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 (wolframalpha.com) 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?