Few pieces of educational equipment have achieved the kind of rapid and widespread adoption in schools from middle school to college as the graphing calculator. Introduced by Casio in 1985, the device has been showing up on school supply lists for quite some time, and as a parent I have personally purchased several for my kids. A bit too expensive for schools to provide to students, most schools simply require the student to provide his or her own, perhaps in the same way that, in an earlier era, math students had to supply their own slide rules for class. In recent years, Texas Instruments has become the most visible manufacturer of the calculators on the shelves at Office Depot and Wal-Mart. In fact, you can get a TI-83 Plus at Wal-Mart today for about a hundred bucks. Or, you can get a TI-Nspire calculator at Office Depot for $139.00. Remember that price.
These calculators became a fixture in our schools, at least for the higher level math and science courses, because they made the process of performing certain calculations much quicker and easier, so that less class time had to be spent on graphing complicated equations manually and more could be spent on teaching and learning about the math behind the graphs. In short, graphing calculators became indispensable because they empowered each student to operate on a more equal footing and they allowed the teacher to spend more time teaching. Nowadays, they are just an expected part of the educational landscape, a $139 appliance that pretty much every serious math student owns and even rushes out to replace if lost or damaged. You just gotta have one.
Since the beginning (and that would be 2007), I have felt that the Kindle or some ereader would achieve a combination of features and price that would make them the graphing calculator of the 21st century. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.
With its announcement of a next-generation Kindle that connects via wifi and offers improved screen resolution and a bunch of features I still need to read up on, that moment is upon us. You can get a Kindle for the same price as a graphing calculator. Is $139 the ultimate magic number? I don’t know. But I do know that it is a number that has worked for a generation of math students; why won’t it work for this generation of readers? In fact, there is more reason to adopt an ereader like the Kindle because it serves a wider swath of the student population. The graphing calculator supports the curriculum at one, fairly specialized level in K-12 education; the Kindle supports multiple subjects from the least to the most advanced levels. I just don’t think folks have connected the dots on this one yet. And $139 is within shouting distance of the $99 price point that market pundits and the general public agree will ignite mass adoption of the devices.
Bezos and company seem intent on making the Kindle the device at the center of that mass adoption and, with the head-spinning rapidity with which they are lowering the price and adding options, I think that they might just be on to something.