Why is the TI-84 calculator unstoppable?

Last year one of my kids needed a graphing calculator for school. We went to Staples and it seemed that the recommended one was a $130 TI-84 graphing calculator. I was outraged. Why would we need this? There was nothing this calculator did that you could not do for free on the web or through Wolfram Alpha. My teenager, with surprising patience, explained to me that (a) they weren’t allowed to be on the Internet during class and (b) even if they could be, they couldn’t be on it during exams and they needed a calculator they were familiar with there. And when you are thinking about SATs or ACTs, that isn’t changing any time soon.

My outrage was not abated as I parted with $150 for a version with with a rechargable battery. I knew that the calculator was complicated — I had no idea how it worked — and I knew that no kid today would actually use that calculator in the workplace as much better apps would exist and be available then. But for some reason, there we were investing both physical and human capital in an obsolete technology.

An article in the Washington Post explained just how obsolete.

Texas Instruments released the graphing calculator in 2004, and continues to sell it today. The base model still has 480 kilobytes of ROM and 24 kilobytes of RAM. Its black-and-white screen remains 96×64 pixels. For 10 years its MSRP has been $150, but depending on the retailer, today it generally sells for between $90 and $120. The only changes have come in software updates.

Moreover, it is almost expensive as getting an iPod Touch with a dedicated calculator app. But TI holds 93% of this market with the remainder going to Casio with some lower priced models that would be just fine but for the fact that teachers are used to the Texas Instruments one.

What TI has achieved is a holy grail in technology: a dominant design over which they full control. There is an entire ecosystem that hinges on that design and the switching costs are insurmountable.

The closest analogy to this is, of course, textbooks. Textbooks tend to be similarly priced because (a) they are tied to the design of classes and (b) they are durable (and so there is a healthy second hand market). But unlike the graphing calculator, these are local monopolies. Adding them all up, however, and you have the same result.

But the textbook is more vulnerable to cheaper alternatives. It is very rare that students need a particular textbook — especially at the University level but probably at High School as well. But that breaks when assessment is tied to a particular book. Then students have no options and the monopoly is entrenched.

Texas Instruments power here is similarly tied to assessment. Absent the need for assessment that restricts access to the outside world, then students could use any tool at their disposal to analyse mathematical problems. But because they are forced into a mode of assessment divorced from that world, they are forced to learn an obsolete system and waste dollars doing so. So I’m going to maintain the rage even if I can’t work out a way to stop Texas Instruments.


16 Replies to “Why is the TI-84 calculator unstoppable?”

    1. Calculators, just like rotary phones and typewriters got replaced by other things, so sure, there’s not a lot of progress. 2014 has apps that blow calculators away. The only niche the calculator survives in is testing. The computerized GRE provides a simple on screen calculator, doesn’t allow outside calculators, and is designed to not need anything more. I just finished an engineering degree: the tests are generally designed to minimize manual calculation tasks. Only one class needed a calculator beyond a super simple $5 model, and I resented it. Spending $150 isn’t that big a deal in the grand scope of things, but I didn’t like having to learn a device just for a test that I would never use outside of a test. Even to solve a similar homework problem, I’d prefer Matlab or Octave or something similar.

  1. This is an assessment problem. I’d like to give my students realistic assessment environment, but I don’t want to give them real tasks (imagine the exam: “Complete one of the following in the next 3 hours: 1- replace the school’s crappy course management system, 2) prove NP = P, 3) build a phone chat app with easy to use privacy setting which doesn’t send data to NSA and is used by 50million people, or 4) replace the horrifically outdated ACH inter-bank system. You may work in teams.”). Most any problem I can give to a high schooler or university freshman which can be solved in 2-3 hours… has been solved before. Give them all available tools and it’s not an assessment. Policing “you may access site X but not Y” is not viable. So we’re stuck. The TI-84 is an exceptionally painful result.

  2. Squeeky Wheel: You can write assignments that can be completed without a calculator. If you don’t want them to waste time on long calculations, ask for the answer to be of the form x.y * 10^z, where x and y are single digits.

  3. Education has always been separate from the so called real world, and for a reason. The goal is to train the mind. If you want someone to learn and practice a real world skill, then you want an apprenticeship of some sort. If you want to train a mind in more abstract thinking, that requires a series of exercises and examinations removed from the more mundane tasks of everyday. Of course in America especially we have always liked the abstract to be flavored with the concrete, though that’s largely just a simulation. Mathematical problems supposedly aimed at practical outcomes. Language courses that have students ask for directions to the hotel. But it is the leaning of math at the general level that is the goal, not the solution to a specific problem. You don’t want math degrees that can only apply what they know to a few specific circumstances. You don’t want French speakers who can only fumble around Paris at bit. And, btw if we get those results that’s a failure of the abstract and the triumph of the concrete. The perverse TI calculator is just an unintended but, so far at least, unavoidable outcome of the education system that, to be effective, must stand at a remove from the real world.

  4. recall the venerable HP 12C with a decades-long production run, too. That was standard issue for a generation of business students.

  5. The point is, as KenL points out, that the student learn. I’m sorry, but using Mathematica does not teach the math itself, it teaches use of Mathematica to get Mathemagical results. Maybe some math brushes off.

    The great discoveries of the 20th century were made without calculators by people who really, really understood the math and used their own heads for it. Sure, there are things you can’t do that way — ever. But we are losing a lot by allowing students to use any calculator at all.

    I’ve done math. I’ve done implementation of math in software. Those two things should be taught separately. They are very different things. I think both are important to learn. How many people have a clue, for instance, that you will get significantly different answers using binary arithmetic and base 10 arithmetic?

    Even statistical software has serious problems for teaching. And yet, today, students learn to use packages, which is why so much statistical work (I mean published and for public policy) is garbage. If you doubt me, review the statistical work that resulted in taking the first Rotavirus vaccine off the market. A few cases of intussusception were judged, “statistically significant” by some idiot stats package. So over the next years, literally millions of kids had to die for lack of vaccine. That’s one of the most horrific bits of outrage perpetrated by people unable to think, who learned to push the buttons on a software package.

    It is VERY important that students NOT use Mathematica, Maple, etc!. It is even more important that students NOT use the internet to find everything. They should be able to do the conversions, or anything else themselves. They have to REALLY understand it.

    1. I agree with your sentiment that tools like calculators and computer applications shouldn’t replace deep conceptual understanding of the material. I don’t think that is what happens in practice. Students have to understand what they are doing to use the tools properly. The tests are usually tool/calculator free and ask for derivations, explanations, or simple problems that are designed to be done with just pen or pencil. All the teaching and instruction focuses on concepts and students are just expected to figure out how to apply them with the computer programs. The main use of the computer apps is for homework problems and projects to give you practice in applying the concepts learned. I felt that it augmented the conceptual learning and didn’t replace it.

  6. Buy HP’s graphic calculators–then you get RPN as well, which is all the better (yes, doesn’t deal with the main thrust of the anger, but you don’t have to pay off TI if you don’t want to…).

  7. My high school had these calculators for the students to use. We practiced with them in class and they school provided them for our use in exams. Saved the students having to buy them. Not a perfect solution, but at least restricts TI’s revenue.

  8. Well, $150 is pretty small beer compared to the time and effort spent learning joined-up handwriting for school tests, which is largely useless in the real world (type for most things, print for legibility and if you really need speed try shorthand).

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