Failing to Innovate

In 1993, I bought a graphing calculator. As freshly-minted math teacher, I was building my cache of instructional resources. And with my concentration on educational technology, I knew that graphing calculators would play an increasing role in how we teach math at the high school level.

3301122802_4e5129e931_zIt was expensive. I don’t remember exactly what it cost, but the MSRP was $130. It’s safe to say that I probably picked it up for around $100. It was a TI-85. It had a Zilog Z80 processor that ran at 6 mhz. It had 28K of RAM and a 0.008 megapixel display. I could say that I was blown away by the immense speed and power, and how it changed my perspective on how we do math. But that’s not true. I used it a couple times and put it away. I never did end up teaching math. I’m pretty sure I still have it somewhere, but I can’t find it.

At the time, just for perspective, my computer was a 386sx that ran at 16mhz and had 4 mb of RAM and an 80 mg hard drive. I paid around $1800 for it. If I used the standard depreciation model we use at work, that computer would now be worth about two cents. The few desktop computers we buy at school now are thousands of times more powerful and about a fourth of the price.

My children are at the age where they need graphing calculators for their high school (and college!) math classes. Their teachers recommend either the TI-83 or the TI-84. Having ignored graphing calculators for the better part of 20 years, I was interested to see how far they had come. Surely there was a reason that students aren’t just using their phones now, right?

I expected to pay about $25 for a device that had 1000 times the capability. Surely they would all have resolutions that could be measured in megapixels. They would certainly have wifi, and be able to share and access resources online. We don’t measure memory in K anymore, anywhere. You can get 2gb flash drives for nothing if you can find someone still making them. That’s 2 million K. It never occurred to me that the new calculators wouldn’t be rechargeable and have color displays and be smaller and lighter than their predecessors.

The TI-83 plus, which is one of the recommended models for my daughter’s stats class, runs a Zilog Z80 processor at 6mhz. It has 32K of ram (24k of which is accessible to the user). It has a 0.06 megapixel display and it’s 20% larger than my 20 year old TI-85. You can buy one on Amazon right now for about $100.

I was sure I read that wrong. A generation later, graphing calculators have moderately less capability, and cost essentially the same. That’s crazy. It’s unheard-of in the technology world. It’s running the same processor at the same speed. How can they even get the chips to build these things? They should be putting them in museums, but instead they’re selling them new, and at the same price.

How does this happen?

Texas Instruments is both strategic and lucky. When they were designing the TI-81, they courted the teachers. They went to NCTM conferences and universities and asked teachers to participate in the design of the device. They got buy-in early on. Not only were they ahead of the innovation curve, they also had the support of math teachers. That gave them a significant competitive advantage. Once they convinced the schools that students all needed to have the same kind of calculator, it was obvious what that calculator would be. The monopoly was born. Today, TI has 93% of the graphing calculator market. Most of the rest is absorbed by Casio, but those are calculators sold to people who have a choice of device. Students are almost always forced to buy TI.

And here’s the genius part: the people deciding what will be purchased don’t have to pay for it, so the cost doesn’t matter. The teacher likes the TI. The textbook is written specifically for the TI. The ACT and SAT allow students to use the TI. It doesn’t matter how much it costs. If the student has to have it, the parents will pay it. They don’t have a choice.

The mobile phone should have taken the graphing calculator’s lunch money. There’s no reason why a smart phone can’t do everything a graphing calculator can do while streaming Spotify, tracking the user’s location, and texting with friends. Certainly the tablets and netbooks and Chromebooks we’ve been all abuzz over for the last five years can easily handle the minimal work that a calculator does.

But remember, we’ve “standardized” on a proprietary, patented interface. The only way to have an app that looks like a TI-83 is for TI to license it. And they don’t want to do that. Apps that cost more than $1.99 don’t get much traction. With margins on the 20 year old hardware hovering near 100 percent, why would they undermine their cash cow? TI reluctantly released an emulator for iOS, but it’s $30, and it can’t be used on standardized tests. As far as I can see, there’s no Android version. Teachers are still encouraging students to buy the hardware.

As long as this doesn’t change, they can keep charging $100, and they don’t have to innovate at all. The golden goose will just keep laying those golden eggs.

In my case, I went to eBay. I realized that there must be a lot of people who buy the calculator because it’s required, and then realize that it’s generally useless once they’re done with math. So there are lots of used ones available. I finally picked one up for about $35.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Apple. I fundamentally disagree with the philosophy of the company. But without iOS, Android would suck. The competition forces both companies to innovate. Similarly, the Office 365 platform keeps Google Apps honest. The same is true with Playstation and Xbox. Or Canon and Nikon. Or Coke and Pepsi. Monopolies stifle innovation. And the customer always loses.

I was going to stop there. But I haven’t alienated enough people yet. So let’s take this to education. If schools don’t have to compete, we don’t have to innovate. We can just keep giving the same lectures and worksheets and multiple choice tests. We can stick to our 40 minute classes and our punitive grading practices, and our pretending that there’s some correlation between what we’re doing in school and what students are going to need when we finally let them out.

