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Get your widget on

July 27, 2010, 8:10 pm

Wolfram, Inc. has just rolled out its newest creation: Wolfram|Alpha Widgets. These are small “apps” that execute a single W|A query using user input, without actually loading the W|A website. In just the last few days since W|A widgets have been around, hundreds of them have been made, from widgets that find anagrams to widgets that calculate comparative economic data between two states to widgets that take derivatives. Each widget also comes with the option to customize, share among social media applications (21 different services are represented), or embedded in popular blogging and wiki services such as WordPress and Mediawiki. (Sadly, there’s no WordPress.com embedding yet.) Take a look through the gallery at what’s been done.

What’s really exciting here is that you don’t need any programming knowledge to create a widget. You start with a basic W|A query, then highlight the specific search terms you want to turn into user-defined variables, and the graphical tools on the website do the work. In other words, if you can perform a W|A query, you can make a widget out of it in short order and then share it with the world via social media or embedding on a blog or wiki.

There’s a lot of potential here for use in teaching and learning:

  • The ability for anybody, with or without programming skill, to create widgets from simple W|A queries opens the door for creative technology projects for students at almost any level. An instructor could assign a project in which students simply have to create a widget that does something useful for the class, for example to generate a comparison of two stocks in an economics class (though that’s already been done) or generate a contour map of a two-variable function in a multivariable calculus class. Students work in teams to create the widget and then post on a class blog or wiki.
  • Instructors can easily add a W|A widget to a homework or writing assignment for easy generation of data from user-defined sources. For example, a standard exercise in precalculus and science is to determine when a sample of a radioactive substance is reaches a certain mass, given its half-life. In textbooks, we have to stick with one element and its half-life. But an instructor could now create a widget where the student enters in the name of an element or selects it from the list, and the widget spits out the half-life of that element. The instructor can alter the problem to say, “Pick your favorite radioactive element and use the widget to find its half-life. How long until 10mg of that element decays to 8mg?”

I’m very excited about the shallow learning curve of these widgets and the consequent potential for students to make and play with these things as creative components of a class. Here’s a screencast on how to make a widget, in which I do a complete walk-through of the creation process.

What are some other ways you could see Wolfram|Alpha widgets being used effectively in a course?

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