A View from David Zax
Whither the Graphing Calculator?
Can the TI-84 stand up in the era of iOS and Android?
With the rapid rise and ubiquity of handheld computing devices, I sometimes have to remind myself that I’ve always had handheld computing devices of one sort or another, for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of a handheld Nintendo game called Mario’s Cement Factory, released the year of my birth. Growing up, I used a Franklin device with replaceable cartridges carrying various dictionaries (English-English, French-English, and a database of movies before the time of imdb). Both those devices were very rudimentary in their processing power, but more formidable was the TI-83 graphing calculator, a staple of my high school pre-calc and calculus classes.
Times have changed. Schoolchildren are now asked to bring in their TI-84’s, rather than ‘83’s. And as word recently emerged, the next-gen TI-84’s will be sporting a color screen. Looking at some of the snapshots, on TechPoweredMath and others who have reported the news, I can’t help but make a connection that eluded me earlier. The graphing calculator now exists in a world swarming with other mobile computers competing for our attention. And with those mobile computers capable of performing similar functions, will the graphing calculator survive?
Graphing calculators aren’t cheap, after all; here’s a TI-84 that runs $119 on Office Depot’s site. Given that many students may already be packing an iPhone or Android that cost even more, and with access to a range of graphing calculator apps (here’s a well-reviewed one for $2), how much longer can Texas Instruments be counting on teachers of pre-calc to protect this market? There are already web pages out there giving advice on how to avoid shelling out $100 on a graphing calculator, using apps or sites like Wolfram Alpha. They point out that even if you need a calculator for an exam, you can rent one from a site like rentcalculators.org.
But just because mobile computing’s ubiquity poses a threat to the venerable graphing calculator, I wouldn’t give up on it yet. First of all, many teachers are loath to allow student iPhones and Androids in class to begin with. But setting aside protectionist forces like that, the TI-84 is likely to survive on its own merits as hardware. The graphing calculator is a highly specialized device, points out tech commentator Chris Pirillo, in a video sizing up the merits of what Texas Instruments offers in the classroom versus the offerings of Cupertino and Mountain View. “I think we’re a ways away from it,” he says of an era where smartphones overtake TI-84’s and their ilk.
It would indeed be a shame to see the TI-84 pass. The device is one of the last through which wide swaths of students are exposed to at least the rudiments of programming. (A friend of mine actually went so far as to code a program for a stripped-down version of Oregon Trail on his TI-83.) Though devices like Raspberry Pi are trying to bring rudimentary programming to the masses, so far they don’t have the same kind of reach as high school calculus. Math classes, the fates of our future programmers may rest with you.