Monday, June 15, 2009


The long-running debate over whether students should be allowed to wield calculators during mathematics examinations may soon seem quaint.

The latest dilemma facing professors is whether to let students turn to a Web site called WolframAlpha, which not only solves complex math problems, but also can spell out the steps leading to those solutions. In other words, it can instantly do most of the homework and test questions found in many calculus textbooks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've seen something similar occur in software development. I learned programming "from the ground up" -- first assembly language, then C, then higher-level languages. I can honestly say that without TRULY understanding what's going on, you can fake it for a while, but...

Modern software development environments will auto-generate common bits of code for you. But if you don't really understand what the code is DOING, you're just poking around until it "seems to work". I'm sure there's software out there that will help me design a suspension bridge, but would YOU want to travel on it? (I wouldn't.)

Tools (such as calculators and software) are only useful once you REALLY UNDERSTAND THE FOUNDATIONS. Once you do, sure -- use the tool. I'd much rather have a calculator tell me what 1.357 x 44.619 is than do it myself -- in fact, it's much more likely to do so error-free than I am. On the other hand, if the result is 600-something rather than 60-something, I know that I've entered the wrong values (or the calculator is malfunctioning).

THAT is what this is about. It's about having a sufficient understanding of what the correct result "ought to be" that you can sanity-check the result the technology spits out. It's about understanding your discipline sufficiently well that you can rely on the technology to handle the drudgery for you, while still being reasonably confident that you have a proper solution to the problem.

I don't really see an issue here, though. If a student wants to use technology to do his or her homework, he or she will most definitely NOT be able to pass a test without said technology. Any teacher who allows use of such technology on a test simply fails to understand the issue. If the software is doing the heavy lifting, what's the point of the human?

-- Matt