That world is ending. Our families have choices now. We may not like charters and vouchers and open enrollment, but they’re here. We can complain about it all we want. We can argue that we need a level playing field, and that all schools receiving public funding should be measured by the same standards and have the same requirements. That’s all true. But it’s missing the point. Our kids don’t have to come to us anymore. They have lots of choices. We can ignore that at our peril, and they’ll go elsewhere. Or, we can redesign public education to meet their needs and keep them.

Eventually, the TI graphing calculator gravy train will end. Schools and teachers and families will eventually realize it’s stupid to keep spending this money for the ridiculously obsolete devices. Hopefully, we will adapt before they reach the same conclusion about our schools.

Photo credit: Brandon Downey on Flickr



Urban Legends

I’m sure you’ve heard about Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to give away $4.5 million to Facebook users who share a “thank you” message, right? Or, maybe you read about Facebook’s plan to start charging a monthly fee for using their social network. Did you know you can post a legal notice on your Facebook wall that protects your copyright and privacy rights?

2236973226_158f9308e7_zLast year, Pope Francis famously said that belief in God is not necessary to be a good person. Donald Trump claimed in a 1998 interview that Republicans are the “dumbest group of voters.”

Meanwhile, NASA confirmed last year that the earth will experience 15 straight days of total darkness. Those terrorists posing in UPS uniforms will likely have a field day. Fortunately, we can simply enter our pins backwards into any ATM to immediately summon law enforcement.

When we first encounter these hoaxes, we are amused that so many people fall for them. The novelty quickly wears off, and we reach the point where we just paste the Snopes link or a news article debunking the myth without comment and move on. Eventually, we stop responding altogether and start ignoring the people who post this tripe.

But consider these gems, which you’ve also heard widely circulated as undisputed fact:

We tend to remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 75% of what we do, and 90% of what we teach.


People have different learning styles. Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners benefit from instruction that is tuned to their individual learning styles.


Today’s students are digital natives, born into a hyper-connected world of information abundance. Their brains work differently from those of the “digital immigrants” that make up their parents and teachers. They need an education system that takes advantage of technology and social networks.

There isn’t any proof that any of these statements are any more true than the outrageous ones about Facebook and terrorism. But they sound credible. They explain things we have observed. We want to believe them. So we base our instructional decisions on them, and will ourselves into applying them, without spending too much time worrying about how accurate they are.


But then along comes someone like Pedro De Bruyckere. Challenged by a student teacher who asked for a source, he started investigating the origin of the learning pyramid. It was invented by Edgar Dale in 1946, and later adopted by the National Training Laboratories. But it was a fabrication from the beginning.

De Bruyckere went on to research other myths, eventually writing a book on the subject. Or, if you prefer, you can check out this executive summary prepared by Train Visual.

The learning styles theory has also been challenged on a number of fronts. Psychology Professor Daniel T. Willingham offers this explanation of the research behind learning styles:

Prensky’s Digital Native argument, of course, was debunked long ago. Even he has distanced himself from it, though the argument could be made that his initial paper was taken out of context. Ultimately, there is no evidence that today’s youth is wired any differently from their parents. There may be differences in the ways in which people interact with technology, but those differences are not necessarily generational, and they’re certainly not biological.

As educators in the age of information abundance, we have to be just as skeptical as we want our students (and parents) to be when they’re interacting online. We need to do a better job of challenging theories, citing research, and backing up our beliefs. We know more than we’ve ever known before. We have a better understanding about how the world, and the brain, and our society works than any previous generation. We should be applying those lessons to provide the best learning environment for our students that we can.

Let’s keep the urban legends out of the schoolhouse and leave them on Facebook where they belong.

Photo credit: Yael Beerl on Flickr.
Learning Pyramid diagram: The Amazing Darren Kuropatwa on Flickr.




Let’s Eat

The doors for lunch opened at noon. We were standing outside in a very crowded hallway, waiting to get in. When the doors opened, there were dozens of volunteers waving flags and welcoming us. We quickly found a table and sat down.

18361834573_ae35442e14_zIt was a reasonably formal lunch. There were cloth napkins and bread plates and dessert forks. The salads were already on the table, and as soon as everyone was seated, we began eating. There were ten people seated at our round table. As I looked around, I noticed that the room was set up with 15 tables across and five tables deep. Behind that was a wide aisle, and then three more identical sections. That’s enough seating for 3,000 people.

As soon as we finished our salads, the plates disappeared. Entrees came next: grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, and a vegetable medley. A few people asked for — and immediately received — vegetarian or gluten-free alternatives.

It’s fun to watch people’s table manners in situations like this. You don’t eat until everyone at the table has been served. The rolls and butter (and, really, everything else) is passed to the right. Your glasses are on the right. Your bread plate is on the left. Salt and pepper get passed together. The other diners didn’t necessarily know the rules, but the servers all did. Always serve from the left, and clear from the right.

Once again, the plates disappeared as soon as we put down our forks. Coffee was served. Desserts were already on the table. Just as we finished dessert, the speaker took the stage and the program began. It was 12:30.

