By Tech Powered Dad | July 7, 2011
Listen to what tech savvy consumers, students, teachers, and even graphing calculator designers are saying about today’s graphing calculators and there’s a common theme: Why are we buying graphing calculators when “there’s an app for that”? The iPad was just the start as we now have the HP Touchpad, Galaxy Tab, and Motorola Xoom just to name a few. There are already great calculators for Android and iOS, so why are we buying dedicated devices that can only do math? The answer is simple. The College Board, who oversees the SAT and AP tests among others, is not going to allow students to use an iPhone, Android, or other wireless device due to concerns about cheating. Until there is a tablet approved for use on standardized tests, the standalone graphing calculator isn’t going anywhere.
It’s true that the College Board isn’t the only obstacle. Most schools have rules in place to prevent phones and tablets already, and not without valid concerns. However, I already see the shift towards greater acceptance happening there as more and more schools shift towards allowing at least some kinds of wireless devices. Some schools have already loosened their policies and many more are reevaluating them now so they’ll have modern policies in the near future.
Casio Classpad, doomed in America by its stylus
But take wireless out of the game for a minute (don’t worry, we’ll figure out how to get it back in later). Even without the wireless issue, the College Board has shown no interest in adopting a set of modern technology policies. Heck, they’ve banned the Casio ClassPad simply because it uses a stylus. Yes, that groundbreaking 1996 technology, the stylus. As if that’s not bad enough, the folks over at the ACT have the even more archaic policy of banning calculators with a Computer Algebra System that can perform operations on variables. Guys, if you can’t figure out how to write a few questions where a CAS won’t be advantageous, you need to go back to test writing 101. You’re taking a major tool out of the toolbox for those of us that teach in the parts of the country where the ACT is more popular. We can’t realistically recommend a CAS calculator for our students when the ACT is such an important test, and that’s a shame.
How Much Power Do the College Board and ACT Really Have?
Definitely more than they should. Each calculator is approved on an individual basis. Yeah, there are some general rules like no touch screens (why? what possible unfair advantage could a touchscreen give?) and no CAS calculators on the ACT. But beyond that, with each new model, manufacturers have to go in and make the case for the new features they have developed. It’s been painfully slow and incremental progress over the last 25 years. The graphing calculator manufacturers have to make sure that they have the blessing of the test writers because a model that’s banned has no chance to sell in America.
Casio’s newest model, the Casio Prizm, has a very cool feature that allows students to graph a real life object’s progress as it travels through space. These are motion capture photographs, which Casio calls “animated flip books.” The object moves jerkily along as you advance each frame. I was told they wanted to use true movie files, or at least call the files movies, but couldn’t. Apparently, even using the words”movie” to describe your calculator gets it banned. Consequently, we have “animated flip books.”
Rules of the Game for a School Tablet
So what’s my plan? Here’s the outline for what needs to happen for what I’ll (uncreatively) call the “SchoolTab.” First, I’m calling on the College Board and ACT to have begin a process that would update their outdated standards by the year 2013. These are significant changes, but two years should be more than sufficient. Let manufacturers know exactly what is and what is not allowed going forward, and the old rules just aren’t going to cut it. Touch screens definitely have to be in. ACT, sorry, but it’s time to dump your outdated CAS policies. I don’t know if ACT and College Board benefit in some way by having different standards for calculators, but it’s certainly not what’s best for kids, and College Board has this one right. We don’t need kids buying an ACT compliant SchoolTab and and SAT compliant SchoolTab. I know kids who have done exactly this with their graphing calculator.
On the other hand, we can’t go laissez faire here. There do need to be rules, strict rules, on what’s allowed to prevent cheating. You obviously can’t have a device that’s capable of communicating wirelessly during the test. We have to deal with the problem of apps which could be used for cheating. Some schools are not going to want cameras on SchoolTabs, at least not all of the time.
Here’s my proposal, and it’s open to lots of tweaking. Let’s make the SchoolTab with a detachable top section which will contain all the fun stuff that would get it in trouble in test taking situations. The top of the SchoolTab will contain the following:
- Camera (if equipped)
- All non-OS memory and other functions
- Headphone jack
The bottom portion of the SchoolTab will only contain the tablet and the apps build into the OS. This won’t be many apps, but in addition to obvious ones like calendar, clock, etc., it will include:
- Graphing calculator functions
- Sketching/notes features
- Word processing features
Importantly, anything saved will go directly to the detachable portion of the SchoolTab. That means that any formulas, apps, documents, etc. will be gone the second you remove the detachable potion to prevent cheating. No WIFI = no communication with the outside world. We’re going to make the removable portion a contrasting color to the rest of the SchoolTab. This isn’t such a novel concept. Texas Instruments has already created a detachable WIFI for the TI-Nspire CX that is bright yellow. My preference is red, with green inside that becomes visible when the top section is removed. This way is anyone with the smallest amount of care proctoring a standardized test will be able to tell whether it’s ready to use for the test or not. Green for go, red for no.
