Why Do We Still Use Graphing Calculators?

Desmos screenshot
Desmos is an intuitive online graphing calculator.

Last week, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition published a story called “Why the Graphing Calculator Hasn’t Changed Much Since 1994.” The story argues that “the fact that the graphing calculator hasn’t changed much since 1994 is exactly what makes it so valuable. If it were updated, there would be no real reason for it to exist.” Peter Balyta, president of education technology at Texas Instruments (TI), explained that “we could easily add features to our calculators like a touchscreen, Wi-Fi or a camera, but we don’t….When someone’s buying a graphing calculator, they’re not just buying a graphing calculator. They’re buying really a solution for a classroom.” The story concludes that students “love” their graphing calculators – either because they have to spend a lot of time doing math or “maybe they are just excited about something that managed to escape the forces of creative destruction.”

I’ve taught math at large public high schools in New York City since 2005. In my experience most students hate their graphing calculators, mostly because they’re expensive and difficult to use. This creates a major – and sometimes insurmountable – barrier to learning.

The High Cost of Calculating

While TI graphing calculators have improved since they were improved, the cost of a graphing calculator has stayed relatively constant at over $100, as Patrick Honner (@MrHonnerpointed out in 2016. Many of my students come from low-income families. They don’t see the value of spending over $100 on a graphing calculator. While they are willing to spend several hundred dollars on mobile phones, those devices obviously do much more than math. Furthermore, I don’t know of any STEM professional that uses a graphing calculator when much more powerful tools exist. What kind of message are we sending our children, especially those with limited resources, that in order to do any high school math, they must first spend at least $100 on a device that they will never use outside of a math class?

The NPR story also failed to mention free online tools like the online graphing calculator Desmos. Granted, as others such as @Seestur have pointed out online, TI calculators, are much more powerful than Desmos. For example, graphing calculators, unlike Desmos, can analyze statistical data. However, by not mentioning free online tools, NPR missed an important dimension to its story. Open educational resources are challenging the domination of the expensive textbooks from major publishers. As free and low-cost tools like Desmos continue to evolve, I wonder how long TI will be able to maintain its attitude.

The Math Is Already Hard Enough

Most of my students have used smartphones for years, so they are comfortable swiping and pinching on an electronic device. Most of them were able to figure out how to use Desmos within minutes, often discovering features before I did. Desmos’s interface is generally clean and elegant. For example, to zoom in, you put two fingers on the screen and move them apart. To find the points where graphs intersect, you click on the points and their coordinates appear. Plus, as a browser-based tool, Desmos looks and operates largely the same on a mobile phone, tablet, Mac computer, or Windows computer. In contrast, doing things on the TI-84 calculator is often confusing. Many tasks require several keystrokes and clicks. The TI-NSpire, TI’s most advanced calculators, introduces a new level of complexity with its pointer, so you can click and point by scrolling your finger along a 1990s-era trackball-like device. The NSpire also adds a dizzying file structure of documents, problems, pages, and the Scratchpad. 

In my experience, students find the interface of the TI calculators to be counterintuitive and intimidating. Other educators, like Nathaniel Highstein (@nhighstein), noted this as well. I often have to spend a lot of instructional time just explaining what should be basic calculator tasks. Some my more advanced students see this as an interesting challenge. However, most of my struggling students not only have to figure out how to do the math, but they also have to figure out how to enter it into the calculator. Sadly, many low-level students give up. They don’t see the TI calculator as a “solution to a classroom,” as Balyta claims, but a barrier to learning.

Desmos may not do everything that a graphing calculator does, but what Desmos does, it does well. We should look at Desmos and similar online tools as a model to emulate. Desmos’s fewer clicks and less hunting around for features means less frustration overall, which makes a huge difference in learning.

Why Do We Still Use Graphing Calculators?

So why do most math teachers (and their students) continue to use TI calculators? Twitter users @Seestur and Glenn Waddell, Jr. (@gwaddellnvhs) pointed out that TI aggressively courted educators when they first introduced the calculator. Perhaps TI knew that teachers are often creatures of habit (I know this firsthand!) and that once they can be convinced to adopt a particular technology, many will stay with it. In addition, Casio – another maker of graphing calculators – focused on marketing in other countries outside the U.S. Thus, I think a major reason why most of us continue to use TI calculators is because we’re just used to them.

Also, graphing calculators don’t go online, so they provide fewer distractions for students and limit the possibility of cheating. Desmos is currently incorporated into standardized tests in 17 states (the complete list is online at http://desmos.com/testing), but only on computer-based tests. (I find computer-based tests problematic for many reasons, but that’s a subject for another article.) As far as I know, Desmos is not used on portable devices on standardized tests.

Personally, I would love to see Desmos more widely adopted on tests. In fact, I would love to see a day where students could take math tests using tablets that have a suite of free or low-cost tools like Desmos and statistical tools. Internet access on these devices would obviously have to be restricted, and major security issues would have to be addressed – a daunting task, to be sure, but a necessary one.

In short, we need a more affordable and intuitive alternative to the TI graphing calculator. Instead of asking why the graphing calculator hasn’t changed much since 1994, we should be asking how we can create simple tools that make math more accessible to all learners.

This article includes many of the comments posted on Twitter after I posted a series of tweets criticizing the NPR story. The full thread is at http://twitter.com/bobsonwong/status/977373992423231488. 

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