Are calculators a technology tool that has outlived its usefulness? Obviously, this is a loaded question. In theory, you would think the answer is yes – what with all the one-to-one initiatives, use of mobile devices in schools (particularly smartphones), free online graphing tools, and the push for web-based apps and resources. But, the reality, from both my research and my personal experience working in schools all over the country, is the answer is no. Calculators are still a much needed technology tool and will be for some time to come.
How can that be you ask, what with so many schools all going digital? According to the 2013 SpeakUp National Research Project, only about 1/3 of students have regular access to mobile devices to use in classrooms (of which some are BYOD). Most of the time, there is no regular access to mobile devices (i.e. laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc.). Which means, from a math perspective, most of the time there is no access to math apps, or online graphing tools, or calculation/graphing tools on mobile devices.
From my personal experiences, working in large, small, rural and urban school districts, technology in classrooms runs the complete gamut – some schools have great technology – white boards, laptops, and/or tablets, internet. But – that is the rarity. What I see most often is a laptop or tablet cart that must be shared between six or more teachers, or possibly one computer lab, which is often impossible to get into, especially with all the standardized testing that happens. Students are more often than not unable to use their own mobile devises(i.e. smart phones). Even teachers are often not allowed to, and if they are the internet access is horrible. Just last week I was in a school where the teacher was trying to access something on her phone and had to hold her phone out the window. What technology is available can also differ drastically from school to school within a single district, not just between districts. I have gone from one school in a district, where the only technology available was calculators and the teacher computer & projector, to the school down the street where every student had a laptop. Same district, same grade level (high school), vastly different resources.
According to research, 97% of teachers have a computer in their classroom. The most used technology resources in classrooms are an interactive whiteboard and a class computer with a projector. My personal experiences confirm this – and in fact, it is what I see used more than anything – teacher computer, with a projector./screen. And sadly – the interactive whiteboards I see are used more often as just projector screens rather than truly utilizing their interactive capabilities and built-in programs.
Funding is one of the biggest reasons for the lack of technology in schools, with a huge disparity in access between lower and upper income schools (This Pew Research Study has some interesting numbers/facts). Sometimes is poor planning for implementation and/or the infrastructure needed to sustain technology initiatives (L.A. a great example of this). It is also lack of training and support for teacher’s integration of technology, as well as other factors such as large class sizes (I’ve done research in class sizes of 43 high schools students), comfort level with other resources and of course, just the availability of resources in general. So, while I am a supporter and believer in using mobile devices such as tablets, laptops, smartphones, in the the classroom, I am also a realist, and know that we are a long, long way from this being common place. Especially as funding for schools keeps getting cut, which means purchasing costly tablets and/or computers and maintaining these is often a challenge.
So – unless somehow, educational funding makes a huge turn-around, which in this political climate is very unlikely, I don’t see all students having regular access to mobile devices in classrooms for a long time. Which takes me back to the calculator. A cheap and easily-accessible technology resource that most schools have and, due to their relatively low cost (especially compared to a tablet and/or computer) that most parents can purchase for their children if need be. A $50 graphing calculator can allow students to explore and visualize different types of relationships, discover numerical patterns, and expand their conceptual understanding of mathematics. A $20 calculator (ClassWiz) has QR code generation capability that allows for graphical representation (teachers could project them from their class computer). Calculators can be in every students’ hand, quickly, vs. the sharing of mobile devices that often occurs when mobile devices are used in classes (due to availability) (average computer/tablet to student ratio is 1 to 5.3).
I am going to continually learn and push for technology integration in mathematics and hope that students will have access to all the great technology and mobile devices and resources out there. It’s just a slow process with lots of hurdles such as funding, access, permissions, etc. So, I am going to push the use of calculators as well because, from my perspective, calculators are NOT going away for a very long time. If it’s a choice between no technology or an affordable calculator that will help push students further and support the exploration and deeper understanding of mathematical concepts, it seems a no-brainer – get a calculator and help students explore! It’s a big reason behind my decision to partner with Casio. I do not see calculators disappearing from math education any time soon, and I really like Casio for several reasons, some of which are they are cheaper and better calculators that are a heck of a lot easier to use. I also get to be a part of helping Casio develop and evolve both their calculators and their web-based solutions, and interact with math educators around the world, so I see all this as a win-win!