I've been intrigued lately by two platforms that provide a different experience than the typical "Google" search.
Wolfram-Alpha is probably best known these days as the engine behind Siri, Apple's much-touted personal assistant in its latest operating system. Unlike Google, Wolfram-Alpha works by searching its own database of curated information, relying on human fields of knowledge. Essentially, it attempts to employ greater semantic understanding to return a response that is computed for you. It tells you, for instance, what a triangle is if you search that term. (And if you mean the musical instrument, you can choose that response.) Google, on the other hand, searches the web and returns websites and documents that you then sift through in order to determine what is most relevant - which site has the definition of triangle. So Wolfram-Alpha is probably best at returning factual data, while Google would still be a better way to find the perfect romantic getaway.
Qwiki makes search a multimedia experience. Again, the information is curated, and comes from a variety of online sources, such as Google, Youtube and Wikipedia. But the presentation is what makes Qwiki so interesting. The information returned is in the form of images, video and narrated text, and you have the ability to interact with all of it.
Below is an example of the search returned when I typed National Writing Project into the Qwiki search window:
Interestingly, it appears that Qwiki is poised to let users create their own curated, media-rich content and turn them into Qwikis.
I see pros can cons with these kinds of search experiences for students. On the one hand, I appreciate the multi-sensory experience of Qwiki and the fact that it leverages various literacies that digital knowledge has to offer, in a seemingly coherent package. Wolfram-Alpha, too, seems to provide a more human, and possibly humane, search experience. Rather than 1.2 million pages returned, based on a natural language query, you get one response page, filled with data.
My fear, though, is that these types of search platforms, with their curated answers, may make our students less critical consumers of media and websites. It's unclear, for instance, as I watch the information flow by about the National Writing Project where exactly the information came from, and so I have difficulty determining the reliability of the source. At the end, I see pointers to Wikipedia, fotopedia, Google and YouTube. But these are a far cry from citations.
Have you used either Wolfram-Alpha or Qwiki for your own work? With your students as they conducted research? If so, I'd love to hear more about your experience.