Stephen ARNOLD
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Cross-Curricular Graphic Calculators:
Tools for all Tastes!

Stephen Arnold
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What would it be like to teach in a school where every student had personal access to technology in every class? Where teachers can walk into any class and project their notes, quizzes and discussion points directly onto the whiteboard? Where every room can be a "computer room"?

I teach in such a school, but it is not a "laptop school" - the students' technology costs them less than $200, not $3 000. And I don't need $10 000 worth of computing and projection equipment to present my lesson notes to my classes.

Something remarkable has happened in the last twelve months. Graphic calculators have stopped being tools for just mathematics and science and become something much more! Texas Instruments this year has thrown enormous effort into the development of high quality software “APPS” for their TI-83 Plus graphic calculators. These software packages are capable of transforming the calculator from the ground up, making it applicable in an ever-growing range of subject areas across the school years.

In fact, these robust tools have become more like small, very portable handheld computers than calculators. With functional word processor and spreadsheet software (compatible with Microsoft® Word and Excel®) along with a presentation package and a multitude of high-quality educational software tools, and soon the option of a full size portable keyboard which plugs into the calculator, these devices offer a very real alternative for schools which recognise that laptop computers are not a realistic option for their students in terms, not only of cost, but of portability, robustness and access during examinations. These new graphic calculators may be just what schools have been waiting for in order to put powerful technology into the hands of their students. While $AUS200 may seem expensive for a tool to be used just in mathematics classes, it offers great value when that device may be used across a wide range of subject areas, and can be used in external examinations as well!

The World in the Palm of Your Hand

Did you know that the literacy rate in Iraq is 58%, compared with 72% in Iran? Or that the average life expectancy is a full three years less (65.53 years in Iraq compared with 69.66 years in its neighbour)? The Gross Domestic Product (GDP, a measure of wealth) in US dollars is $US2700 in Iraq, but is $US5300 in Iran.

These are just a few of the many useful and interesting facts available for every country of the world (along with maps which allow the user to explore the location and countries surrounding a particular nation) in the new free World Geography app. Consider the applications, not only to Geography classes, but to languages, mathematics (studying latitude and longitude, times and distances across the globe) – even religious education, where last year my Year 7 class compared the living conditions in the countries around the Holy Land!

This is a powerful and versatile tool, which will be in the hands of every student from Years 8 to 10 at our school this year (and across the whole school in a couple of years). It is well-written and even has the option of quizzes for students on nominated regions and any particular aspects desired.

Recently released is another “knockout concept” app, called TImeSpan™, allowing the creation and comparison of timelines. Such a tool offers many interesting applications to studies of history, obviously, but to many other areas as well (I am thinking of mathematics, science, English, Religious Education (again) and more). Both apps are equally applicable to junior as well as senior students.

Fancy a Smaller Office?

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A new word processor app, called NoteFolio™, allows students and teachers to quickly and easily create, display and transfer simple text documents (“notes”). Of course, typing directly on the calculator keypad tends to be an arduous process, which makes both the MS Word® plugin and the new full-sized TI Keyboard wonderful complements to this package.

Once the free plugin is installed, a “TI-Tools” menu is added to the MS Word® menubar on your computer: type a document using Microsoft® Word and simply go to this menu and transfer that document directly to your calculator (using a TI link cable), then open it using NoteFolio™. Alternatively, use the TI Keyboard and type directly to your calculator just as you would onto a laptop.

I have been using NoteFolio™ to type up lesson notes and quizzes for my classes, send them to my calculator, and then use the ViewScreen™ on the overhead projector to present them. NoteFolio™ has a nice “review” option, which presents the note using a smaller font, allowing more to be displayed per screen. For teachers, the ease of creating and transferring documents from computer to calculator, and then to display to a class by OHP makes this an extremely valuable tool for any subject.

For students who wish to make notes in class, this is also ideal (especially if combined with the TI Keyboard). Special needs students at our school (especially those with physical disabilities) have, in the past, been issued with laptops, which have proven expensive, fragile and far too heavy and bulky. By issuing keyboards to these students to complement their own calculators, the school can provide a far more appropriate response to their needs.

The applications of spreadsheets to a wide range of curriculum areas is now well-established, making the CellSheet™ app particularly appropriate for teachers and students. A full-featured spreadsheet which, like NoteFolio™, integrates seamlessly with its Microsoft “big brother” – create a spreadsheet on Excel® and then transfer it directly to the calculator, or simply create the spreadsheet on the calculator itself.

I used the spreadsheet this year with my year 11 General Mathematics class in order to track our share prices over a series of weeks. I have also used the CellSheet™ app as my markbook (and, in fact, the Organiser app has been invaluable for keeping my schedule, timetable and contact details with me at all times!)

