Engineered for Education

I have witnessed and participated in in many changes in the educational landscape over my almost four decades in the business. Expressions such as flipped classroom, teacher-centred, student-centred, instructor, facilitator, coach, mentor, project-based learning, explicit teaching and more have contributed to the vocabulary used to describe this evolutionary process.

Through it all however, I believe an important constant to recognise is that teachers and students have different roles to play in education.

Subsequently, I have found the perfect technology solution for my maths classroom to be the marriage of TI-Nspire CAS software for me and handheld units for my students. OK, I also have the luxury of a Navigator system, but that’s really the icing on the cake. And sure, I’m also a big fan of the vast offerings from full computer technologies; laptops, tablets and phones with access to endless data via internet connectivity. I have reflected on this again while reading the VCE Mathematics Review and associated background papers. However, I find myself returning to the proven model of TI software/handheld partnership and conclude that the reason for this is that these are specific built-for-purpose tools rather than high-powered, but generic computing machines. It comes back to that difference in roles of teacher and student and, corresponding with that, a difference in tools. I have heard the argument of ‘why should students use a technology in their schooling that they are unlikely to use in their later working life’. The answer is because it is specifically designed for their schooling.

At every stage in the development of TI educational technologies, the engineers, designers and managers consult established educational research and seek feedback from practicing teachers. The happy tech model that I conveniently employ in my classroom is not just a lucky accident, but the result of careful design. 

For me, the TI-Nspire Premium Teacher Software is simply the best. I use it for demonstrating, generating discussion and collecting student assessment data (with the help of TI-Navigator). I also use it to distribute files to students and collect files and screen-shots back from them. Although the software is my primary tool-of-trade, I still use my handheld unit for straight out portability about the classroom. My standard lesson generally consists of some whole-class instruction (Teacher Software) followed by individual and small-group assistance about the classroom as students work on their assigned exercises (Handheld  unit). I also know that, although students primarily use their handheld units, they also utilise the student software, mostly in their home study, collecting screen-shots for their notes. I have seen this feature to be especially useful for students studying by distance education as they can screen-shot evidence of their working and paste into assignments.

I absolutely believe that the principal role of educational technology is for the enhancement of student learning. However, I also know from experience that what has become the defining factor for most schools and school systems is whatever technology is or isn’t permitted for use in senior exams. Here again, the handheld unit is the best solution (though as I have stated its educational value extends way beyond that of simply being an exam tool). Handheld calculators do NOT have student to student connectivity other than via a physical link cable. Even their capacity for Wi-Fi connectivity (TI-Navigator system) requires fitting a bright yellow Wi-Fi adaptor and communication is only between individual students and the teacher. Further yet, in jurisdictions that specify the lockdown of specified calculator functions for exams, the TI engineers have installed a ‘Press-to-Test’ mode especially for such situations. The point is that the calculators are deliberately designed for this. Computers are not. I have seen situations where schools have tried to use computers for exams – with disastrous consequences. School computer technicians have been challenged to lockdown laptops to prevent students from communicating with each other or the broader internet. The worst I’ve seen is where students tried to access online exams, with the school server collapsing under the stress and panic-stricken invigilators needing to quickly organise paper copies of the exams.

Yes, computers are more powerful machines than calculators, but they are not more powerful in this situation, because they are not primarily designed for the task. The conclusion is very simple – if you seek to incorporate a technology for education, select one that is specifically engineered for education. Want to know more?        

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