New website offers quick answers — and the reasoning

BY EMILY MELVOLD | JUNE 17, 2009 7:20 AM

UI junior Daniel Sloyan has told professors he’s found answers to his homework online. To his surprise, many didn’t mind; in fact, they seemed to appreciate his quest for additional resources.

This counters initial reaction to a novel website, WolframAlpha, whose sophisticated features have reportedly alarmed some instructors — not only does it calculate and compute, it also shows the step-by-step work.

That’s not to say the site can’t be useful for students; rather, they can utilize it without ulterior motives.

“If anything, the website will provide another perspective on how to solve problems and maybe make things clearer than a book or teacher can for someone,” Sloyan said.

And it’s probably more acceptable in a “works cited” page than Wikipedia. The creators call their site a “computational knowledge engine,” aiming to be a single source that comes up with clear, definitive answers to factual queries.

A team works to gather information from and to cite sources such as research papers, government documents, textbooks, and data-collecting agencies — essentially a more academically acceptable version of Wikipedia.

Sloyan hasn’t used the website yet, but he said he would be willing to in the future. He thinks if the new site will help students earn better grades, then it might inspire more people to use it.

Still, teachers may think differently. Rachel Bialk, a UI senior studying secondary education with an emphasis in mathematics, thinks the website will be more convenient with all of the information in one place, but it won’t change how much people use the Internet to solve their homework.

“There are already sites such as Ask Dr. Math or Yahoo!Answers on the Internet that people are using to do their homework, but this may help cut time off searching for that information when it’s all at the same site,” she said.

Bialk, who plans to teach math to high-schoolers, said she isn’t sure she will like the idea of the website once she has switched roles.

“As a student, I like the idea, but maybe not so much as a teacher,” she said.

Overall, she thinks by generating the answers, the website could hinder students’ drive to learn material. But those who abuse the features may simply pay for it later.

“Eventually, they’re going to have to take tests and prove they learned it all,” she said. “That’s when they will regret taking the easy route.”

Not just for students looking to cut corners on their homework, the site is capable of more than just calculations. It generates data in numerous fields — including astronomy, socioeconomic data, history, and more.

After using the website, UI Assistant Professor Bruce Ayati said it was not going to be any revolution for education.

“I can pull up these results quite easily using existing search engines,” he said. “Perhaps this will lead to something more substantial one day, but I don’t see it now.”

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