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Reflections on TI-Nsprie workshop & technology in math education

July 18, 2012

For the past couple of days, I’ve been attending a workshop on using the new TI-Nspire calculator in teaching math. As part of the registration for the workshop, I got a brand new TI-Nspire CX CAS graphing calculator as well as a license of the TI-Nspire computer software.

Some background

I grew up when graphing calculators were just becoming popular. I got my HP48G as a senior in high school (which I still own) and I can remember falling in love with RPN in calculus class. I loved everything about that calculator—the confident click of the buttons, the powerful but non-intuitive RPN syntax, and the fact that anyone who tried to use my calculator would be hopelessly befuddled trying to add 2+2.

For the past few years, my school has required every student to purchase a TI-Nspire calculator starting in middle school. Unfortunately, students came into my class with wildly different levels of proficiency for using their calculators, and so in class, I’d often find things grinding to a halt when a student was trying to do something as simple as graphing a set of data and finding a line of best fit. Between that and the time it would take these calculators to load up, all these silly little problems made me give up on these calculators and having students turn to their phones for quick calculations, and computers for graphing and data analysis.

Nonetheless, I had a number of wonderful colleagues, like Jill, Chris and Sam that told me about the wonderful things these calculators could do, and so when Jill offered me the chance to attend a workshop on using the TI-Nspire, I couldn’t turn it down.

The TI-Nspire Handheld

The latest version of the TI-Nspire CX CAS calculator is a thin, black calculator with a full color 320×240 pixel display, and a built in rechargeable battery.

The calculator’s software is impressive, it can import full color images, which you can then analyze. Here’s a picture of a water fountain, and fitting a parabola to it as is easy as clicking the vertex and moving it to the top of the stream, and then clicking the side of the parabola and dragging to expand it.

Screen Shot 2012 07 19 at 12 36 17 AM

Going to the next page in this activity is a activity that asks you to guess and check the equation of a parabola that matches one of the fountain streams. And finally, the third activity in this assignment asks you to move data points onto the curve and then plot the regression.

Screen Shot 2012 07 19 at 12 48 27 AM

It’s pretty amazing to be able to do all this on a handheld calculator, and it makes my 48G look like a glorified abacus (but it still doesn’t do RPN). Entering integrals is a simple as calling up the integral command from a menu and entering numbers into a integral template that looks like any equation editor. At the same time, there are still some limitations on calculator that make me feel like this calculator feels oddly out of place in 2012. For example, dragging those data points with the weird touchpad interface takes forever—the point seems to literally crawl across the screen, and all along, I just wanted to be able to touch the screen and drag it with my finger.

The TI-Nspire Computer Software

Many of these limitations disappear when you load up the TI-Nspire Computer Software (perpetual license costs $155), which presents you with a emulated version of the TI-Nspire, but now you have a normal QWERTY keyboard on your computer and a fully functional trackpad to use for input, and it makes such a difference in terms of usability. Clicking and dragging makes all the difference. Really, using this software made me want to never use the handheld again. Our instructor had to remind us to that in creating activities for our students on the computer software, we’d need to think carefully about how much more difficult it is to do certain tasks on the handheld.

In addition, the computer software makes it very easy to create files to use on the handheld. It is also the only way to actually add images to the handheld for analysis. Finally, the computer software makes also allows you to create interactive documents using PublishView, which allow you to embed graphs, calculation boxes, and more.

The TI-Nspire Navigator

TI has also made great strides on its networking its handhelds. Adding a simple plastic extension onto the handheld networks it with a teacher computer which allows the teacher to instantly push out files, clicker questions, and to display each students’ screen.

Screen Shot 2012 07 19 at 1 30 30 AM

TI also makes a Navigator system for computers, that allows computers running the Nspire software to operate in the same fashion.

Taking Data

One of the other easy to use features of the TI-Nspire is its ability to take data with Vernier probeware. With the right cradle, you can plug multiple standard Vernier sensors for data collection, without the need for calculator specific sensors that were previously required.

Taking data on with the handheld is easier and more intuitive than I expected. The data collection interface is pared down to essentials, while at the same time, you have access to all of the analysis and math features of the Nspire software via menus.

If I were teaching at a school that had no investment in any data acquisition hardware, like the Vernier LabPro/LabQuest series, I think the TI-nspire makes a lot of sense as a simple easy to use data acquisition device that can do much more than just take data.

The big dilemma

This calculator is probably the greatest calculator ever made. There’s only one problem—my iPhone has a screen with than double the resolution and processing power. And an iPad is a few times more powerful still, and most importantly they both respond to my touch, and are networked out the wazoo.

In a world where Geogebra, Wolfram Alpha and Desmos are all free, and the smartphones, tablets and laptops many students already own offer so much more power and usability than a handheld calculator, where does a $150 calculator or $150 computer software to emulate that calculator fit in? This the same problem I have with the Vernier LabQuest2, which is a seemingly awesome $300 device I can use to take data and share it with my tablet or laptop. I’ve already got a computer with networking capabilities and a beautiful touch screen in my smartphone or tablet. Why do I need to pay $300 for another computing device just to be able to take data with my smartphone?

Not too long ago, a stand alone GPS was another new, high tech device that many gadget lovers felt they absolutely had to have. Today, I think you’ve be hard pressed to find many people willing to pay for a stand-alone GPS, when their phones offer the very same or better functionality. To me, super fancy calculators like the TI-Nspire feel just like the TomTom with Star Wars voices—the 14 year-old me in 1990 would have loved this, but the 36 year-old me thinks it’d be much cooler if all this were just an app on my phone.

