Google Wave and Wolfram Alpha have a lot in common, and I’m convinced that both have tremendous potential as change-drivers in education and collaboration. Both were released to great fanfare in 2009, followed by a subsequent hiss of media letdown as the digerati elite quickly discovered how difficult both were to master. But educational communities have persisted and made impressive progress adopting these tools. I believe Wolfram will change the way we teach and learn, and Wave is going to change the way we collaborate and communicate.

Google Wave was released as a pre-beta preview on an invitation-only basis earlier this year, and it’s basically a tool for collaborative communication which allows groups of people to share anything in real time – documents, video, music, photos etc. It’s very chaotic and confusing at the outset, and challenges all the built-in reflexes developed by email use. But I’ve always hated the way emails to multiple recipients build up during a project’s duration, and how you have to open them up each time somebody adds a line, a comment, an updated document; how you have to label all the bits and pieces to be able to aggregate them for search and retrieval, and I’m hopeful that Wave will create a new modus operandi for collaborative communication. I also love watching the crowd-sourcing develop in real-time and the impressive commitment of the early adopters, mostly volunteers, to inform, support and accompany the thousands of dazed and confused users like myself who are motivated to learn but don’t know where to begin. Be warned, as Louis Gray put it, “…if you’re diving into this new technology, expect do be exerting a lot of energy to stay on top of it, because messaging just got accelerated.”

A good place to start is this post at Bit Rebels featuring Fernando Fonseca who has created a newbie wave as well as a GW helpdesk.
There’s also a complete guide to Google Wave here.

Wolfram Alpha, a computational search engine, was released earlier this year, and the media – not having enough time to really test and understand it – jumped to the conclusion that it was a potential “Google killer”, which of course it isn’t. Wave is already being used in colleges and universities as a collaborative note-taking tool, and there is concern that this would make it easy for lazy students to piggy back off the work of others.

Wolfram Alpha has generated similar concern that it can encourage laziness and cheating in math students. It can solve complex math problems and spell out the steps leading to those solutions. But Stephen Wolfram insists that computer-algebra systems like Wolfram Alpha actually improve education because they allow students to explore complex problems on their own and intuitively determine how functions work, rather than just learn rote processes. He claims that “it’s better to let them stand on that platform and go further.”

One of my favourite uses for Wolfram is as a conversions app – for currencies, for metric to imperial – the beauty of it is that you get the comparative graph, for instance the dollar/euro rate over the past 12-months – giving you a much deeper grasp of the relationship between the two variables than if you punch it into a converter. It’s also a homework helper – take a look at some of the videos here from Wolfram Alpha Homework Day in October.

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