I had the opportunity to visit the very beautiful Swiss city of Zurich last week to run a session for Swiss senior high school maths teachers. It is always very interesting to see the differences in the way that mathematics teaching and indeed schools are in different countries. Firstly, the school is for ages 16-19 and has roughly 3000 students in a city centre environment. Striking interior architecture, excellent catering facilities, a range of fascinating teaching spaces and a very well equipped presentation room were all very impressive (and that’s not to mention the three floors of underground heated car parking!)
In Switzerland, they make things. Engineering is highly valued and of extremely high quality. So, a relatively small proportion of these students will go to University and a relatively large proportion into apprenticeships. So, they are interested to see technology that enhances students’ ability to engage with the subject. The discussion was a comparison between HP Prime and TI-nspire. This is a good thing. No-one needs convincing that graphing technology is useful. People are not saying “I’ve just bought some iPads, what can I do with them”.
So, where does HP Prime win? Well, firstly the free teacher emulator and connectivity software kit makes the overall purchase price of Prime rather lower. Secondly the data streaming kit was seen to be very impressive. Instant collection of data, followed by analysis. No set up, just plug in the sensor, press start and watch. I did the experiment where you attach an accelerometer to the end of a steel rule, hold the other end on the desk and ‘ping’ the end with the sensor. It produces a beautiful exponential with trig function, where you zoom in and see the sin curves perfectly smooth. You can easily measure the wavelength to compare with other ruler types and model the decay rate with a two click export to a stats app. However, the biggest win is the simplicity of the wireless system. We were in a very long room indeed and all of the devices connected and stayed connected throughout the session. The total procedure was to plug the USB aerial into my laptop. Plug a dongle into each handheld. Launch the connectivity software and click the monitor button. Select the network on each handheld with three taps of the screen. That is enough to see what everyone is doing, find something interesting, expand that student (teacher/delegate)’s work and ask them to explain to the class. We collected data to compare height and shoe size and almost immediately were having a discussion about about the strength of the correlation (they said low) and it’s measure r=0.91 (which didn’t sound too low!)
The two issues we need to work on are to be sure the software will run on Macs and this should be soon now. Secondly, students develop their work as a project report. So, how can they integrate their algebra and graphs into a text report with commentary? On a desktop, running the emulator together with a word processor will work well enough. However, using the handheld or even working on a tablet, the integration may not be so smooth. I will have a think about these issues and post soon.
The final issue that is really working well is exam mode. With the wireless connectivity this is very impressive. On Prime the exam mode is so highly configurable that exam boards in many countries are now convinced that it is indeed suitable for use in public exams. But the set up takes seconds. The Swiss teachers seemed genuinely impressed by the control this gave the teacher even in a classroom setting. In France, the requirement is that the calculator has it’s memory wiped, which is sad if you have personalised it. But the backup mode is now so simple there is no issue. In the connectivity kit you right click on the calculator name. Choose backup. This creates a zip file of everything on your machine which you can suitably name and stores it in a specially created backups folder. Wipe the machine for exam use and then afterwards, plug it in again and right click again. Choose restore and it will find your backup files, choose yours, click OK. That’s it.
In a school setting with busy teachers, things just have to work. It was good to be in a teaching environment and that is exactly what happened. HP Prime vs. TI-nspire? Well they are different, despite having overall similar functionality, but it seems that Prime does genuinely have that plug and play simplicity that school use demands.