Friday, January 06, 2006

What's the point of calculators?

At a conference recently, I met a representative of Texas Instruments who was there to sell calculators. It gave me the chance to ask a question that has been on my mind for a while- "Why would I still use a calculator now that computers are so cheap?".

She explained what I wide range of calculations could be done on the calculator, which I don't doubt, so again I pressed "But why choose to use such a tiny keyboard, and small screen when it would be easier to do on the computer and easier to save work, annotate work, re-use calculations etc."

In the end I got a reason, and I had to agree it was a good reason to buy one. She said "You can take it into an exam, but most exam systems do not allow you to bring a computer in."

I left satisfied that TI has a safe and lucrative future but shocked by the realization of how back-to-front our educations systems can be. If we are preparing our children to be effective in the real world, why do we force them to use tools that lose their central benefit in the real world?

I reflected on the possible reasons to keep computers out of exams. It can only be the ability to store lots of data- textbooks, lecture notes etc. A good reason when you are testing students knowledge, but not a good reasons when you are testing the students ability to apply knowledge. And surely this is what you are testing in a computational task? When I solve problems as a professional, I do look up facts and methods. Thats the easy part, understanding them, modifying them to my task, specifying the calculation, interpreting results- these are the hard parts. And they can be plenty hard enough without forcing one to do it on a 3 inch keyboard and 100 pixel screen!

Related news:
26 May 06: Is the new TI calculator good news for TI?
7 Sep 06: TI NSpire calculator delays
23 Nov 06: Derive to be discontinued


Anonymous said...

Calculators still have some advantages when all you need are relatively simple calculations.

The hardware and the software are very robust compared to (notebook) computers or PDAs, the device is easily portable and it consumes very little power. Finally, it doesn't generate sparks or static electricity and it even works while sealed (all very importsant in a lab or cleanroom).

That is why I still use my HP 32S.

Anonymous said...

Why have a calculator? For the same reason you have a camera even though your cell phone can take a picture. A calculator is designed for one thing, and it does that one thing better than anything else.

1) When you want to do a quick calculation you don't want to wait for your computer to boot up. You want something that you can press a button and it's instantly on.

2) A calculator keyboard is just plain easier to use for most calculation. I don't want to have to pull out a stylus or mouse to do some simple calculations.

3) Battery life. You can put a calculator in a drawer pull it out a year from now, and it will still turn on.

4) It's just the right size. Its small enough to toss in a draw or put in a back pack. it's big enough for draw a graph.

5) The price is right. Most calculators are under $20. If it does the job better than a PDA and the price is low enough, you'll buy it.