The mix of software and handheld technologies – perfect partnership!

When I started teaching in the mid 80’s, it was evident then that emerging computer technology was poised to play a significant role in the future educational landscape. I had interacted with my first computer at university in 1980. Although I never actually saw it, I was assured that it existed in a large room somewhere behind the wall where I studiously typed my code. I first saw a personal computer in 1983 and by the time I started in schools a couple of years later, they were reasonably commonplace. Initially school software packages were mostly fixed programs, generally little more than a novelty, but then the first word processors arrived and my typewriter became redundant. For a maths teacher however, the big leap forward was the spreadsheet; a virtually endless page of inter-related computations. This definitely had potential. I remember using this combined with BASIC and LOGO in attempt to build some sort of algebraic function grapher. My endeavour at that only produced limited success. However by the end of the decade, there became various software packages available that achieved the basics of what I wanted.

Although not absolutely ideal, I managed to roster my students access to this useful facility and it greatly enhanced their capacity to realise links between the geometry and the algebra. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could access such technology on a full-time 1:1 basis?! Enter the 1990s and you know what happened.

TI-81 introduced 1990.

I was at a regional maths conference when somebody placed a miniature (calculator-sized) pedagogically-dedicated device in my hand. Not only did it have an advanced but interactive function-plotter, but also onboard was a powerful and demonstrative statistics package. This handheld device would have been a TI-81 or TI-82.

Within a couple of years the partnership was completed when I got hold of an LCD panel that sat upon an overhead projector while attached to the teacher’s calculator. I could demonstrate, students could follow and explore, and we could all discuss. At about the same time, laptop computers joined the mix but they were incredibly expensive. While the standard practice of many other teachers was to book their class into “the computer room”, I was to be seen walking along the corridor with the LCD panel under my arm as I headed for my next class. I should point out that at that stage the handheld technology was not yet permitted for use in exams. I simply saw it as a pedagogical tool – one that was much more flexible and superior to the computer room model.

By mid 90s the handheld technology had advanced to the point of incorporating a Computer Algebra System (CAS) and it became clear that our examination system of memory tests and algorithmic processes needed to change. The bar was raised and, with the first CAS-active examinations accompanying the new millennium, students were required more than ever before to demonstrate their ability to apply mathematical understanding and real problem solving.

Within the next decade many schools were implementing 1:1 laptop programs, with the computer power and connectivity of these machines far exceeding that of the handheld devices. I thought that perhaps that might spell the end for my beloved handheld device (which by then was a TI-Nspire).

But remember that partnership thing. By utilising a projector screen to share demonstrations from laptop software (TI-Nspire CAS) and having my students simultaneously extend their own explorations with what is essentially the same software but on smaller, more portable handheld devices, we now have demonstration, shared discussion and student investigation all perfectly catered for. This now is the ideal partnership and I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the model that I have now employed in every lesson of every day for nearly all of the past decade. The underlying reason for the success of this ultimate model is simple – the technology I am using was designed and developed specifically for education. Computer and laptop technology, while certainly very useful, are not in themselves task specific and purpose-built education tools. Computer technology will continue to advance but will never match TI handheld devices for their value in portability, pedagogy, and simple convenience as an examination tool.     

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