November 17, 2017

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 Streamline Student Research With Wolfram|Alpha Add-Ons

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Wolfram|Alpha has long been a powerful online resource, particularly for getting help with mathematical computation. The recent release of two add-ons for Google Drive brings the power of this search engine directly into Google Docs and Google Sheets. These tools now enable users to integrate the research process into their Google Drive workflow without ever leaving their documents.

WolframAlpha-logo-stackedAt-your-fingertips info

After installing these add-ons, one can integrate Wolfram|Alpha  in two ways. First, you can open a sidebar that will let you run searches and receive results, all from within a document. Depending on the particular search, the results can include various types of information, from images and timelines to textual information, and much more. While many users may  think of Wolfram|Alpha as primarily a source for  math calculations, the search tool  can also be used to retrieve information about historical figures, artwork, music, and pop culture. Results can be reviewed in the sidebar itself and, for each one, there are options to integrate this content directly into your document with a single click, generally as either plain text or an image.

Both the Docs and Sheets add-ons can also execute a range of computations directly in your document. To take advantage of this feature, highlight a portion of your text or a cell from a spreadsheet and select the “Compute Selection with Wolfram|Alpha” option in the Wolfram|Alpha section of the add-ons menu. In seconds, the add-on will replace your equation with the result of the computation. This feature can be used to add other information to your documents as well. For example, using the same “Compute Selection with Wolfram|Alpha” option on the phrase “flag of Japan” will replace that text with an image of the Japanese flag. Or, applying it to the word “caffeine” will replace that word with the formula, and IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) term for the stimulating compound.

Both features return results quickly and display these results in a clear, easy-to-read manner. Whether you opt to add information to your document as an image or as plain text, it will be integrated seamlessly into your existing work. Students are sure to love the ease with which they can get information and complete calculations.

Limitations

While both add-ons are extremely efficient tools for pulling content from Wolfram|Alpha into your documents, there are some limitations. Of particular note for academic use: neither provides access to the source information that can be accessed through the Wolfram|Alpha website. Teachers and librarians interested in integrating these tools with their Google Drive classroom accounts should be careful to explain to students that they will still need to track down source information for anything that they want to cite in assignments. Content that is added from the add-on may also require additional formatting to work in your document. For example, images added to your documents default to in-line placement and don’t include the alt-text necessary to be accessible. Neither limitation is insurmountable, but both add additional steps beyond simply clicking on the content retrieved through the add-on.

Beyond these issues, the add-ons also retrieve only a limited subset of the materials available on the Wolfram|Alpha website, although you can access results for your search on the full site with a single click. If no results are available through the add-on, you may be referred to the website for further information. In addition to displaying fewer results, the add-on doesn’t display many of the alternatives available on the site, such as the ability to view different skeletal structures for molecules. Those who have paid for educator or student Pro accounts on Wolfram|Alpha will also be disappointed to find that Pro features, such as data downloads and interactive diagrams, aren’t integrated into the add-ons.

Finally, it’s important to note that installing these add-ons will give Wolfram|Alpha significant access to your Google account. Each add-on requires access to the identity and email associated with your Google account and the ability to create, modify, and share your documents. Given that this authorization is required, these tools offer a good opportunity to teach students about online privacy and how to evaluate the technical requirements of the tools they choose to use.

Verdict

The Wolfram|Alpha add-ons for Google Docs and Google Sheets have the potential to streamline the process of integrating research into document creation for both students and educators. While these tools have some limitations, most of them offer valuable teachable moments on important topics such as accessibility and the proper citation of sources. If you and your students frequently use Google Drive, these Wolfram|Alpha add-ons are definitely worth your consideration.

 

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