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Wolfram|Alpha and the shrinking future of the graphing calculator

June 3, 2009, 12:06 pm

Mathematica
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By now, you’ve probably heard about Wolfram|Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that was recently rolled out by the makers of Mathematica. If you haven’t, here’s a good place to start. There is considerable debate among ed-tech people as to exactly what kind of impact Wolfram|Alpha, abbreviated W|A, is going to have in education. For me, W|A is still a little raw and gives back  too many “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input” responses when given mathematically legitimate (at least they seem so to me) queries. But the potential is there for W|A to be a game-changing technological advance, doing for quantitative information what Google did for text and web-based information back in the 90′s. (W|A is already its own verb.)

One thing that seems clear is that, with technology available that is free and powerful and hardware-agnostic, technology that previously has ruled the ed-tech roost can’t survive for much longer. I’m thinking particularly of the graphing calculator. These have been a fixture in math education, especially at the pre-college level, for the better part of 20 years. But now here is W|A, which can graph functions, perform symbolic algebra and calculus computations, even solve differential equations and do number theory and statistics and all manner of interesting stuff besides, including but very much not limited to mathematics. In short, it does everything a graphing calculator does. But, importantly: W|A is free, runs on any web-enabled device (including, as I can attest to by experience, an iPod touch), is fast, is portable (see the links I just shared?), and — perhaps most importantly of all –  has an army of developers who are constantly adding new features into the system.

You could spend $150 to get the latest and greatest from Texas Instruments, a handheld device that does what a graphing calculator does — but no more. (Here’s my first-hand take on the NSpire and details on what I see as its demerits.) Or, you could spend a little more than twice that much and get a netbook computer that gives you access to W|A as well as a suite of office tools and more. Computing hardware has become so small and cheap, and online quantitative tools so functional and powerful, that it’s very hard to see how graphing calculators can survive the next 5 years.

If graphing calculators do survive, it will be for one main reason: The AP exams. I was talking with a local high school AP Calculus teacher this week who impressed on me that  she cannot afford to drop graphing calculators and move on to using netbooks or some other more sensible technology because, quite simply, there are questions on the AP Calculus exams that require the use of graphing calculators. Students have to have total fluency with graphing calculators — and not some other, calculator-like technology — in order to do as well as they possibly can on the exam, which is part of this teacher’s professional responsibility. The AP already succeeded in killing the TI-92 calculator — a really good technology for its time, when laptops still weighed 15 pounds and costs thousands of dollars — for no better reason than because it had a QWERTY keyboard. Today, the AP might succeed in keeping W|A and other similiarly useful, perhaps even transformative, technologies out of the hands of students pretty much for the same reasons, which is a real shame and quite backwards-looking.

But then again, I don’t know what the AP folks have in mind. Perhaps there are plans afoot to migrate the AP exams away from dependency on graphing calculators. It certainly wouldn’t take much for the AP folks to write their own lightweight graphing tool that does nothing more than plot functions, find intersection points, shade in areas, and do numerical integration (rarely are graphing calculators used on the AP free-response portion for more than these four things). Make it extremely basic, put it on the web, free for all to use, and provide it on specialized computers for students taking the exam. That way, students can learn how to use technology rather than learn how to use a graphing calculator, and both teachers and students can be freer to choose the extent and type of technology they want to use in their classes. And such a thing would probably have a longer shelf life than any TI calculator for sale or in production.

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