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TI-84+ CSE: An Editorial
Posted by Ryan on 26 February 2013, 01:27 GMT

While we started the ball rolling with a simple video demonstration of the new calc model, Xavier "Critor" Andreani has been put in a staggering amount of both transparent and highly professional effort into doing a thorough comparative demonstration with the new 84+ CSE relative to its ancestral models, drawing some very even-handed conclusions. On another front, Christopher "Kerm Martian" Mitchell has been rockin' and sockin' away at taking care of some serious heavy-lifting by setting the scene for the calc's release with some starter software and preliminary emulation support, although there may be some legal concerns appearing in the emulation realm.

As the community gets an increasing amount of exposure to growing lists of factoids, figures, and demonstrations with regards the performance and features of the upcoming TI- 84+ CSE, there are a number of issues that have been pushed to the back burner. As we move into the more objective realm of discussion about the new calc, I would like to take the time to put forth my subjective perceptions of what this calculator means, both to our community broadly defined as well as the world beyond. Strange as it may seem, it is true, there are people out there who aren't obsessed with TI graphing calculators. My opinions reflected here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of the ticalc.org staff.

The shorthand version:

  • The 84+ CSE as a stand-alone product lacks some clarity with regards to meeting goals relevant to learning and education in a manner above and beyond that of previous models in the family.

  • Programmers and community members alike who choose to adopt the new platform will likely find it to be an interesting area for exploration, as new artistic avenues present themselves on the coding and aesthetic fronts alike. But, nobody is twisting your arm to throw away your old calc and pick up an 84+ CSE.

  • I generally like the new 84+ CSE, but I cannot estimate the likelihood that it will supersede my existing calcs.


Introduction, or, You've Heard This Already:

To get this out of the way, I will briefly mention my impression of the hardware and performance aspects of the calculator. Yes, the color screen is actually quite versatile and lovely. Yes, the performance does leave something to be desired. And yes, losing keystrokes doing lengthy inputs can, at times, be frustrating, to say the least. Finally, yes, the TI-84+ CSE can still do math and statistics. These are, so it appears, the primary issues for both casual newcomers and those who are crotchety, grizzled, and hardened from years of hunched-over, frantic on-calc coding. When I was your age, we didn't have fancy backlights... oh, you get the idea. But what do all of these things mean?

You may or may not be aware of this, but Texas Instruments has for some time been undertaking the unquestionably elephantine task of promoting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields to populations and demographics who are traditionally and fundamentally underrepresented in these areas. This is a major and serious social issue that, while having been exposed and combated for decades, has been drawing an exponential growth in attention for quite some time and, importantly, is getting a lot of public / journalistic and academic treatment alike. The fact that Texas Instruments has been actively addressing this issue in their own way is deserving of some praise, in my opinion. An imperative question, then, is how might (or might not) this new model of calculator mesh with this goal?

The Color Screen:

If you have been watching, you already know that the color LCD screen is the flagship feature of the new model of calculator. This feature even got its own letter in the model's name (...you know... "C"... for "color"...). Many of us already know that novelty and usability/quality are not synonymous with regards to technology, and Texas Instruments knows this too. So, do color screens fundamentally alter the way that students, educators, and researchers may learn to interact with statistics and mathematics in the classroom and in the field? Not on its own. The only time that I, personally, have ever felt that this feature would be of great use on my calc is when plotting multiple complex graphs. While this is certainly going to be something that students will be doing, it is important that students be taught the value of multiple representations when using their calculators, as they often appear to not reach this conclusion independently. It will be vital for Texas Instruments to ensure that educators understand how to implement color screens in the classroom for maximum utility, and they appear to be well aware of this; I am eager to see their approach unfold with the 84+ CSE model.

