Ever student knows that they can go to Wikipedia for an overview of a subject, that they can go to Google for a wide variety of perspectives and popular media, Google Scholar for academic journal references, and Google Books for searching within books, both current and obscure. The new Google Squared even organizes output into a table of key concepts to help you organize your research.
But there is a key weakness to all of these resources: they are designed to point you to documents that might have the answer. Google can do some simple calculations and conversion from the search box, but in general you end up with links to resources that MIGHT have the answer you are looking for.
WolframAlpha is different; very different. The goal of WolframAlpha is to give you the answer, whatever your question might be. More interesting to the computer scientists is HOW it gives you the answer; WolframAlpha computes it based upon models of different fields of knowledge that have been built into the engine. “The vision seems to be to create a system which can do for formal knowledge (all the formally definable systems, heuristics, algorithms, rules, methods, theorems, and facts in the world) what search engines have done for informal knowledge (all the text and documents in various forms of media).”
That’s nice, but what does it mean in practice? Well, if you are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics the engine can help you with your homework or verify your answers. For example, I asked it “What is calcite”and was given the chemical formula and properties, structural diagram and even safety/toxicity. More interesting, it made the assumption that I was interested in the chemical calcite, but also offered, right at the top, the possibility that I wanted “a material or a mineral or a word instead” Clicking on any of those alternatives changes the search and therefore the results. Clicking on “a mineral” changes the display to include different properties that are more appropriate for geology than chemistry.
When it comes to mathematics and statistics, the engine will calculate complex formulas, graph equations and even, for some types of equations, show you the steps. Social Science students can quickly find details about geography and socioeconomic statistics about the people who love there. This data is available in many other places, but WolframAlpha puts it all into a single place and allows you to find the answer you need without searching through hundreds of unrelated facts.
There are always limitations to any tool, and WolframAlpha is no different.
I would advise students to be careful when using the site for homework. If you use the engine to calculate all of your statistics problems, you won’t understand the material and will likely fail exams where you have to do your own calculations. Faculty are aware of the tool and will likely change their courses in response. If, on the other hand, you use the engine to check your answers, you can verify your own understanding of the material and help yourself when you get something wrong.
Another issue with using this tool for homework problems is that there are often several ways to solve a problem, and the way used by the Wolfram engine may not be the same as the way taught in your book or by your teacher. Worse, if you ask the question wrong of the Wolfram engine, you may not get the actual answer.
On the FAQ page, WolframAlpha recommends citing information found via their engine. In the case of information used in papers this is good advice. If you use WolframAlpha to calculate what a car, bought for $2500 in 1950, would cost in today’s dollars, than the engine is calculating a new value for you and it should be cited as a primary source.
In the end, WolframAlpha is worth adding to your tool kit (one of many) but not a “get out of school free” card; you still have to know how to ask the right questions and understand the answers it gives you.