When Wolfram Alpha first introduced its search tool, pundits spent a couple weeks calling it a potential Google killer. Even I called it a Wikipedia killer. While it has quite clearly done neither, it has, like the other products created by Wolfram Research, proved to be an incredibly valuable tool for education. These are the people who brought us Mathematica, after all.
Now, as I reported over on Between the Lines, Wolfram Alpha has introduced a new tool that should make Alpha easier and more accessible for students and teachers alike. Wolfram has tossed in a bit of programming and some social web applications for good measure in its new widget builder. This is both a classroom and a homework tool just waiting for the right teacher to take it and run with it.
I won't belabor the inner workings. The Wolfram Alpha site does a fine job explaining how it works:
[A widget is] A free, personalized mini-app that leverages the depth and breadth of the Wolfram|Alpha computational knowledge engine.
Widgets can do almost anything, from calculating the calories in a recipe to solving complex problems.
If Wolfram|Alpha can answer your query, you can use it to create a widget — to share in Facebook, Twitter, email, or anywhere else.
Users can find a tutorial here and can either modify existing widgets or create new widgets from scratch. Either way, the process is simple. What gets me excited, though, are the possibilities in the classroom.
Since Wolfram Alpha does such a nice job of plotting mathematical expressions, for example, widgets can generate plots based on user input. Students can then easily see the effect of modifying whatever portion(s) of the expression that a teacher specifies as a "variable" in the widget. Obviously there is plenty of software that can make this happen as well, but a web application with which students can not only interact but can also create or modify is compelling.
Although Wolfram's original claim to fame was Mathematica, Wolfram Alpha is hardly applicable only in a math classroom. Widgets already exist in the gallery for a variety of social science, health, and cultural categories. This collection will only grow as more users contribute their own widgets.
In their simplest form in the classroom, Wolfram Alpha widgets could be guides to avoid imprecise or useless querying. Alpha can take a bit if trial and error to formulate a query that provides precisely the factual data for which a user might be looking. Widgets can have the query set up before class, allowing students to focus on the data or get at more sophisticated queries than they might otherwise explore.
Users must create a Wolfram Alpha account to build widgets. However, the account is free, the tool is easy, and your imagination is the limit in terms of what can be modeled or queried for or by your students.