A new search engine, WolframAlpha has caused a stir in the broader academic mathematics community—reigniting debates that once surrounded the introduction of the calculator in the classroom. Why? The site can spell out the detailed calculations of any math problem you give it, which has raised concerns with math professors who require students to “show their work.” Underlying the academic disagreements is a suspicion of the role technology can and should play in problem solving.
While a cadre of math professors at bigger universities are bemoaning the widespread availability of the technology—suggesting that it hinders their ability to verify if a student truly understands the calculations—math faculty with Bard College at Simon’s Rock are less concerned. “This is an easily accessible version of information already widely available, including on public computers at Simon's Rock,” math faculty member Bill Dunbar explains.
And math faculty member Brian Wynne points out that the accessibility of this information might actually facilitate deeper understanding among some students. “Since there are as many different learning styles as there are students, I would never ban any resources, especially free ones, which might aid students in their study efforts.”
Jan Rizzuti, director of quantitative literacy understands why some teachers may be worried about the site, but, she believes, “We need to focus on the reasoning and communication aspects of our fields and let technology serve as a powerful tool that can do the computations for us.” Wynne and Dunbar both wonder exactly how a "show all" site would truly disrupt their ability to verify student understanding if professors only permit writing utensils during exams, as is the case at Simon’s Rock.
"My intention is to continue to teach problem-solving 'by hand'... if students have an easy way to check their answers, so much the better," Dunbar says. "As to whether there will be a plague of students submitting identical 'show work' output from WolframAlpha in their homework, I don't know; I'll just have to wait and see." Although he says, "It seems to me that someone doing so would be likely to crash and burn on subsequent exams."