Using "Gee-Whiz" in Learning

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A Q&A with Mike Looney, Vice President of Vertical Markets at Wolfram|Alpha.

Q. For those who don't know about the company, tell us about Wolfram Alpha and the products that are used in the education space.

Wolfram|Alpha is a "computational knowledge engine" which we sometimes refer to as an "answer" or "fact" engine. You pose "queries" and get discrete answers vs. more URLs as per Google, or community based input as per Wikipedia. It is comprised of hundreds of databases, sitting on top of Mathematica algorithms with graphical output, and initiated with natural language queries. All of this is computed on a super computer, and displayed on a free web site ( or on an iPod/iPhone/iPad application. While focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the variety of queries is quite remarkable with literally billions of data items that can be calculated, compared, etc.

For instance, a query "What was the weather in the Big Apple on Obama's 39th birthday?" yields factual data about temperature, cloud cover, precipitation, etc. and it is all graphed out. This requires access and leverage of three different databases to deliver this specific answer. The next query could be "Google satellite 94022" to show when the google satellite will be passing over my home.

Besides the query tool on the web and via Apple apps, we also have "widgets." These are essentially mini apps: static queries (created by a teacher) with active variables. Educators really like these widgets. They can structure a query such as:  "Stars in the Night Sky,” with variables of city, ST and time of day. The result is a graphical display what the star pattern will look like from that location at that time. The widget can then be plugged in to any HTML/Java script enabled carrier such as a teacher's blog or web site.
Q. One big concern that keeps coming up with technology in education is that the innovations far outpace what the education community can grasp, cope with, and institutionalize. Keeping up with state standards, teacher training with each new product, and unattainably high price points for public schools are some of the big hurdles. What ways or ideas can you suggest for the education community to deal with some of these challenges?


Indeed. Technology integration is a real problem, and sometimes causes more problems than it solves.  We see the benefit of Wolfram|Alpha as a "fun" "edutainment" engaging ancillary tool. It is free on the web site and only $2 as an iTunes app. Widgets can be created free by individual teachers or schools can create unlimited widgets (without advertising) for just $200/year for the whole school and all teachers.

We're seeing kids lead the way with Wolfram-Alpha, and we're developing more and more supportive materials for teachers and faculty to aid them in the integration of Wolfram-|Alpha in to lesson plans and project learning modules.

Q. Do you think the "gee-whiz" factor sometimes competes with a student's attention for what that tech tool is actually being use for -- whether it's a cell phone or an iPad?

Wolfram|Alpha definitely has a "gee-whiz" factor.  It's fun, engaging and supports socratic learning and thinking. Students almost never do a single query--they almost always pose additional questions and it becomes and thinking and discovery tool. In this situation, I believe the “gee-whiz” factor is a real asset to learning.

Q. How can educators and parents keep up with all the latest innovations, suss out what's actually useful and instructive versus what's distracting?

It's a challenge. I suspect watching various assorted and trusted education blogs are a good way to go.  We've been pleased with our reviews and rankings as one of the top 10 education apps, and is consistently listed by Apple's iTune store as a app-of-choice for education.

Q. How can schools, teachers, and parents determine what technologies can be "leapfrogged"; in other words, whether to wait for something better (Kindle vs. iPad vs. laptops vs. mobile phones) or become early adopters?

Wow, that's really a tough one. I was one of Apple's first education sales reps, so I've seen a lot of technology offered to teachers and parents. Some of it should have stayed in the box. Some of it moved some learning concepts from grad schools to high schools. What I like about what I'm seeing now is that the cost of early entry is going down. As it has always been since the early days. The decisions are usually made by the “wow factor” or cost of the hardware when the educational value of the total solution is what really matters.  The new mobile devices are going to revolutionize education technology because of their cost, accessibility, and eventually their software (such as Wolfram-Alpha) offering real learning capability.