Possibly the most exciting of these three open-ended “Office Suite” apps, though, is the StudyCards™ app, which allows the creation of stacks of cards using text and graphics. With a “flip” facility (as in the usual “studycard” model, with information on both “front” and “back” of each card) and the option for multiple choice questions and answers, this is a powerful teaching tool which can be used effectively in just about every curriculum area.

Teachers can use a computer to create a stack of cards quickly and easily, and then either use them with the ViewScreen™ for whole class activities, or transfer them to student calculators and have them work through the questions and answers at their leisure.

Even musical capabilities are available! Like every electronic instrument, the graphic calculator can be used to generate sounds: with an appropriate program (such as the free Piano83 and a cable to link calculator to speaker or headphones, students can actually use their calculator as a tunable piano keyboard which spans over 2 octaves, plays sharps and flats, and multiple notes simultaneously!

For teachers of languages, language localiser apps are available for over a dozen different languages – from French, German and Italian to Norwegian, Spanish and more – which instantly switch every command and menu on the calculator to the chosen language. In this way, students are practising their chosen language every time they use their calculator. The possibilities are indeed interesting.

Information at Your Fingertips

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In recent years, technologies for teaching and learning have become information and communication technologies, with the primary emphasis still upon “information”. Tools which support the learner by supplying facts and information remain central in the applications of technology to learning, and graphic calculators are increasingly taking on this role. We have already seen the effective way in which the World Geography database has been realised in this format. Other applications are also available.

The Periodic Table offers a fairly obvious application to science. As we are coming to expect, however, these tools do not simply offer a simple listing – they have been well designed to support learning and enquiry in a variety of ways. The first screen shot of the Periodic Table above has been shaded to show the metals. Other shadings are possible. The second screen shot shows a graph of the densities of the elements, but we could have chosen to investigate graphs of atomic radius, electronegativity, melting points and more. This is a highly interactive database in which the student is empowered by the information to think, to question and to make connections.

Another “obvious” feature that would be appreciated by teachers and students in a handheld classroom device might be a dictionary, and there are dictionaries available. Recently, however, a free app was released called DAWG, Dictionary and Word Games, which again offers more than we might expect.

Instead of a simple list of words and definitions, this package once again offers a more active alternative: a spell checker (of course – with a dictionary of some 90 000 words), but also a number of other word games, including my favourite: the “puzzle solver” which seems ready-made for crossword puzzles: put in the letters you know, put a question mark for the ones you don’t know and let this program offer you the possibilities!

In the domains of mathematics and science there are many packages available which offer interactive collections of formulae, including one of the best teaching tools for areas that I have ever seen. This excellent app offers definitions of all major plane figures, interactive explanations of the area formula for each, examples and quizzes. It is almost a complete teaching sequence.

The appropriately named Fundamental Topics in Science is another extensive, detailed and well prepared teaching sequence which actively leads the learner through many of the key procedures and concepts central to the study of the sciences in the upper secondary school. Each teaching sequence consists of introductory lessons, focus upon understanding of concepts and then activities to test and reinforce what has been studied. Effectively, this is an electronic textbook on scientific principles.

Similarly, the excellent Topics in Algebra series offers an extremely effective coverage of the principles, skills and concepts required for algebra in the middle to upper secondary years. It is interactive and fun for students and teachers.

What are we Waiting For?

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At present, there are over sixty apps of high quality available for the 83Plus series of calculators. Combine these with literally hundreds of other software programs available for these calculators and the tool takes on a far greater significance for teaching and learning in schools than has been the case up until now. Add further the capabilities of these tools to link with Data Collection devices – devices which collect, display and analyse real world information, from temperature and light, to motion, heart rate and many more in a convenient, portable package applicable to the sciences as well as to health and physical education - and we begin to realise that there are very few areas of schooling to which these remarkable tools may not be applied.

Soon to be released is a complete classroom wireless networking system which links all student calculators in a classroom through a single computer to each other and to the Internet. This system supports real-time data collection, allowing tests to be marked instantly and automatically, and student responses to be collated and displayed as they work.

Picture a class set of calculators with their own full-sized keyboards able to be used for such applications as teaching typing skills, or even computer programming (since the calculators have in-built programming capabilities), all for less than the cost of four or five computers. Freeing up computer rooms may be just the beginning. Consider applications even to remote disadvantaged schools, many of which are denied access to educational technology because of factors such as reliable power supplies as much as cost. Inexpensive, battery-operated devices represent a wonderful new opportunity for schools and students everywhere.

These devices are, in many ways, more versatile than computers. Certainly, there are things that they cannot (yet) do for which the computer remains the more appropriate choice. But in terms of portability, robustness and affordability for students, in terms of the absolute ease with which teachers can project their screens for public display and all in a device which can be used in both classroom and examination room, we should be asking: if my students have these tools and I as a teacher am not making full use of their potential, why am I not? And if they do not have them, why have they not?

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