PDAs challenge graphing calculators in math, science classes

High school educators have been using graphing calculators in math and science courses for years, but the arrival of affordable, more versatile personal digital assistants (PDAs) in schools—coupled with the addition of software that turns these handheld computers into graphing calculators—has some educators wondering if it’s time for a change.

The news doesn’t bode well for the likes of Texas Instruments Inc. (TI). Clearly the dominant seller of graphing calculators to schools, TI has had to search for ways to add computer-like functionality to its machines or risk losing control of a market it has dominated since the early ’90s.

For educators, the changes mean difficult purchasing decisions. PDA makers contend their devices are more versatile and simpler to use, but TI—which makes the popular TI-83 calculator—maintains its machines are better accepted, tougher, and cheaper.

Designed specifically with the classroom in mind, graphing calculators are still the preferred tool for instruction. TI says it sells 2.5 million graphing calculators a year, and 25 percent of these sales are derived directly from school districts, while the lion’s share are purchased by parents and students.

But with PDA software packages now being designed with education in mind, PDA proponents say it’s only a matter of time before educators begin to favor the more versatile devices.

“A whole host of things become possible that have never been possible on traditional handheld calculators,” said Wayne Grant, president of Imagiworks Inc.

Imagiworks is the maker of ImagiMath, a software program for Palm handhelds that turns the PDA into a graphing calculator.

Grant says the program is ideal for high school math and science classes, because it cuts down on the number of buttons and functions students must learn to get results.

“With traditional calculators, a large part of students’ attention is focused on operating the interface as opposed to where it should be—on the graph,” he said.

Makers of wireless PDAs say the machines are not meant to replace the graphing calculator but should been seen as all-purpose investments that can play any number of instructional roles.

“What we are trying to do is create a device that is the Swiss Army knife of learning,” said Mike Lorion, vice president of education at Palm.

For $39, educators can purchase Palm’s Mobile Mentor Series. The software bundle offers 11 different applications, including the ImagiMath program, for a variety of networking and instructional uses in schools.

Increased versatility is certainly a factor for educators, many of whom have considered purchasing PDAs for use in schools.

“The PDAs allow students to keep track of homework, check eMail, and take notes…. With graphing calculator functions and programs, I am considering [PDAs] for purchase” for the new school year, said Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania.

According to Lorion, Palm is making headway in its efforts to break into schools. “We’ve seen some of the best sales ever in the education marketplace,” he said.

Not willing to give an inch in a market it has owned for the better part of a decade, TI now adds PDA-like features to its machines.

Currently, the company offers numerous applications that can be downloaded onto high-end graphing calculators and used for a variety of instructional purposes.

TI’s Topics in Algebra 1 delivers curriculum overviews and activities for the calculator that can be used to compliment lessons in several textbooks. Fundamental Topics in Science is a similar, downloadable application.

The company also has expanded the memory and storage capabilities of its machines and is developing an attachable keyboard for note-taking. And a new, interactive quiz feature lets students submit answers to personalized quizzes via TI-83 calculators.

The TI-Navigator system lets students link their calculators in wireless fashion to teachers’ machines. The program allows for immediate assessment and tabulation of test results.

The functionality of TI calculators “is growing rapidly,” Tom Ferrio, the company’s vice president of educational and productivity solutions, told eSchool News.

What’s more, TI calculators are designed to be used on most standardized tests, including the SAT, Ferrio said. Currently, PDAs are banned on such assessments.

According to TI, its graphing calculators also offer greater durability, an essential quality in made-for-school technology. TI’s products are not business tools turned classroom amenities, Ferrio argued; the company’s graphing calculators are designed and tested with students in mind.

According to Ferrio, the plasma-display screens can withstand 40 pounds of pressure before cracking. Also, the company performs drop tests from 48 inches to ensure the calculators won’t break when kicked around in backpacks.

Lorion said Palm also conducts drop tests on its machines and that the company has begun to equip base models with plastic screens and face plates to prevent breakage in schools.

Still, some educators aren’t yet ready to embrace PDAs on a schoolwide basis.

“I am not sure that the use of PDAs in our district will get us to where we want to go instructionally [when we] are still working on getting teachers and students to use computers effectively,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Unified School District in California.

Others fear a change would bring more harm than good, given the comfort level teachers already have using graphing calculators.

“We have had the discussion about implementing PDAs over graphing calculators, and we don’t believe it is time to do that. Our district has very specific lessons and units of instruction integrating specific graphing calculators and their capabilities. It would be an onerous task to make a switch, even if the capabilities were similar,” said Bob Moore, executive director of instructional technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas.

Proponents of PDAs say they don’t anticipate many difficulties in a switchover.

“Replacing prevailing technology always takes some time,” said Imagiworks’ Grant. “But we’re not reinventing mathematics here.”


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