Failing to Innovate

In 1993, I bought a graphing calculator. As freshly-minted math teacher, I was building my cache of instructional resources. And with my concentration on educational technology, I knew that graphing calculators would play an increasing role in how we teach math at the high school level.

3301122802_4e5129e931_zIt was expensive. I don’t remember exactly what it cost, but the MSRP was $130. It’s safe to say that I probably picked it up for around $100. It was a TI-85. It had a Zilog Z80 processor that ran at 6 mhz. It had 28K of RAM and a 0.008 megapixel display. I could say that I was blown away by the immense speed and power, and how it changed my perspective on how we do math. But that’s not true. I used it a couple times and put it away. I never did end up teaching math. I’m pretty sure I still have it somewhere, but I can’t find it.

At the time, just for perspective, my computer was a 386sx that ran at 16mhz and had 4 mb of RAM and an 80 mg hard drive. I paid around $1800 for it. If I used the standard depreciation model we use at work, that computer would now be worth about two cents. The few desktop computers we buy at school now are thousands of times more powerful and about a fourth of the price.

My children are at the age where they need graphing calculators for their high school (and college!) math classes. Their teachers recommend either the TI-83 or the TI-84. Having ignored graphing calculators for the better part of 20 years, I was interested to see how far they had come. Surely there was a reason that students aren’t just using their phones now, right?

I expected to pay about $25 for a device that had 1000 times the capability. Surely they would all have resolutions that could be measured in megapixels. They would certainly have wifi, and be able to share and access resources online. We don’t measure memory in K anymore, anywhere. You can get 2gb flash drives for nothing if you can find someone still making them. That’s 2 million K. It never occurred to me that the new calculators wouldn’t be rechargeable and have color displays and be smaller and lighter than their predecessors.

The TI-83 plus, which is one of the recommended models for my daughter’s stats class, runs a Zilog Z80 processor at 6mhz. It has 32K of ram (24k of which is accessible to the user). It has a 0.06 megapixel display and it’s 20% larger than my 20 year old TI-85. You can buy one on Amazon right now for about $100.

I was sure I read that wrong. A generation later, graphing calculators have moderately less capability, and cost essentially the same. That’s crazy. It’s unheard-of in the technology world. It’s running the same processor at the same speed. How can they even get the chips to build these things? They should be putting them in museums, but instead they’re selling them new, and at the same price.

How does this happen?

Texas Instruments is both strategic and lucky. When they were designing the TI-81, they courted the teachers. They went to NCTM conferences and universities and asked teachers to participate in the design of the device. They got buy-in early on. Not only were they ahead of the innovation curve, they also had the support of math teachers. That gave them a significant competitive advantage. Once they convinced the schools that students all needed to have the same kind of calculator, it was obvious what that calculator would be. The monopoly was born. Today, TI has 93% of the graphing calculator market. Most of the rest is absorbed by Casio, but those are calculators sold to people who have a choice of device. Students are almost always forced to buy TI.

And here’s the genius part: the people deciding what will be purchased don’t have to pay for it, so the cost doesn’t matter. The teacher likes the TI. The textbook is written specifically for the TI. The ACT and SAT allow students to use the TI. It doesn’t matter how much it costs. If the student has to have it, the parents will pay it. They don’t have a choice.

The mobile phone should have taken the graphing calculator’s lunch money. There’s no reason why a smart phone can’t do everything a graphing calculator can do while streaming Spotify, tracking the user’s location, and texting with friends. Certainly the tablets and netbooks and Chromebooks we’ve been all abuzz over for the last five years can easily handle the minimal work that a calculator does.

But remember, we’ve “standardized” on a proprietary, patented interface. The only way to have an app that looks like a TI-83 is for TI to license it. And they don’t want to do that. Apps that cost more than $1.99 don’t get much traction. With margins on the 20 year old hardware hovering near 100 percent, why would they undermine their cash cow? TI reluctantly released an emulator for iOS, but it’s $30, and it can’t be used on standardized tests. As far as I can see, there’s no Android version. Teachers are still encouraging students to buy the hardware.

As long as this doesn’t change, they can keep charging $100, and they don’t have to innovate at all. The golden goose will just keep laying those golden eggs.

In my case, I went to eBay. I realized that there must be a lot of people who buy the calculator because it’s required, and then realize that it’s generally useless once they’re done with math. So there are lots of used ones available. I finally picked one up for about $35.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Apple. I fundamentally disagree with the philosophy of the company. But without iOS, Android would suck. The competition forces both companies to innovate. Similarly, the Office 365 platform keeps Google Apps honest. The same is true with Playstation and Xbox. Or Canon and Nikon. Or Coke and Pepsi. Monopolies stifle innovation. And the customer always loses.

I was going to stop there. But I haven’t alienated enough people yet. So let’s take this to education. If schools don’t have to compete, we don’t have to innovate. We can just keep giving the same lectures and worksheets and multiple choice tests. We can stick to our 40 minute classes and our punitive grading practices, and our pretending that there’s some correlation between what we’re doing in school and what students are going to need when we finally let them out.

That world is ending. Our families have choices now. We may not like charters and vouchers and open enrollment, but they’re here. We can complain about it all we want. We can argue that we need a level playing field, and that all schools receiving public funding should be measured by the same standards and have the same requirements. That’s all true. But it’s missing the point. Our kids don’t have to come to us anymore. They have lots of choices. We can ignore that at our peril, and they’ll go elsewhere. Or, we can redesign public education to meet their needs and keep them.

Eventually, the TI graphing calculator gravy train will end. Schools and teachers and families will eventually realize it’s stupid to keep spending this money for the ridiculously obsolete devices. Hopefully, we will adapt before they reach the same conclusion about our schools.

Photo credit: Brandon Downey on Flickr



5 thoughts on “Failing to Innovate

  1. Hello John –

    Totally agree on the TI monopoly issue. I am so sick of TI calculators – as a math teacher, what I want to be able to tell my kids is put the Desmos, RealCalc, and Wolfram|Alpha apps on their smartphones and be done with it. If kids bought two or three good math apps, as you say their cost would be < $10. But alas, there's the "on a standardized test, they CAN'T have access to the Internet!" issue – this is primarily what keeps TI afloat. (Which gets into the whole "if a test question can be Googled, how good could it be?" question – for another time 🙂

    Having said that, I'm not 100% convinced about the competition drives innovation argument in education. I'd like to believe that educators would be willing to try novel ideas regardless of the level of educational competition in their communities. I also think educational competition often revolves around who has better standardized test scores, college admissions, graduation rates, etc. These measures rarely (occasionally, but rarely) reflect genuine innovation.


    1. My younger daughter took the ACT this morning. I just asked her if a graphing calculator would have helped her. “What would I have used it for?” she replied.

    2. On the innovation side, I think we have a tremendous amount of complacency in public education. We have tremendous capacity to individualize instruction to meet the needs of each student, and those students can move way higher than the knowledge level of the DoK chart. But we often stop short because the test scores are good. Competition helps us evaluate how to provide better value to our students. That may be correlated to test scores, but it often isn’t, especially for students who easily pass the tests.

      Thanks for commenting.

      1. I agree with your point that we have the capacity to individualize instruction that we are not taking advantage of. But I don’t think we should be motivated by competition to make that happen, and if that is the only motivation that will, that speaks badly of our profession. We should be doing it because it’s the right thing to do, not because if we don’t someone else will.

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