The political issues surrounding graphing calculators
Calculators have long been controversial with educators. For decades, they raised big, important questions: If allowed in schools, would they create a divide between those who can afford a calculator and those who can't? Will they make students dumber? How does this affect the way that we teach students?
(And we're not just talking the fancy kind, either. Regular calculators with limited functionality are still controversial among some parents of elementary school children.)
For years, graphing calculators struggled to gain acceptance by teachers. One 1994 study on the issue found that 70 percent of teachers who had access to graphing calculators weren't using them in their classes. Part of the issue was philosophy; many teachers wanted students to do the math by hand before relying on the calculator. The devices made things too easy.
Slowly but surely, those complaints have started to fall by the wayside. Standardization helped things—in 1994, graphing calculators were added to the College Board's requirements for teaching AP Calculus, though the restrictions on what kinds of calculators can be used remain fairly strict.
As a result, calculator technology has remained relatively stagnant compared to the rest of the world. When TI tried to update its models to do more stuff—specifically, its Nspire models, which support the creation of spreadsheets—it found that nobody was really all that interested.
"Here's the thing. Some technologies don't change all that quickly because we don't need them to," Alexis Madrigal noted in a 2011 Atlantic piece. "Much as we like to tell the story of The World Changing So Fast, most of it doesn't."
But some of this stuff is artificially mandated by the rules and restrictions of the medium. To this day, some calculators with touchpads (such as Casio's Classpad) aren't allowed to be used during most standardized tests. Your iPhone 6S can run circles around your TI-83, but the limitations of the device are a virtue in testing environments—to put it simply, not everyone in the room will have the latest iPhone, but you can guarantee every student will have the same rough kind of calculator.
And considering that graphing calculators maintain their value largely on the back of standardization in classrooms, anything that threatens this state of affairs becomes a problem. When enthusiasts have tried to stretch the edges of these devices, TI didn't take too kindly.
In 2009, TI found itself the target of controversy among the tech community when it started filing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaints against bloggers who published the "signing keys" used to limit the kinds of operating systems that can go onto TI calculators. The Electronic Frontier Foundation quickly cried foul, arguing that TI abused the act through this action.
"This is not about decrypting copyrighted code so that you can distribute it to the four corners of the Internet," EFF's Jennifer Granick wrote. "This is about running your own software on your own calculator. So where's the copyright infringement in that?"
There may or may not have been copyright infringement happening, but one thing is clear: TI has a lot to lose if the integrity of its calculators is broken.