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Tech Leaves Schools in the Dust

The rapid pace of technological advances has become something of a cliche in recent years. Sometimes, it helps to look at one of the few exceptions to appreciate just how sweeping these changes are. The Atlantic profiles the TI-83 — graphing calculator of choice for high schoolers everywhere — which has scarcely changed at all in its 15-year history:

Come with me back to teenagedom in 1999. You listened to Offspring (or the Backstreet Boys) on CDs inside a Discman. You made calls on a landline, which you probably just called “the phone.” It’s possible you had a beeper. You dialed up to the Internet on a desktop computer. The Playstation was the best game system. And your calculator of choice was the TI-83 Plus.

Twelve years later, so much has changed. Beepers are gone, but cell phones are de rigueur. A tiny iPod Nano holds 180 albums of music. Broadband is everywhere and you might use a tablet or a laptop to surf the web. Videogames have gone from barely 3D to nearly photorealistic.

In fact, every gadget a teenager is likely to handle has changed. Except one: the graphing calculator. That TI-83 Plus? It’s the best-selling calculator on

The TI-83 is a technological dinosaur and an aesthetic monstrosity nearly twice as big as most cell phones. The contrast between the calculator and the iPad could not be starker.

In its heyday, the TI-83 was a powerful tool, but outside of the classroom, technology has long since moved on.  The persistence of this device is just one of many indicators pointing towards the absence of innovation and dynamism in too much of American education today.  Our schools are still pointing toward the twentieth century, an orientation that makes less and less sense with every passing year.

Profound changes are heading toward the academy, certainly the biggest changes since the modern American educational system took shape after World War Two.  It’s easy for educators to view these changes with alarm, as much loved traditions come under attack and as attention turns to the economic sustainability of the current model.

But the source of society’s discontent with our educational system isn’t anti-intellectualism or a hatred of learning.  The fact is that the American people need more training and skills education than the current system can provide at an acceptable cost.  It is the public hunger for knowledge and demand for educational services that is forcing this restructuring, not indifference or hostility.

Institutions and individual educators who learn to ride this wave rather than fight it are going to do very well.

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  • John Barker

    I only wonder if Ivy League International or Google U will be in the lead position.

  • Parry

    Really? The fact that students still use the TI-83 somehow indicates that public schools are stuck in the 20th century?

    In many ways, the assertion—that schools have not yet figured out how to use cutting-edge technology to truly improve teaching and learning, and that K-12 schools still look remarkably the same as they did decades ago—is spot on, but the example is not.

    Maybe the TI-83 is still used because math hasn’t changed in the last 15 years, and no one has come up with a more practical device to do the things that the TI-83 does. All of the other technology devices that you mention—cell phones, broadband access, tablets and laptops—are also found in schools today, and are in frequent use. Schools have digital whiteboards, wireless networks, web-based instruction, and a host of other modern technologies, sitting alongside the TI-83s. The challenge is that all of these modern devices have failed to fundamentally improve the teaching-learning dynamic.

    There is no question (at least in my mind) that public education has seen few true innovations in the last quarter century, but the reasons for this are complex and multiple. Your suggestion that the TI-83’s continued presence is somehow symbolic of what ails public education is a superficial and simplistic answer to a much deeper question.


  • Alex

    Okay, you’re being a little obtuse here. The reason that calculators haven’t changed is that there hasn’t really been any need for them to change. The TI-83 basically does everything a high schooler would want a calculator to do, and the fields of calculus, statistics, and trigonometry really haven’t changed all too much since 1999. Texas Instruments has actually tried to implement touch screens into its calculators, but it turned out that it just made them more difficult to use. Just because other things have changed rapidly means that EVERYTHING must change rapidly. How much have cars or boats changed since the same time period?