For community members (the vast majority of whom are already and necessarily STEM oriented due to an appreciation of technology), on the other hand, a new series of boons and banes open up. As has been discussed extensively, the calculator appears to be underpowered with regards to the screen. Simple operations requiring even partial refreshes can lag the calc down to a temporarily unresponsive halt. For BASIC programmers, especially those who rely upon graphical representations in their work, serious consideration above and beyond what has been true in the past will need to be given with regards to what features should be implemented in their software. Some techniques will undoubtedly prevail over others and while new limitations will foster creativity, they will also serve to frustrate and discourage coders whose talents will suffer on the new screen. For ASM programmers, new avenues and challenges open up with possibilities of visually stunning software and color LCD coding practices that have, in the past, been the fevered dreams of the insane. Unfamiliar and increasingly idiosyncratic coding practices, however, may be the price of entry for taking advantage of color screens. Let's be honest about the bottom line, however. The able and talented coders who opt to take on the 84+ CSE as a programming platform already know what they are getting into and will undoubtedly succeed at creating innovative and impressive software, as they always have. The addition of color opens new avenues, and I am genuinely unconcerned about the marginal loss of performance with regards to our community. Orthogonal to this, the uninitiated, STEM-uncertain individuals might not be incredibly off-put by slower performance when learning to program visual software. In fact, a slower pace might facilitate better understanding of what is happening on- screen, when it is happening, and why it is happening.

Lastly and prospectively, those who normally shy away from STEM fields may find themselves drawn in by potential interests in computational art and detailed sprite / tilemap art creation. While software oriented towards graphics for the sake of aesthetics has always been open to the artistically inclined members of the community, a higher resolution and splashes of color will allow for people to play in a visual space that previously was inaccessible to those who do not own an Nspire CX. However, efficiency and familiarity are going to be important factors in this regard. Those who do not know their way around the calculator will unquestionably pursue other, more accessible outlets for such endeavors. To illustrate this, drawing a horizontal line on the TI-84+ CSE graph screen is simple and easy, however, if one tries to do this simple task with shading (and does not disable shading, choose the line's placement location, then re-enable shading), this becomes a chore that can literally take minutes to achieve. While this obstacle can be easily overcome, some users may not know or readily discover that this is the case. The easily discouraged will likely choose more accessible platforms as an artistic outlet, although I would love to see the artistic part of the community blossom as it has thus far.

Useability:

One thing that I had hoped for with the 84+ CSE was some moderate to serious modifications in the form of a reconstrual of the user interface as compared to its predecessors; this is not the case. Rather, at least some known existing bugs (e.g., the "[H]->Str1 bug) are still present in the current OS. Tech-savvy and experienced users are likely to have few-to-no issues exploring the reimplementation of the traditional 83/84+ menu system, however, I think that it is important for us to acknowledge that this system is archaic, not self-explanatory, and can be a huge barrier to student learning. I took it upon myself to give my reviewer model a little bit of face time with 10 STEM and non-STEM majors at my university, all of whom reported previous experience with 83/84+ models of calculators, to see how comfortable they felt with the TI-84+ CSE. Other than two students majoring in math and statistics, all students seemed equally adept at navigating to and executing simple features (e.g., List editing and function plotting), but exhibited considerable difficulty in finding menus relevant to things that they had done or were currently doing in relevant coursework (e.g., logarithms, converting lists to matrices, and even finding the device's clock). These are not new functions and features, thus demonstrating the importance of at least a slight overhaul with regards to the pernicious nature of the OS. What's more, none of the 10 students could figure out how to do anything with colors when I allowed them ample time to do so, aside from changing the colors of functions plotted to the graph screen. Shortcut keys (Alpha + Functions 1-4) were also universally elusive to all users, despite a startup screen that explicitly states how to access them.

While an ambiguous and often unwieldy UI is nothing new to the 83/84+ family, these problems persist in spite of the goal of accessibility and ease of use for those traditionally discouraged by the perceived complex and antediluvian nature of STEM work. Sure, students are able to learn the calc's utility through a non-negligible amount of exploration and instruction, however, the lack of self-explanatory navigation cues, functions, and help features (aside from abbreviated argument parameter listings) falls short of progress in the realm of usability. That even somewhat experienced users cannot pick up the device and locate standard and common functions within a time frame exceeding 5 minutes is not encouraging. Interaction design is not just for products, but workspaces of both physical and conceptual natures. The TI- 84+ CSE is indeed both a product and a conceptual workspace, and I feel that the TI-Nspire is currently superior (although still problematic in its own right) in its usability and UI design with regards to learning.

