NOTE: A later version of the following article appears as sec- tion 8 in the paper "Eight Features of an Ideal Introductory Statistics Course", which is available at http://www.matstat.com/teach/

Subject: Computers vs. Calculators in Intro Stat To: EdStat-L Statistics Education Discussion List, ApStat-L Statistics Education Discussion List, sci.stat.edu Usenet Newsgroup From: Donald B. Macnaughton <donmac@matstat.com> Date: Wednesday June 10, 1998 ----------------------------------------------------------------- (The following material is from a paper I shall present on August 12 at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Dallas.) Nowadays there is broad agreement that computers or hand calcula- tors are important aids in the introductory statistics course. These aids relieve teachers and students of the drudgery of sta- tistical computations, enabling them to focus instead on statis- tical concepts. However, there is presently controversy among teachers (especially high school teachers) about which is more appropriate -- computers or hand calculators. Note that computers and calculators are essentially the same de- vices (i.e., computing devices) although they differ widely on various properties. Thus it is helpful to make a list of the properties on which computers and calculators differ as an aid to understanding the differences and as an aid to choosing the best device for the introductory course. Let us compare properties of the popular TI-83 calculator from Texas Instruments with proper- ties of a typical generic low-end non-portable computer system containing, say, either ActivStats or the student version of Minitab. The following table lists some relevant properties and their values: Values of Properties of Two Computing Devices ---------------------------------------------------------------- Property TI-83 Computer ---------------------------------------------------------------- extensive online help available? no yes screen size (pixels), which speaks to 96 x 64 800 x 600 the ability of the device to display large bodies of text and detailed statistical graphics number of statistical procedures lower higher available ability to run integrated software (none) high that actually *teaches* statistics software upgradeability (none) high keyboard familiarity and ease of use low high for new users usefulness in real-world statistical low high problems printing available? usually no usually yes ability to share information with (none) high other software on the device ability for students to use the (none) high device for other functions (e.g., writing essays or Internet access) color screen? no yes space available for program and data 27 KB 300 MB+ storage* programmability severely effectively limited unlimited portability high low permitted in examinations? sometimes usually yes no cost low high ---------------------------------------------------------------- * KB = 1024 bytes, MB = million bytes. The 300 MB is an estimate and varies from computer to computer. Note that computers lead the TI-83 by a substantial margin on all but the last three properties, which I now discuss in turn. First, (assuming that students have computer access at the loca- tion where they study, a cost issue -- see below) the low port- ability of fixed computers is not a serious disadvantage because it is not necessary that students be able to perform statistical computations "on the street". Second, the fact that calculators are permitted in some examina- tions is not a significant argument in favor of using calculators during the term because the use of calculators in examinations has little to do with the practical use of computers or calcula- tors to solve real statistical problems -- it has only to do with the decisions of examination designers. (That is, the choice of examination designers should not drive the choice of computing device used during the term -- rather, the preferred device should drive the choice of examination designers.) Thus it appears that computers are superior to the TI-83 on all important properties except the property of cost. Thus it ap- pears that computers are preferred to the TI-83 in all situations in which the cost problem can be solved. Finally, it is important to note that in situations in which the cost problem *cannot* be solved, hand calculators such as the TI- 83 are a practical alternative since, although they are inferior to computers, calculators are far better than nothing. I look forward to the day when all students can have the substantial benefits of full access to computers. ------------------------------------------------------- Donald B. Macnaughton MatStat Research Consulting Inc donmac@matstat.com Toronto, Canada -------------------------------------------------------

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