    Sure, you could say that it should look “sleeker” like an iPad, but what’s the point? It would just increase the cost of, and thus, the price of the calculator, with the same basic functionality, ensuring that people will still buy the older model. Trying to say that the use of a ten year old calculator shows some system wide hostility towards innovation is stretching one fact way out of proportion

    There are many things you can criticize about the public education system, but this shouldn’t be one of them. You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill and quite frankly this sort of thing is beneath you.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Parry and Alex: getting the same work done as well or better with something that is cheaper, lighter and easier to use is what progress is all about. Fire hasn’t changed all that much since 50,000 BC but we don’t still chip flints to start them. “Good enough” is not enough. Given the changes in consumer electronics and computer technology there is no reason why students shouldn’t have more and better choices. Just a thought: a clunky and ugly device that screams “Nerd!” may not be the best way to draw more students into math and science programs.

  • Robert Burnham

    TI? Feh. I still use my HP-35, which I bought in 1974.

    This guy:

    (The photo on the wiki page could have been taken on my desk as I write this….)

  • Scott

    I think Parry and Alex make very good points. I have been surprised that a better competitor to the TI-83 hasn’t appeared but otherwise it seems to be a tool that does the job for which it was intended. Many things have changed in 15 years but many more have not for the very reason that they do what we need them to. I guess if it makes you feel better, my daughter just bought a TI-84 for her high school calculus class. That’s like one number higher so that’s an improvement.

  • Kris

    “The TI-83 basically does everything a high schooler would want a calculator to do, and the fields of calculus, statistics, and trigonometry really haven’t changed all too much since 1999.”

    While the underlying mathematics might not have changed, perhaps the fact that we have not changed the way it is taught (given new possibilities) is itself a problem. Just like we moved from slide-rules to calculators, should mathematics education not take advantage of tools such as Mathematica? ( )

    (And to forestall the obvious responses, the above does not in any way negate the importance of teaching students the tool-free basics.)

  • Boritz

    This history of the TI-83 contains interesting observations. I would note two things that explain the longevity of this product. First, it is being used to solve problems in the structured (one hopes) environment of the classroom. There are undoubtedly more powerful math tools available such as Microsoft Excel or Mathcad that students can access at times, but when you add in the requirements that it has to be portable and fit in a pocket this graphing calculator probably fits the bill best. Likewise the TI BA II is the best selling financial calculator at Amazon and many of the users are adults working in the financial industry. No huge change here either. There are more powerful tools available but sometimes the calculator is all that is needed to solve commonly encountered problems.
    Second and speaking of iPods, there is an iPhone, iPod version of the TI-83 (and BA II) that can be loaded on your Apple device. Post-humanism where human essence is loaded into a machine to continue ‘life’ in another guise is not here yet, but calculators have achieved this type of immortality already.

  • Jim.

    One issue is IP. The TI-83 is cheap, and once you own it you own it. I’ve been trying to wrestle a personal copy of one of those intellectual power-tools you mention (Matlab) out of its parent company for months now, but they probably ignore my requests because I’m just not a big enough customer (with a fat enough wallet) to cover enough of their development costs.

    Oh, and the TI-83 teaches math / science / engineering students something very important… to ignore everyone who screams “nerd”. If you care about what other people think (beyond ethical concerns), you don’t belong in a field where fashion has to be ignored. If you think “geek” is a pejorative term, technology is not the line of work for you. (And you’d better start rehearsing the phrase, “Would you like fries with that”).

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I blame the stagnate nature of Education on the Labor Gang Monopoly’s strangle hold on Teaching. Without the feedback of competition, monopolies have no motivation to improve quality or service. If we anti-trust the Teachers labor gang monopoly and break them up so they had to compete against each other for work, and merit pay. The quality of education would skyrocket, student test scores would increase so fast there would be shock. And something superior would replace the TI-83 in short order.

  • Joe

    Anyone who owns a smartphone can get all the capability of the TI-83 (and more) with any number of free apps. Which is, I believe, the broader point being made here. That’s why I don’t personally own one as an engineering student, and will never need to. It really is an outdated piece of equipment.

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