The new big thing?!

In February this year Tim Berners-Lee (you know, the guy who invented the Web) gave a talk on the ‘next Web’ at the TED conference, explaining his plan for the next big thing for the internet. Essentially, he wants to do for data what the Web has done for text. Specifically, “he’s building a web for open, linked data that could do for numbers what the Web did for words, pictures, video: unlock our data and reframe the way we use it together.”


Now Stephen Wolfram has gone a step closer to making this a reality through the introduction of WolframAlpha, a ‘Computational knowledge engine’ that has the grand and noble aim “to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone.” That is, you want to know a fact, then here it is: you want to compare the GDP of China with India, then here it is; you want to know the air temperature fluctuation in Penang over the past week, then here it is. Powerful stuff indeed!


No, it’s not a search engine, nor an ‘improved’ Wikipedia, nor a … Go on – have a play with it! Yes, there’ll be the odd frustration (especially when it doesn’t recognise your query), but it’s pretty exciting/enticing.


For example, one of the sample queries it provides is “caffeine vs. aspirin”, but when I tried “aspirin vs. panadeine”, it said that it wasn’t sure what to do with my input:-(


But what are the implications for educators and students? An indication is provided in the FAQs, where it asks and answers:

 Should I cite Wolfram|Alpha when I use results from it?

Yes. For academic purposes, Wolfram|Alpha is a primary source.

What does that mean? The answer is found in another FAQ, which in commenting on the origins of the data used in WolframAlpha states that:
Most of the data in Wolfram|Alpha is derived by computations, often based on multiple sources. A list of background sources and references is available via the “Source information” button at the bottom of relevant Wolfram|Alpha results pages.
This seems to introduce something of a conundrum: in answering an assessment question, will you allow a student to cite WolframAlpha? If not, they will probably use it anyway, then cite the data sources at the bottom of the results page. You then won’t know whether they actually went to the sources, found the data and performed the computation, or simply used WolframAlpha to save all the hard work!
So how will you advise your students and/or your institution on its use? How will it affect your assessment regime? It seems that there’s little point in asking for any fact or computation associated with collections of facts, as it will all be instantly available at the press of a button (or, rather, press of a return/enter key)! Again, what an exciting prospect – we can now concentrate on the important things; analysis, reflection, communication, … or have we said/claimed this before?
It should be rather fascinating to see how this pans out.


2 thoughts on “The new big thing?!

  1. Pingback: Daily News About Web : A few links about Web - Wednesday, 20 May 2009 00:34

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