Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Public School Technology Scam

A recent entry on Slashdot caught my attention.

The Walking Randomly blog does a cost analysis of mathematical calculators that are often used in schools and finds them to be oddly technically deficient and profoundly expensive for what they do.

Furthermore the blog observes:
I (and many students) also have mobile phones with hardware that leave these calculators in the dust. Combined with software such as Spacetime or online services such as Wolfram Alpha, a mobile phone is infinitely more capable than these top of the line graphical calculators.

They also only ever seem to be used in schools and colleges. I spend a lot of time working with engineers, scientists and mathematicians and I hardly ever see a calculator such as the Casio Prizm or TI NSpire on their desks. They tend to have simple calculators for everyday use and will turn to a computer for anything more complicated such as plotting a graph or solving equations.

One argument I hear for using these calculators is ‘They are limited enough to use in exams.‘ Sounds sensible but then I get to thinking ‘Why are we teaching a generation of students to use crippled technology?‘ Why not go the whole hog and ban ALL technology in exams? Alternatively, supply locked down computers for exams that limit the software used by students. Surely we need experts in useful technology, not crippled technology?

So, I don’t get it. Why do so many people advocate the use of these calculators? They seem pointless! Am I missing something?
There is a simple truth staring us in the face when we wonder why our students seem stunted - they are often forced to use arcane technology to solve complex problems. Not only is this asymmetrically lame as a learning experience, it never actually solves the problem in a practical real-life way.

It's about time to examine the pseudo-monopolies certain technologies have created for themselves in our school systems. The comments that follow this blog include...

I suspect there’s a large number of nervous people at Texas Instruments. Surely they know that their huge profit margins that they’ve enjoyed from selling the same TI-83 calculator for the same price for 15 years (while everything else got cheaper) won’t last forever. I think you’ve identified their best hope – that standardized tests allow students to use certain calculators but not a computer. Even so, TI is probably moving the right direction by selling nSpire software for PCs, although I doubt the testing companies will allow that given all the other capabilities found even in the cheapest netbooks.

If we look past standardized tests, then you’re right – let’s not only teach students how to use crippled technology. The day after WolframAlpha was live, I showed it to every one of my classes. And in every class I got the same question: “Aren’t you worried that we’ll use this to cheat on our homework?” My answer was the same: “No, my real worry is that if you don’t know how to use this you’ll be at a disadvantage when compared to a student who does.” - Raymond Johnson

"Couldn’t agree more. I have always asked why I am not being taught the tools that I will use as an engineer. I agree that theory is important, but not teaching me these other tools is not good."

In the interest of balance there are many defenders of the simple calculator, but the question of why superior tools aren't taught remains an enigma.