My non-artist’s rendition of the SchoolTab, envisioned as an Android tablet
I’m sure there are potential problems that I have yet to think of. Hence, my suggestion that ACT and the College Board take the next 2 years to work through those details. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.
Potential SchoolTab Players
Let’s assume for a minute, and it’s a big assumption, that the College Board and ACT can accelerate their current glacier-like pace of change and come up with a modern policy for kids taking their tests. There’s a potential gold mine here with millions of school are children in the US alone. Due respect to players like LeapFrog (who is releasing the LeapPad tablet) and Avantis, maker of the LearnPad, we need something designed for older students in high school through college. Who would be the most likely players to develop the SchoolTab? The SchoolTab’s development and acceptance will be more rapid if it’s built on an operating system that’s already around in some form today like Android, iOS, WebOS, etc. Here’s a list of my most likely players that could pull that off. While there are obstacles to each of them being the maker of the SchoolTab, they’ve all got something about them that makes me think they could do it.
Why they will: I call Google the most likely party to develop the SchoolTab. They are already in the mobile device business with Android, which is an open source OS (more or less). Google has a program for educators and has shown willingness to work with schools.
Why they won’t: They don’t have much of a record with hardware. If Google is to create the SchoolTab, they’ll need to work with a manufacturer the way they have with the Nexus phones.
Why they will: A proven record of creating highly user friendly, highly innovative, highly functional, highly locked down devices. Also has a history of being school friendly.
Why they won’t: How much would such a device cost? Apple’s also known for highly expensive devices. They’re not known for keeping the price down and this needs to be something for the masses.
Why they will: HP is already in the graphing calculator business, they have a long history of hardware, and they have access to Palm’s WebOS and finally have released the HP Touchpad.
Why they won’t: They’ve got their hands full. Just getting their tablet off the ground has been an ordeal. Also, truth be told, the HP’s calculator’s army of devoted calculator followers is more from the financial and engineering realm than from the education world.
Why they will: They’re the leader in the graphing calculator industry and have been for about 20 years. Their TI-Nspire has been a big step towards a calculator that’s more computer like, and they have the resources to develop such a device.
Why they won’t: The status quo is working really, really well for TI right now. They sell more stand alone calculators than the other manufacturers combined. Why change what has been a profitable formula?
Why they will: I’ve heard them express interest in creating a tablet, and they have shown a willingness to innovate, launching the Casio Prizm, the world’s first full color graphing calculator. They’re also very engaged with the educational community.
Why they won’t: Their graphing calculator division has its hands full with their potentially breakthrough device, the Prizm. I’d expect a second version of the Prizm with a computer algebra system before a tablet.
Why they will: They are really big and have plenty of cash to throw at something like this. They’ve been interested in tablets for a while.
Why they won’t: Microsoft has always tended to be more a follower than a leader. Seems unlikely they would do something like this until another company expresses interest first.
Why they will: Have you tried an HTC smartphone? These guys do it right, with a pretty user interface callend HTC Sense which brings extra features beyond what “vanilla Android” provides.
Why they won’t: No history of any educational ventures. I really only see HTC getting into the game as a partner to someone like Google, much as they did with the Nexus One.
Why they will: It’s not such a crazy thought. They’ve got the Kindle and are working on an Android tablet. They now have their own Android app store. Their history as a book seller gives them credibility with schools.
Why they won’t: The Amazon Android tablet isn’t even released yet. While I could see Amazon doing this, it’s well off into the future.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Why they will: This textbook publisher has launched a dynamite set of iPad apps (HMH fuse) for their textbooks series including basic graphing calculator technology.
Why they won’t: It’s a big jump to go from textbook publisher to tablet manufacture.
Others: Archos, Barnes and Noble, Motorola, Nokia, Wolfram, etc.
Hey, anything is possible, but most of the rest on my list seem like a stretch. Frankly, this whole thing is pretty far fetched, which is crazy and a sad commentary on how large institutions don’t like to change until it’s almost too late.
A partnership between two or more of the above parties seems like the best was to see SchoolTab become a reality. Unfortunately, I don’t expect to see the SchoolTab come to fruition within the next 5 years, which has nothing to do with technical reasons and everything to do with the institutions holding it back. Prove me wrong, kids…prove me wrong!