Let’s recap: this is a sit-down, three course lunch for 3,000 people that was served and cleared in half an hour. The food was delicious (and hot). The service was impeccable. The entire experience was top notch. The next morning, I saw the manager working out details for that day’s lunch. I thanked him for his work and told him how impressed I was. “That’s nothing,” he replied. “We do this every week.” He told me that they had done similar meals with up to 8,000 people. “THAT,” he said, “is a challenge.”

So what are the logistics that go into something like this? How do they pull off this impossible feat of feeding 3,000 people in 30 minutes? Over the course of the three days we were there, I paid attention. Here’s how they do it:

Step One: Standardize. It doesn’t matter where you sit. It doesn’t matter what you want. Everyone gets the same thing. If we’re having chicken and mashed potatoes, everyone is getting chicken and mashed potatoes (or the one alternative dish for special diets). There’s one salad dressing choice: you can have salad dressing or not have it. What would you like to drink? There’s iced tea and water on the table, and we’ll serve coffee with dessert. Those are your choices.

Step Two: Everyone has a Job. Teams of servers worked together on groups of tables. Watch the tables and clear the salads as soon as they’re done. Bring out the entrees and uncover them. Serve entire tables quickly. Everyone knows what they’re responsible for, and everyone works together to make sure the job gets done as quickly as possible.

Step Three: Alleviate the Bottlenecks. Those volunteers who were waving flags weren’t just trying to be friendly. They knew that the biggest bottleneck to a quick, efficient lunch is getting people to pick a table and sit down. Their job was to get people into their seats as quickly as possible.

Step Four: Maximize Efficiency. When the trays come out from the kitchen, they’re piled high with covered entrees. One person uncovers them while another clears salad plates and serves entrees. The same trays go back to the kitchen with dirty dishes on them. The whole thing happens in one fluid, choreographed motion. The same thing happens when the entrees are cleared and the coffee is served.

Step Five: Anticipate Problems and Resolve them Quickly. Someone dropped a plate. There’s another one right here. We need another vegan option. It’s right there on the tray. A water glass was knocked over. It was immediately cleaned up. Those things are going to happen. We can’t let them derail the whole event.

Of course, in educational technology, we have our own impossible feats. At the moment, I’m responsible for a technology infrastructure that includes 6,000 computers and tablets, more than 100 printers, about 600 network devices, 250 projectors and interactive whiteboards, and dozens of software applications. My team of five manages mission-critical technologies that handle everything from taking attendance to supporting instruction to selling lunch.

If we ran schools like a business, I could easily justify a staff of 25 people to manage this infrastructure in a reactive way. We’re not talking about high-tech companies here with cutting edge technologies requiring proactive support. Regular mid-sized companies generally have an IT staff member for every 250-300 devices.

My own technology plan, which is now nearly three years old, called for IT staffing levels at 25% of industry norms. That plan included three more people than I have right now, and it anticipated that we would have 1,000 fewer devices. But I’m not complaining. We have it covered. While it would be very bad to lose people, I’m not asking for additional staffing. How do we do it?

Step One: Standardize. For the past 15 years, we have chosen a single desktop computer and a single laptop model. That’s what we buy. Everyone has the same thing. We get really good at supporting that one thing. Every year, we buy about a thousand laptops. They’re all exactly the same. That saves us an enormous amount of time.

Step Two: Everyone Has a Job. The team is divided geographically, but each of my team members also has specializations. If you’re having a problem with a printer or copier, Ryan is the go-to guy. If there’s an issue with a projector or Smart Board, Rick is your man. They rely on one another when they get in over their heads.

Step Three: Alleviate the Bottlenecks. We try to avoid the tasks that take a lot of time without much benefit. For example, it might take hours to diagnose a malware problem and clean up a computer. It’s easier in many cases to re-image the computer, loading a fresh copy of Windows and the applications on it. In many cases, we push configuration changes, updates, and other routine tasks to the computers when they’re idle during the day. That minimizes the amount of repetitive work we have to do on each computer.

Step Four: Maximize Efficiency. The biggest waste of time for us is moving people around. With eight buildings and three technicians, there’s always a problem somewhere where we don’t have any people. The key is to visit each building each day, but also to know what that building needs before we get there. Centralized help ticket management plays a big role in that. The techs also use remote diagnostics to try to resolve problems quickly, or at least determine the causes of trouble, before venturing out to the building.

Step Five: Anticipate Problems and Resolve them Quickly. We know the busiest days of the year for us are the first three days the teachers are back in August. We plan ahead for that. We know what they’re going to need, and we try to provide that extra help or network cable or power strip before they even know they need it. We monitor network activity and frequently know when computers are having problems even before the teachers and students do. There are many many times each week when we see problems and resolve them before anyone even knows what’s happening.

An efficient operation is fun to watch, whether it’s in the education business or the hospitality area. One of the benefits of technology is that it’s supposed to help us take care of low-level, repetitive tasks more easily. That allows us to get more work done, requiring higher-level thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills, without increasing staff.

Maybe we could apply some of these lessons to classroom instruction, too. What could we do with the cognitive surplus if the routine aspects of teaching and learning were handled more efficiently?

Photo credit: me.