We live in a world where Amazon is just about to release a $50 tablet which puts all the power of the Internet at anyone’s disposal. (Or all the power, at least as filtered through Amazon’s own native apps.) Many people, including high school students, already have that power at their disposal via smartphones.

But this is also a world where high school math students have to shell out $100 for the same TI-83 graphing calculator that their parents used twenty years ago (or one of its descendants, at least)—instead of using a free app that they could simply download to their phone. Why? Mic reports that the main reason is tradition. Texas Instruments has managed to get its calculators written into the standardized tests used by many schools. And inertia being what it is, it’s really hard to change something like that once it gets set down on paper.

It’s a profitable technological incumbency that is nearly monopolistic. In the 2013-2014 school year, Texas Instruments sold 93% of all graphing calculators in the U.S. The Washington Post estimates that TI is manufacturing the calculators for $15 to $20 and achieving a more than 50% profit margin, making calculators one of the company’s most profitable items.

There actually is an app that could be just as useful, called Desmos, available as a web, Android, or iOS app. The problem is, it has an uphill battle to get approved. Even leaving aside how tradition has enshrined the TI to the point where it’s still considered worthwhile to manufacture and sell an expensive, obsolete bit of technology, you have the problem that kids could get distracted by their devices’ other functions. (Of course, kids are fully capable of programming the TI-83 to play video games, so you could make a case that they’re going to find ways to distract themselves no matter what you give them.)

And, although the Mic article doesn’t bring this up, there’s also the question of kids using their Internet-connected devices to cheat on tests. They’re going to have to figure out some way around that if they want a computerized device to become an acceptable alternative.

(Though if you think kids couldn’t find some way to use a programmable, computerized calculator to cheat on tests, such as by programming their notes into it, perhaps you aren’t acquainted with the ingenuity that even an average high school student can develop when his grade is on the line.)

It remains to be seen if and how long it will take for Desmos or something like it to unseat the physical TI calculators. currently being used in standardized testing. But I think it’s a great illustration of just how much school isn’t like the real world anymore. It used to be that using TI calculators in high school made sense, since those were going to be the tools you had to work with in business and science. But now…who even uses those anymore except for high school classes? Everyone else is using smartphone and tablet apps by now.

(Found via BoingBoing.)


  1. I am not 100% convinced that it really is obsolete technology. Yes, there are apps that can do the same function but for the most part they emulate the design of a physical graphing calculator. In other words, this is not at all the same as when scientific calculators replaced slide rules; you don’t really need to rethink how you work when you switch to using an app.

    Also, I would point out that calculators have a huge advantage over a smartphone or tablet app which is battery life. I can’t remember a single time a fresh set of batteries in a calculator has not lasted me weeks or months.

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