Wednesday, 9 September 2015

TANDQ 02: Getting Graphic

In 2014-2015 I wrote an education column called "There Are No Dumb Questions" for the website "MuseHack". As that site has evolved, I have decided to republish those columns here (updating the index page as I go) every Wednesday. This second column originally appeared on Tuesday, April 29, 2014.

How is graphing technology changing in schools?

Short answer: Fairly rapidly. To see why, let’s quickly look at the past, aka what you may remember from your own high school math and science courses.

For many years, the TI (Texas Instruments) graphing calculators (specifically TI-83s) were the standard for graphing polynomials. But as xkcd points out, that calculator still costs over $100, has a poor display (comparatively speaking these days), and is not allowed on most standardized tests. So not many students buy them. Hence, class sets for schools - along with associated maintenance costs, like replacing the AAA batteries whenever students would steal them to power their MP3 players - was the result. (Okay, the stealing doesn’t happen quite so much these days, but tells you they’ve been around for a while!)

Here’s the thing: Once the TI-83 began seeing use, replacing that entire calculator empire became seriously impractical, given how public schools are (in my opinion) chronically underfunded. I’ll tell you right now: if the latest thing is not backwards compatible, forget about it. Schools have no money for new power adaptors. An overhaul would also require teachers to buy in, leading to training, which requires money for substitutes. There’s also the nightmare issue for superintendents of potentially spending a bunch of money for something that doesn’t turn out to be any better than what was already there. Thus, for many decades: the TI-83.

But with the rapid evolution of portable technology, there are now alternatives. Have a product? Do you know how to market it? Hint: It’s not through the school boards. It’s through individual teachers. Wolfram alpha was one of the first websites I knew of to provide online graphing capabilities. More recently, a colleague of mine is using the “Free Graphing Calculator” app with her class. And then there’s the Desmos website. If you haven’t heard of this company yet, I suspect it’s only a matter of time. They have a tool with dynamic capabilities that has increased what I can do with graphing in my class by a factor of about a thousand. Oh, and it’s affordable. Because it’s free.

Next Big Thing?

Their website says, “Desmos supports the development of our calculator through select partnerships with organizations that can benefit from our powerful and intuitive HTML5 technology.” The founder and CEO, Eli Luberoff (who graduated from Yale in 2009), even came out to personally present at a mathematics conference that I went to. That’s what brought me on board. They’ve got a twitter account, and respond to tweets, listening to what educators want, and then delivering. They post student work (artwork!) right on their front page. I see Desmos as being a key part in the future of math education. They don’t need a big name spokesman like Bill Gates to get people to listen - me, and other teachers like me, are now their advocates.

All well and good, but what can we take away from this story? A few things. First, the field of education is changing. But ignore the big names waving their magic wands: change doesn’t happen overnight. Look for the little (inexpensive!) smaller things that are being incorporated (like radian protractors, perhaps?). Those have more staying power. More to the point, if you’re marketing to education, don’t plan on public schools being your primary source of revenue.

Second, marketing itself doesn’t have to be about competition. That may work in high tech, but telling an educator how your product “is so much better than the current standard” is merely a good way to annoy them. For one thing, it’s not news - huge technology upgrades are only possible in a school every six or seven years, if that. Even then, it’s often only done because there’s really no choice - a prime example being a recent switch away from (the now unsupported) Windows XP. For another reason, it’s not enough to be better, or even to be good - to get use in a school, your product has to be dynamic and scalable over time.

Finally, this story goes beyond education. I’m not just speaking of the Desmos platform itself, but consider that Eli started out as a tutor who was looking for a way to accomplish that over the internet. This is another of those success stories involving someone with a passion, who found a way of bringing his vision to others… and in the process, he discovered ways that his software could be used beyond his expectations. Plus he has also helped to bring art back into mathematics. Something that’s incredibly important in our increasingly math-phobic culture.

Oh, by the way, Desmos is hiring. (They’re based out of San Francisco).

For further viewing:

1. 2011 Finalists: America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs

2. Eli Interviewed on TechCrunch Disrupt (video)


  1. Speaking of Desmos hiring, even though my article was from April 2014, they're STILL looking for engineers and designers. You could get to work with this guy:

  2. And the TI monopoly is STILL in the news. Here's an article from late September: