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Why the graphing calculator still matters in an ipad world

[ Editor's note: This is a guest article by Lucas Allen at Tech Powered Math. ]

I talk about graphing calculators a lot, in the classroom, on my blog, on Youtube, Twitter, and recently at the National Council of Mathematics Teachers national meeting. One of the most common questions I get in these venues is: “Why do we still need these things? Why doesn’t Texas Instruments just make an app for the iPad?.”

Before I answer that question, it’s important to understand who the modern graphing calculator is designed for. It’s not the engineer, the programmer, or finance professional. It is the mathematics student. While the majority of professionals have moved on from a standalone calculator to computer software, most students don’t have that option in the classroom. Additionally, from a sales standpoint, there’s a new crop of millions of students entering high school every year for the calculator manufacturers to sell to.

One of the biggest reasons Texas Instruments came out on top in their graphing calculator battle with Casio, Hewlett Packard, and Sharp is because they understood their marketplace was the classroom. As such, they developed relationships with teachers and created workshops and courses to educate teachers on how to use products with students. They made apps and added features on their calculators that were less about number crunching and more about reinforcing mathematical concepts. Before long, they had an army of millions of devoted followers in the education arena.

Today, while there are a number of great graphing calculator apps out their for the iPad (and Android), none of the apps I’ve seen are as all encompassing as the TI-84 or TI-Nspire. You’d have to use multiple apps to get the same functionality of one of those calculators. I’m certain that Texas Instruments could put together a fantastic TI-Nspire type app for the iPad, charge significantly less, and make a similar profit. However, I don’t think they are likely to do so in the short run. Sadly, there are several major practical obstacles to such an app being a commercial success among teachers and students.

There is the problem of cost. The new TI-Nspire CX costs about half of what the cheapest iPad costs, making it even more difficult to justify an iPad. There is also the concern of students having access to the internet at all times, and in general, the concern of turning them loose with a non-”locked down” device. This opens them up to browsing sites we may not want them on, messaging with others, playing games, etc. That said, I think all those obstacles can be overcome by individual schools and teachers, and they would be overcome if they were the only problems.

On the other hand, the average educator is powerless against the College Board and ACT. We are nowhere near a time when these groups will allow tablets on the biggest American tests, the SAT, AP tests, and ACT. A device that is banned from these tests has no chance to become widely adopted as a mathematical teaching tool, and in turn, has no chance to become a commercial success. Very few math teachers, myself included, want to drive instruction with a calculator that our students won’t be able to use on important standardized tests. The TI-Voyage, Casio Classpad, and Sharp EL-9600C are all examples of graphing calculators that failed to create significant sales because they were banned by the testing bodies for being a little too “innovative” with a QWERTY keyboard or a touchscreen.

It’s a real shame, because devices like the iPad offer a platform that could allow mathematics teachers an opportunity to speak to kids about mathematical concepts on their own turf in a new and exciting way with the right apps. However, until the College Board and ACT offer tablet manufactures a way to design tablets that are acceptable for their tests, there will continue to be room for the graphing calculator in our iPad world.

Lucas Allen is a high school mathematics teacher and math team coach in Morton, IL. His website, Tech Powered Math, covers math education technologies including graphing calculators, apps, software, and online learning methods.

Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I really enjoyed your blog because I have wondered why students can’t use iPads instead of graphing calculators. I never considered the standardized tests that students take.

  2. Absolutely stupid argument to not allow qwerty keyboards but allow abcd keyboards! About time the College Board revisited this exclusion policy and realized that better questions on assessments are more important than the keyboard structure.

  3. Today I actually taught a high school geometry lesson to a student I was tutoring using Excel. He was more interested in business than math, so I was working on helping him make the connection between math and business. I showed him the business applications of Excel and then taught him how to create Surface Area and Volume formulas for various prisms by using formulas in Excel. It allowed us the focus on the concepts rather than the numbers and we started to create our own formulas rather than looking up what was already created. It goes to show again how important it is to get away from number crunching.

  4. @Adam- The TI-Nspires have spreadsheets VERY similar to Excel. Calculators in the classroom of this kind are not just for crunching numbers!

