Putting Tablet PCs to the Test

Like many educators, my colleagues (five faculty members and two IT techs) and I in the department of Media Communications and Technology at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania were interested to find out the status of tablet PCs in education. Microsoft listed 10 manufacturers of tablet PCs following two forms: the slate and the convertible. The tablet PC operating system was the same full Windows XP system found on standard computers with the addition of tablet features such as handwriting recognition and notation. This was common to all tablets. The difference between tablets was their hardware, configurations and accessories. We would consider the hardware and software, but our first interest was to see what applications of tablet computing were taking place in today’s classrooms.

My colleagues and I easily found 23 schools in both K-12 and higher education that had incorporated tablets into their curricula. Through their Web sites, presentations and published papers, we found that tablets were used successfully in similar ways. We also found some common ways that the schools designed their programs and facilities to accommodate tablets.

Preparing for Tablet PCs

Making a commitment to tablet PCs was often part of a larger promise to a high-tech educational environment. Untethered tablets were most useful, so wireless networking and wireless projectors were key components in many tablet classroom designs. Students were often provided with or asked to purchase two batteries (with a normal life of about four hours each), while some schools created charging stations to counter the power limitations.

As might be expected, we found some schools where every student had a tablet and other programs where only a few classes had implemented the computers. In both cases, students were usually given network access to storage space for backing up their work. However, some programs required students to provide their own external storage devices such as USB flash drives.

Most classes using tablets developed special Web resources for their users such as courseware, portals or course Web sites where classroom materials, multimedia examples and teacher notes could be stored for download. Training and support were provided for teachers and students in large rollouts of tablets. There also was no doubt that cost was a critical factor in implementing a tablet PC program.

Tablets in the Classroom

Students and teachers sometimes used tablets in the same ways that they had used desktops or notebooks. For instance, there were certain classes where the tablet was configured with a keyboard and mouse, and students simply typed. This flexibility to adapt text input was probably one reason tablets worked well in schools or with programs that made a big commitment to tablet computing.

Students and teachers with tablet PCs in well-planned environments, and with the appropriate curriculum and resources, also could do things that they could not with desktops or laptops. The most common application of tablets was the teacher using it as a slate with a wireless projector to deliver a presentation. This use mimicked blackboards or overhead transparencies when teachers drew on their slates or blank slides, annotated PowerPoint slides or other documents, or drew models or math equations. Students watched and participated with software that shared access to the projected image. In classrooms where only the teacher had a tablet, it was often passed to students to participate in an activity. The images created in class were then saved and stored on the network in order for students to review later on or when they were absent.

In addition, group work was most successful in classrooms where every student had a tablet. Students collaborated on writing or graphics work, passed documents electronically for revision, and posted or presented them for the class to discuss. Students also collaborated with other students who were not in the same room. With Internet access, this meant collaborating with students anywhere in the world. However, group work was less successful in classrooms where students shared tablets because most screens were small and had limited viewing angles.

Students took notes, performed research, read and shared their work with the class. Software allowed teachers to poll students to ensure they were on task and understood the material. Many schools that required tablets or notebooks for all students used them to take quizzes and tests, or to provide immediate teacher feedback. The computers were an integral part of the curriculum and assessment.

Textbook makers took part in pilot projects and created digital text as well as rich interactive multimedia for learning using the tablets. All of the notes students made by handwriting or typing were searchable. Reading on tablets also supported students with vision and hearing impairments through the easy modification of text size, color, contrast, and the audio recording and playing capabilities.

Simplifying Data Collection

The collection of classroom data was easier with tablet PCs than with desktops or laptops because of their form factor and pen input. Using slate mode with a pen, it was simple for students to take tests, fill out surveys, and then send those forms to their teachers over a network. Since the forms and data were electronic, data could be easily extracted, compiled and distributed. For grading, teachers easily annotated both text-based and graphical digital documents, then returned them to their students electronically. This kind of feedback was done right in the classroom, or students would place their work in an electronic “drop box” where teachers retrieved it, marked it up and returned it electronically.

Another type of data that was input easily using a tablet in slate mode was attendance. This data was uploaded to servers instantly and compiled into a larger database more quickly than delivering attendance sheets to an office. Some teachers even made seating charts that included student pictures to get to know names more quickly.

Exploring New Frontiers

Schools that acquired tablets in lieu of desktops or notebooks wanted them to be fully functional computers. They often favored built-in drives, larger screens and docking stations. Schools that wanted to input text primarily from the keyboard looked for easy keyboard access, a good pitch for typing, and balance when used in that mode. Students who were required to purchase tablets as their primary computing machine wanted to be able to view videos and multimedia, play music, and use IM functions - not necessarily classroom requirements, but critical for student acceptance.

After looking at current educational implementations of tablets and the hardware itself, it became clear that selecting the right tablet for our department’s program was more than a matter of hardware comfort or personal preference. We had to think and plan how we wanted to use the tablets in our teaching. We also had to make sure the form, ports, hardware configuration and environment would support our pedagogy.

Some programs used tablets and networked resources to let students move at their own pace through the curriculum, while others concentrated their technologies on collaboration. First, we had to determine what we wanted students to be able to do and experience in their learning, then we could select the right technologies to support that. Ultimately, the tablet PCs offered new possibilities that educators have only begun to explore.

Tablet PC Analysis

A look at how three different table PCs faired in the classroom.

My colleagues and I looked at three tablet PCs: the HP Compaq TC1100, the ViewSonic V1250S and Motion Computing’s M1400. As we considered each device, it became clear that preference was a matter of personal habit and needs, completely aside from the functionality of the tablet PC operating system that was pretty much consistent over all brands. Each device we examined was easy to set up, use in a wireless environment and carry in the classroom. Each one was also a little different in its hardware configuration possibilities. We installed the programs that our classes used most, giving special attention to Photoshop, Illustrator and LightWave. In addition, being able to draw and manipulate graphics comfortably on the screen with a pen proved to be more efficient and even more natural than sitting at a desk and using additional input devices such as the USB drawing tablet that is now required.

The HP tablet PC is a convertible tablet with a flat keyboard that spins out from behind or comes off altogether. Its screen is always facing up when the keyboard is attached, and its pen has a nice feel and clicked into the tablet body reassuringly. The screen is 10.4” and reoriented nicely with an on-body button (no hunting for software menus). And weighing 3.1 lbs., it feels very comfortable to carry around in the classroom. We also didn’t have any trouble attaching it to a projector or using it to get on to the Internet. We found HP was the tool of choice for a number of schools, both in K-12 and higher education, with several early and current tablet PC pilot programs.

The ViewSonic model is a light (at 3.9 lbs.) and thin convertible tablet PC with a screen that is crisp and bright. It felt most like a notebook when using the keyboard. While early ViewSonic tablets, which we had previously looked at, were slates with a bag full of plug-in accessories, the V1250S was the company’s first convertible. It is a very compact and solid tablet PC that has no problem attaching to a projector or connecting to the Internet. In addition, the 12.1” screen flips over and folds down so that it is protected when you carry it. Our techs selected this tablet as their favorite.

The Motion Computing tablet PC is a slate with a couple of different ways to attach a keyboard, including a snap-on screen cover that doubles as a keyboard. Placing the tablet in a dock with a keyboard and external CD/DVD drive makes it feel like a desktop computer. Weighing about 3 lbs., the slate screen also easily slides out of the dock to take it on the go. The screen is large (12.1”) and has an automatic sensor to detect ambient change, which maintains brightness in varying lighting conditions and reserves battery power. The Brookfield Zoo, near Chicago, chose Motion Computing tablets for their educational projects.

Online Resources

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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