laptops. It will prob b th calc th students choose to use most often. Shows all working out steps for differentiation, integration n much much more. No connectivity required.

  4. So for Yr 9 onwards this will probably be their choice. However the benefit of W|A is that it is accessible anywhere there is a web access – there is even an iphone version! The other advantage is that Yr 10 -12 students who will not have 1-1 laptop access will still be able to use W|A now!

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