Math and Stats at the Nexus of Color and Usability:

Ultimately, TI graphing calculators are still the gold standard when it comes to mathematics and statistics in the learning environment. There are some features new to the 84+ CSE that are certainly improvements upon the family's already solid history of quality and utility in this area. That being said, the primary functions of the TI-84+ CSE must be considered within the context of the previous two areas of discussion.

With the new device, I found myself asking "What are the novel contributions made to learning and applying math and stats?" In fact, I find myself asking this question still. A color screen and some new features will certainly serve to draw in some people who are otherwise uninterested in STEM fields, however, what will the strength of this draw be? I would very much like to think that a color screen will allow for students to more deeply explore mathematics as a creative outlet, however, many things can be done to help facilitate this. Easier and more comprehensive drawing functions would be a good start in this area, as would be the ability to take advantage of the color screen on the home menu. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the use of color to emphasize pairs of parenthesis, as well as function argument positions and even syntax errors (much like a good IDE) are, as of yet, wholly missed opportunities that should be capitalized upon at some point in the device's future.

While color may serve to draw some users in to the area of multiple representations, I think that this is still not enough. The lack of any serious paradigm shift for the 83/84+ family leaves its contemporary cousin, the TI-Nspire, still more inherently suited to the task of creating a workspace that encourages, and apparently implicitly elicits, exploration of multiple representations and more varied problem-solving strategies. Furthermore, the heightened UI sluggishness with regards to on-calc coding may serve to deter students from exploring mathematics and statistics at a programmatic level. Exploration of mathematics and statistics in this manner are believed by some to be of great importance to the future of education in mathematics. Anecdotally speaking, I learned far more about math and statistics from creating software in a way that made the underlying methods and concepts more transparent and procedural to me than I have from hands-on, pencil-and-paper methods.

That being said, the loss of speed, while a bit of an obstacle for experienced programmers, may actually be beneficial for student learning. While people often note that, unlike the 83/84+ family, modern smartphones are flashy, speedy, and full of zip, instant responsiveness may in fact hinder learning rather than help it. Something as simple as requiring a more paced, deliberate, and conscientious input style could serve to facilitate deeper processing of information, more attention to detail, and in fact, better understanding of concepts to be learned. That is something that might be important to think about.

Personal Experiences:

Moving away from the discussion points thus far, the primary question for myself is this: Will I, personally, opt to replace my beloved TI-83+ SE with the new 84+ CSE? I cannot yet say. There are really only two competing factors in this regard: the display and the responsiveness. Firstly, the backlight is a massive bonus for the new calc. I love to program and play on my calc in many different settings, and I love that lighting is no longer an issue for me. What's more, I love the higher resolution of the 84+ CSE, as the larger view allows me to see the scope of my programs more broadly, providing a more refined feel regarding the things for which my calc has become indispensable. This comes with the caveat that I have spent years doing math and statistics on-calc and am not in the process of learning these concepts; I already engage large amounts of data on a daily basis. On the other hand, the frustration of input and UI responsiveness runs against my usual desire to pick up and quickly hammer out a problem (e.g., effect size calculations, specific statistical tests, conversions, etc.) that would take more time to complete with alternative statistics platforms (e.g., SPSS, SAS, or even in spreadsheets or using a search engine query); this is somewhat marginalized on the 84+ CSE. However, I find that I have rapidly grown accustomed to the UI of the 84+ CSE, and it took very little time to start to feel every bit as natural as using other graphing calculators.

Now that the excitement of possessing a new graphing calculator has worn off (and yes, it is extremely exciting), and now that the halo effect has faded, I am still very satisfied with the TI-84+ CSE. For my day-to-day purposes, it serves me well, and the device quickly began to feel like a long-time member of my calculator family. Despite my initial surprise over the performance and the presence of old bugs, I am very pleased with how well my TI-84+ CSE handles the tasks that I regularly throw at it. Whether it edges out over my old best friend, however, remains to be seen, and I certainly do not want to be "that guy" who is seen sporting a bandolier of calculators wherever I go. Or do I?....