This is an interesting time for technology. There are so many tools available to us as learners, many of them free, that it can can be a bit overwhelming to know which one to use. More than that, these tools are improving at a rapid pace—far faster than a company like TI can release new calculators. So what’s the justification for locking oneself into a single tool, especially one that is so expensive? I can really only think of one—the College Board and the fact that only handheld calculators are approved for use on SAT and AP exams. When you think of that, it suddenly becomes clear why network functionality isn’t built into the calculator, and why the calculator doesn’t really allow for any sort of student to student communication. Once again, it’s sad to see just how constricting standardized tests are to education.

Why doesn’t TI just go ahead and build a iOS or Android app? I’m sure they would be wildly popular. Given that the average selling price of an app on the app store is $1, I can think if 149 reasons. I’m almost positively that TI has got an iOS app in the works—it was the one thing I heard almost every participant mention to the TI reps at our workshop. But I think TI must be struggling with the thought of closing down almost all of its calculator production lines and replacing them with an app that they won’t be able to charge more than $14 for. Despite these obstacles, I still predict this is going to happen—TI will make an iOS app, and eventually, the College Board will allow phones and tablets to be used as calculators, but not with out some sort of restriction on the devises accessing any type of network during testing. Of course, given the pace at which the College Board changes, I fully expect this to happen around the time my 2 year-old takes the SAT, and by then, she’ll still probably have to put away her holo-communicator in order to be able to take the test.

My own dilemma

What am I going to do next year in my Algebra II Honors classroom? We aren’t a 1-1 school, but almost every student has a laptop (though few bring them to class). A mostly positive oddity of my school’s culture is that students leave their cell phones in the dorm rooms, and aren’t allowed to have them out around campus, so there won’t be a lot of “quick, look that up on Wolfram Alpha” going on in my class. Students also don’t have access to the internet in their dorm rooms, so there won’t be able to expect that students can do their homework plugged right into Geogebra. For calculators, they’re issued TI-84s, which were state of the art back when I was in high school.

All of this means next year is going to be a pretty big adjustment for me technology wise. I’m going to have to do a lot of thinking about how to best incorporate technology into our class, and we’re probably going to be doing a lot of experimentation with students trying different tools and approaches and seeing what works, without ever being able to have the whole class doing the exact same assignment on the Nspire or Geogebra, but this was never really my style in the first place. I am very excited to show my colleagues some of these tools, if only to get some conversations going about the role for technology in our math curriculum and how it changes the types of questions we might be able to ask and explore. It’s going to be an adventure, and I’m pretty excited to get started.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2012 12:02 am

    I would echo many of the comments that you have made. I think that you are spot-on by making the connection between the College Board and TI. Otherwise, the TI Nspires seem to be such clunkers compared to the other devices available to students. They can do a lot, but at times they seem SO inefficient and awkward. What would be really nice is an interface between Vernier probes and the iPad.

  2. July 20, 2012 6:13 am

    They will pretty reliably bring computers if you ask them to do that. They bring them to English classes all the time anyway. And especially in an honors class, which you have, they will be on top of that kind of thing.

  3. July 20, 2012 12:13 pm

    As a Geogebra fiend, I feel obligated to point out that local installers are available that don’t require an internet connection.

    I also struggle with the constraint that the only time the TI is the best tool is on a standardized test – it is not the most efficient tool out of the ones you mentioned. I emphasize using Wolfram Alpha and Geogebra as either a checking tool at the end or as a tool to know the answer to a question before attacking it with pencil & paper, and found I had to force myself to have ‘no-laptop’ days where we only did things with the calculator. They liked these (as they tend to embrace a change of scene) and directly asked me to give days where we focused on the features of the calculator to do the things I often told them to do with other tools.

    As you point out in your post, there was a time when the TI calcs were the most portable and capable tools around for exploring, but that is no longer the case. I don’t actually think they will go the app route – TI is a microprocessor company, and I don’t think they will find it worth their time to develop an app that somehow makes it better than the other tools out there, and also ties them to continue buying their product somehow.

    Don’t get me wrong – I was a devoted TI user for years, and think they really pack a lot of great features into their calculators. I wrote a grant for, and then used the Navigator system for a year, and it’s a really cool concept, though clunky to implement unless it is a fixed setup in the room. If you have students with their own laptops, it’s so much easier to get a substantially higher level of capability with a pretty small investment of effort. When I saw someone recently flaunting the features of TI navigator, I had to bite my tongue to keep me from pointing out that everything they were saying was AMAZING seemed more like a poor implementation of something that could be done much better using cheaper and more capable tools.

  4. July 24, 2012 12:10 am

    Your post reminded me of an unrelated story which I just posted at

    By the way, I’ve experimented with and I love it.

  5. Anon permalink
    July 26, 2012 10:05 pm

    Posting as anonymous (so my sources won’t get in trouble), but I’ve heard from a reliable source that TI has been working with apple on an iPad app and it will be released/unveiled in November of this year. Apparently there’s also an android version being worked on, but I don’t know if it will be released at the same time.

    TI is a microprocessor company, but they’d be stupid not to write an app form of their calculator, since if they don’t get the tablet market, someone else will. For example, I know that WRI is trying to get Mathematica into schools and they had the CDF player on the iPad over a year ago…

    Other than this, I agree with almost everything that Evan said about TI CAS calculators. I always feel so constrained when trying to use them – the small screen and non-standard keyboards make every action painful. Maybe an app version would be an improvement!

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