  5. As devices progress in complexity, allowing for students to do more with less effort, it screams for a return to basics. In short, no computer, iPad, phone, or even a graphing calculator. The most that should be allowed is a scientific calculator. This will reduce cheating via device communcation, and make the students do the bulk of the math, thus learning it.

  6. I do math all the time, I just use computers to take away the tedium. Surely we should allow students to do the same? Why the obsession with doing calculations by hand? Humans SUCK at doing hand calculations. We take ages and, more often than not, get it wrong.

    So we allow calculators but only crippled ones to make sure that students don’t cheat on outdated tests. If everyone who uses math for a living does their math with a computer then why in the name of sanity are we teaching students to do it by hand? We are testing techniques that no one ever uses!

    If we are going to teach crippled technology that won’t ever be used outside of the classroom then why not go the whole hog and bring back the slide rule and log books? That way there is no chance that students can cheat electronically.

    While we are at it, lets change the name of the thing that is taught in classrooms from ‘Mathematics’ to ‘Historical Mathematics’

    Regarding the comment ‘None of the apps are as all encompassing as the TI-84 or TI-Nspire’. Try http://www.spacetime.us/ and then show me one mathematical thing that the TI calculators can do that Spacetime can’t.

    Finally, watch Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk on the future of teaching math with computers.

  7. @Mr. Croucher,
    I agree with you that we need to adopt teaching styles to account for a new generation of learners. Technology has been present ever since they were born! This generation uses mobile technology as a separate part of their brain (an electronic appendage). If we as teachers don’t embrace this, then it may be difficult to reach many of our students.

    I do however, disagree with your point about doing calculations by hand. It is important for students to make the connections between what concepts they are learning and how the “computer” takes input and gives output. For example, I have my Geometry students use compasses to construct perpendicular lines, parallel lines, etc. We also use Geometer’s SketchPad, an amazing software that will create these constructions without much work. I have students do these hands on activities so they understand why angles are congruent or why lines are parallel.

    This also can be said about why we teach students how to divide larger number by hand. Maybe this still can easily be done by a calculator, but understanding the process will help students divide polynomials, something not too many pieces of software can do. Learning these ways give the mind the exercise it needs. If we just tell a computer to do, but don’t understand the why, then we will create a bunch of Homer Simpsons. Embrace technology as a tool, but know how and why it works.

  8. I stumbled across this post, and I just want to say how ridiculously antiquated math education is (and honestly all education). As a computer scientist, I started programming in second grade and learned algebra within a year. Understanding the theoretical concepts is what’s relevant. Understanding computer architecture will teach students how to do calculations in a far more modern and relevant way.

    I learned systems of equations through writing a program to solve them on a TI-83. I learned integration by writing a program in C, later finding out that I had independently discovered Reimann sums. I’ve had more than one teacher or professor tell me that if I could write such programs, I obviously understood the mathematical concepts.

    If students understand how the devices they use actually work, there shouldn’t be a problem in using them. Real computer science IS math, and technology and even programming should be a core part of any math curriculum.

  9. There needs to be a balance. If I am a contractor and one of my hired hands has to continuously pull out a calculator to do the simplest calculations that SHOULD be mental , he might want to check the want-ads for another job. For example, let’s assume he is on the roof nailing down 4×8 sheets of OSB. Someone on the ground needs to quickly know how many (exactly, not approximately!) sheets to send up. The roof’s dimensions are 24 x 36. He is standing on the roof trusses (balancing act, to say the least!) and pulls out his handy-dandy calculator to divide 24 by 4 for the width an 36 by 8 for the length (uh-oh….the second one does not come out to be a whole number). This might be compared to texting and driving…???
    Side note: If I need to go to my next door neighbor’s, I WALK. If I need to go to work, I DRIVE MY CAR. Just because I have technology available (my car) doesn’t mean I use it every time I need to go somewhere. There’s a time and place for everything!

  10. A clunky device that costs half the price of an iPad and provides about 1/1000 of the functionality is not a true bargain. The tablets are coming. Sayonara, TI.

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