Summary:

So, ultimately, what do I think of the upcoming TI-84+ CSE? With regards to making STEM fields more accessible and appealing, I have some mixed thoughts. There are definitely things that are going to draw in an unknown percentage of people who would otherwise perceive mathematics and statistics as dull, unintelligible, or otherwise unappealing. I have some doubts, however, about how targeted this effect will be with regards to underrepresented populations, as well as how large the effect will be in general. As thousands of researchers and educators across multiple disciplines will attest, this is not a simple problem to address. I am patiently curious to see how Texas Instruments addresses this issue with specific regards to the TI-84+ CSE in a structural and social fashion via seminars, professional development efforts, and so on. In the end, I feel that the 84+ CSE as a stand-alone product lacks some clarity with regards to meeting goals relevant to learning and education in a manner above and beyond that of previous models in the family.

Programmers and community members alike who choose to adopt the new platform will likely find it to be an interesting area for exploration, as new artistic avenues present themselves on the coding and aesthetic fronts alike. Those who find the performance and responsiveness of the new model to be a problem will always have their trusty classic platforms in the 83/84+ family, and there is by no means any systematic pressure to adopt the new model.

And finally, I like the new 84+ CSE. I find that the screen lifts some of the constraints of past models with regards to how I can conceptualize problems, view data, and code, albeit at a compromised pace. It can very organically take the place of my favorite graphing calc in a day-to-day work rotation, however, whether it will ultimately supplant its ancestors (in both my life and yours) is yet to be seen.


Even if you 100% disagree with my perceptions, I hope that my treatement of the topics discussed here will encourage thinking about the new model of calculator in a more broad, critical, and creative way than where the current community discussion stands. I am more than happy to discuss all of these topics in the comments.

  Reply to this article


The comments below are written by ticalc.org visitors. Their views are not necessarily those of ticalc.org, and ticalc.org takes no responsibility for their content.


Re: TI-84+ CSE: An Editorial
Stefan Bauwens  Account Info
(Web Page)

Awesome article, Ryan! Thanks for that.
It also got me thinking about the color-usability.
It so far never popped in my mind while using a calculator that I was missing a color function. Therefore I think that for a simple student, this will not be the calculator to buy, unless you want the backlight.
However, in a programmer's view, it's totally awesome and could be a very good reason to want to own this calculator.

Reply to this comment    26 February 2013, 08:36 GMT


Re: Re: TI-84+ CSE: An Editorial
Ryan Boyd Account Info
(Web Page)

Thanks, Stefan :)

I completely agree. I actually intend to switch back to my 83+ SE soon just to see how much I will miss the color, and even the backlight.

As far as the programming aspect goes, so long as enough people adopt the CSE as a platform, I think that it will be just fine ;)

Reply to this comment    26 February 2013, 16:12 GMT

Re: TI-84+ CSE: An Editorial
AJLitzau13  Account Info

Great article! How are people getting these calculators already?

Reply to this comment    26 February 2013, 13:29 GMT


Re: Re: TI-84+ CSE: An Editorial
Ryan Boyd Account Info
(Web Page)

Thanks!

Texas Instruments has sent out just a handful of reviewer models of the calculator, which is how (I assume) most everyone who has one acquired their calcs.

Reply to this comment    26 February 2013, 16:14 GMT


Re: Re: Re: TI-84+ CSE: An Editorial
KermMartian  Account Info
(Web Page)

As far as I know, just three reviewer models in total, although I know that various teachers (under NDA) also have the device.

Ryan, a great article indeed, and one I hope to re-read a few more times before I give some thorough responses. I'm intrigued by your real-world useability study.

Reply to this comment    26 February 2013, 17:06 GMT


Re: Re: Re: Re: TI-84+ CSE: An Editorial
Ryan Boyd Account Info
(Web Page)

Thanks :)

"Study" might be a bit strong of a word, considering the absurdly casual nature of it. I literally just walked up to some students, asked a few questions, and then asked them if they would be willing to try doing a few things, taking as much time as they needed, then asked a couple more questions. Still, it felt like something interesting to pursue.

Reply to this comment    26 February 2013, 19:58 GMT

Re: TI-84+ CSE: An Editorial
AJLitzau13  Account Info
(Web Page)

I found a site where they seem to have them in stock (see link). I called them, and they said they will be shipping tomorrow if you order today. Needless to say, I ordered mine!

Reply to this comment    5 March 2013, 17:44 GMT

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