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Background: I'm teaching mathematics at a high school with emphasis on mathematics and natural sciences. Usually, pupils at our school have to buy a calculator (TI-89) and we work with those during class and sometimes they are allowed to use them for exams too. Recently, it has been proposed to work with tablets instead of conventional calculators. There has been a poll at the most recent meeting of the maths teachers giving the following result:

For the next school year, each maths teacher decides on his own whether his students buy a conventional calculator or a tablet.

I myself think that conventional calculators are a lot easier to use, don't provide too much or too little information (as opposed to e.g. wolframalpha for students at that stage) and also at our local universities' exams, no tablets are allowed but only calculators.

Question: Do you think high school students should have to stick to conventional calculators or what clear advantages are there in switching to tablets instead?

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If I were a student, I'd love to be allowed to use a tablet with Emacs Calc (see gnu.org/software/emacs/manual/html_node/calc) onboard. More seriously: the problem with tablets is that you can't really enforce not having certain apps or internet connection. –  mbork May 28 '14 at 19:43
In order to answer this question, it seems like we would need to see some examples of problems that you are planning to give them for which electronic devices might be helpful. –  Trevor Wilson May 28 '14 at 22:31
My tablet runs several very good emulators of calculators. You can do a lot more with a tablet, so I'd go for that. But clearly using it in exams is a big problem... but higher-end calculators can also be perfectly used to carry a cheat sheet. –  vonbrand May 28 '14 at 23:36
@mbork, with Maxima, GAP and even sagemath running on lower-end tablets, emacs calc would be the least of my worries –  vonbrand May 28 '14 at 23:38
@vonbrand: fair enough, but as a person who tries to move as much as possible of my (digital) life into Emacs, Calc is a nice choice. (Also, Maxima has an Emacs interface, too;). GAP is of no use for me, and I don't like Sage too much.) –  mbork May 29 '14 at 6:23

3 Answers 3

My answer would be neither. A TI-89 is \$80, which is a lot of money for many families, and the functionality it provides beyond that of a \$5 calculator is hardly ever needed. I don't own a graphing calculator myself, so I can't see forcing my students to buy one. A tablet is even more money and even more overkill.

If this is a public high school in the US, isn't it illegal to force students to pay for either of these things? IIRC there have been lawsuits recently over schools' attempts to force families to buy supplies like kleenex, pencils, etc. Many state constitutions mandate free and compulsory K-12 education.

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This is a public high school in Switzerland. –  Huy May 28 '14 at 20:44
+1 While I believe it is no kind of problem for students to have access to computational resources in the course (what better way to experiment and develop a certain kind of intuition), almost any option is better than a graphing calculator. I don't like the business model of most tablets, so I can't really get behind that either. I could envision a compromise in which students use a tablet to log in to a Sage server or some such thing. –  ncr May 28 '14 at 22:07
"business model of most tablets" - what does this mean, exactly? –  JoeTaxpayer May 28 '14 at 22:58
This might be a little controversial (and it is certainly based on limited experience), but I feel when you buy a tablet, you don't really own it, it's more that you're leasing it from the company. You have to buy their apps from their store (something they make so easy a baby could do it) and you can't easily access the inner workings of the machine even thought it's yours (a conscious choice on their part). –  ncr May 29 '14 at 0:31
@ncr: really? I thought you could root an Android device and install some open source Android fork quite easily. Also, I guess you can install apps other than those from Google Play Store. –  mbork May 29 '14 at 6:27

I think there are (at least) three different issues here, which do not benefit from being confounded with each other.

First, yes, there is the literal issue of cost. Requiring tablets as opposed to inexpensive calculators, if paid for by parents, would be an example of a "regressive tax", and a bad thing.

But, first-part-b, while a calculator would not be perceived as good for much "outside of school", a tablet does have many other uses.

The second issue, ignoring cost, is whether this is an instance of closing the barn door after the horse is out of the barn. That is, relatively inexpensive computers are widely available. Phones are ubiquitous. Kids are familiar with many aspects of that interface, while less so with calculators. Why not try to play into existing competence? Further, making "math class" somehow deliberately and ostentatiously disconnected from the rest of the day and context doesn't help our cause. I loathe the idea of math class as an environment with artificial strictures, artificial rules, and denial of the obvious ambient culture.

Third, at a more technical level, why not teach the low end of genuine, long-term-useful computer systems? The incidental hazard that we can't stop them from finding and using software that trivializes the tasks we might want to give them is as much an indicator that we need to redesign those tasks, rather than that we have to work hard to constrain the environment. "Teacher as rule-enforcer" is not the happiest role.

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Phones are ubiquitous. But smart phones aren't. Many kids have dumb phones because their families can't afford a smart phone or don't see it as good value for their child. –  Ben Crowell Jun 3 '14 at 20:45

I'd go with a graphing calculator. I can't imagine a scenario where a tablet would be more useful in math class than a graphing calculator. Besides, I think my TI-84 Plus made it through a full year of precalculus class, which involved a lot of calculator use. I'd like to see a tablet make it through a full year in a similar setting.

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There are full CAS (like maxima) that run on tablets. Or run an emulator of a graphing calculator on the tablet. –  vonbrand Jun 2 '14 at 21:07

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