TV viewers familiar with CBS’ The Big Bang Theory (pictured above) may recall last week’s episode, where one of the characters comes up with an idea for a smart phone app to help solve differential equations. Being that the main characters are all geeks, the app is supposed to solve the kind of incredibly complex problems that only the most brilliant mathematicians and scientists try to tackle. As one character puts it, it will appeal only to about 70 people in the entire world, which means that if it takes off, they could potentially become “hundred-aires.”
Well, in one of those life imitates art moments – sort of – WolframAlpha has just released the first set of a series of “Course Assistant” apps for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, including calculus and algebra. Where the real deal departs from the TV script is that WA is tackling subjects that have appeal to a lot more of the masses than what The Big Bang guys were working on. Just think back to high school – and college, too, in the case of the Calculus app – and you’ll know what we mean. There’s also a music theory Course Assistant app in the first set of releases.
WolframAlpha already has mobilized its knowledge engine for Apple and Android platforms, so you can think of the Course Assistant apps as subsets of the wider content. As Crystal Fantry, senior educational outreach specialist for WolframAlpha, explains it, the apps still connect to the WA API but hone in only on the specific content. “A lot of people still don’t know WolframAlpha or how to use it properly, so this gives them an outline to fill that in,” she says.
Expected soon are apps for courses including chemistry, physics, and accounting, among others, organized according to basic curriculum units of a course. Fantry says that WA looked at nationwide standards for each subject, as well as state curricula, to help in that organization.
Choosing the i-product line to debut these apps on follows what WolframAlpha has done with its engine at large, starting out with Apple apps and then moving to the Android platform. And the Course Apps should make their way to the Android next, too. Generally speaking, taking the mobile route with such apps makes sense, given their intended audience. “This audience lives on their smart phones,” says Fantry. “And I think that in general, education will probably change to use more mobile platforms. We’re obviously not there yet. But in the future you could see a student taking an iPad to class and using it at home, and having the same resources of the application no matter where they are.”
That’s an interesting evolution. Remember that back in the day, teachers often would outlaw calculators in class, and now high school students regularly take advantage of TI calculators to enhance the learning experience. These days, the focus is more on the smart phones, both as a potentially disruptive device and also a potential tool for cheating. So, how much farther to go before they are seen by educators as more of a help than hindrance? Could Course Apps be a step in that direction – providing students with a more visual and perhaps more accessible way even than today’s sophisticated calculators of tackling tough subjects like calculus?
As Fantry sees it, “WolframAlpha and these course apps are great educational tools when used in the way they should be used….You get the same step by step guide as in WolframAlpha, so you can see steps to work through something rather than giving up,” she says. “And you get a richer information set as well. Wolfram Alpha whenever possible gives help information, like having an equation in a visual representation as well as an actual solution. Together that will help a lot of students who learn in different ways.”
The algebra and music theory applications are $1.99 each, with calculus costing a dollar more because it covers both high school and college. In addition to more student-oriented fare, WolframAlpha plans on creating Course Apps for “real-world” subjects, such as legal, engineering or even electrician professionals. Says Fantry, “We can take the Wolfram Alpha knowledge and create many different applications in basically any area that has computable knowledge.”
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