The Robber Barons of Pre-Calculus: Why We Need Innovation in Education

By Vijay Rajendran, Growth and Innovation Strategist at Jump. Follow him on Twitter @varajendran, or get in touch by commenting on this post.

Lately, we have all talking about the new watch from Apple. However, let’s consider for a moment a device that’s actually quite useful, one that’s already used by millions, and hasn’t been disrupted since many of us were in high school.
Graphing calculators are used to teach math in high schools around the country, but have evolved relatively little since the 1990s. This is remarkable when you consider how much other consumer electronics like cell phones, mp3 players, TVs, and computers have changed in that same time span. The venerable TI-84 plus has a near monopoly on the graphic calculator market. This market dominance means consistency among teachers and healthy margins for manufacturer Texas Instruments.
How could this be, especially among a generation of digital natives? There should be innovation in this space, but there are times when demand says “yes,” but the competitive forces say “no.”
When we think about innovation, our hearts and minds consider needs and great design principles. This is a reminder that the lessons of VHS and Betamax are ever with us. (People used a thing that was relatively low cost and it quickly became a standard.) It’s a great lesson in how standardization matters in certain markets like education. It also reminds us how different customers and consumers (teachers and parents vs. students) can support or prevent the dominance of a particular technology.
Of course, as e-books and tablets replace today’s textbooks, we can imagine that graphing calculators will simply become apps, or alternatively, a low-cost calculator project from a nonprofit like the Gates Foundation could be disruptive. So why hasn’t some of this happened already?
The lack of adequate space for innovation in education is the culprit. People often assume that different devices would be as difficult to teach with as different textbooks. Certainly corporations have given up trying to issue blackberries to all their employees and embraced “BYOD” or Bring Your Own Device policies. Until schools do something similar, they will continue making expensive decisions. Partly, that’s because in some respects, education looks like healthcare. Much like healthcare, Americans pay relatively a fortune and get disappointing results. (“In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago,” according to Education Week.)
There is an equally vast separation between who pays, who makes decisions on what to fund, and who receives the service. When spending their own money, parents and students have the latest game consoles, phones, and computers. Moore’s Law has driven down the cost and increased the power of those consumer electronics, but less so in the education market. However, as more educators experiment and technology brings us better learning tools outside of the classroom, we’ll see improvements in the way that we learn. Teachers need freedom to avoid teaching to the test, parents should have more online forums to share digital and analog tools that others are using, and students need platforms that let independent software or textbook publishers compete for their mindshare based on how easily they can learn new things.
Until the education market evolves and parents or students have the flexibility to choose their devices, the TI-84 Plus looks like it’s sticking around.

Photo Credit: Oleg Zaytsev

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