Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram Alpha

According to the Wolfram Alpha website, “Wolfram Alpha is a unique online engine for computing answers and providing knowledge. It works by using its vast store of expert-level knowledge and algorithms to automatically answer questions, do analysis and generate reports”. Most academic disciplines appear to be covered, with other subjects such as “Today’s World” Hobbies” and many others. The site offers free content but to accomplish tasks such as step by step instruction in solving problems and other features requires a “Pro” and/or “Premium Pro”  license, albeit an apparently fairly inexpensive one (roughly $5 per month, depending on user-student, educator, etc. for Pro) A basic account is free but requires registering. It is worth mentioning as a point of caution that free use with registration in general means the user consents to be the product; in other words, the user consents to have his/her personal information disseminated for marketing purposes either by the original company or sold to other companies. As the ancient Romans would say, “non est liberum prandium” (there is no free lunch).

Wolfram Alpha appears to be a valuable educational resource but examining this offering under BVI scrutiny leaves much to be desired. It functions as a search engine for specific academic knowledge, utilizing artificial intelligence algorithms to search its database in response to specific questions. It also solves problems based on input and suggests further content based on that input. The home page lists a large array of academic subjects that might present a challenge to navigate for even a sighted persmathematical on, while a blind/visually impaired (BVI) person would likely find the site bewildering and unnavigable without help. The Wolfram search engine returns information specific to the search but like search engines in general, returns a number of results with variable relevancy that are difficult to navigate with a screenreader.  Wolfram, however, does limit its responses to the academic realm. Images do not contain alt text tag descriptions and although images are not plentiful, the concentrated amount of text information on each page is not conducive to even sighted use facility, much less a BVI user.  In all fairness, however, Wolfram Alpha might be a valuable resource when used in conjunction with a tutor and/or teacher who would be able to guide the BVI user through a particular lesson or search for information. A digital screenreader like JAWS on the Wolfram site is of no particular advantage, given the navigational difficulties and the inability of screenreading software in general to deal with unforeseen obstacles that require human intervention.  

Therefore, in terms of BVI use, Wolfram Alpha is, unfortunately, not accessible to any significant degree without a physical human tutor to guide the BVI person. These obstacles to easy navigation likely include those persons with some vision as the pages could be considered to be cluttered while the sheer amount of information and links may be distracting. However, on the positive side the content is astoundingly detailed and might be valuable for guided lessons on a plethora of subjects, including mathematics, science, etc. This would be useful in situations like guided home schooling, etc. where textbooks are limited and further in depth learning and exploration of a subject is desired. Unfortunately, given the screenreader navigational difficulties and sheer concentration of information per page, Wolfram Alpha is of limited benefit to solitary BVI users.

This is not to say that Wolfram Alpha is not a wonderful resource; only that VI navigation is difficult to extremely difficult on the site. The “10 Amazing Uses for Wolfram Alpha”website details  some interesting features and advantages of Wolfram Alpha for those who may be interested and exploration of the site will reveal an impressive collection of academic content and very helpful, useful information.  Besides, the site name, Wolfram Alpha, is very cool.


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