July 04, 2006

Compulsory Tablet PCs

Writing about web page http://news.com.com/Tablet+PCs+now+required+for+VA+Tech+engineers/2100-1041_3-6090046.html

Tablet PCAccording to this news item Virginia Tech Polytechnic in the US intends to make the use of Tablet PCs in class compulsory from Autumn 2006.

As part of a new partnership with Fujitsu Computer Systems and Microsoft, Virginia Tech will be using new Fujitsu LifeBook T4000 computers to change the way its engineering classes are taught, particularly at the introductory level, the school said.

The bitter pill of compulsory use will be sweetened somewhat by the fact that the institution will be giving these devices to its students, not requiring them to buy them for themselves, though it's not absolutely clear whether it's a permanent or a temporary arrangement where the students will have to return the device at the end of the year or the course.

Either way, though, the interesting question is, what will the tablets be used for? What's so compelling about these devices that it's worth going to what presumably will be quite a lot of trouble and expense to get one into the hands of every student? The article hints at the sorts of uses being envisaged:–

Students will be able to take notes and construct designs on their LifeBooks, which are intended to make it easier for students to collaborate with each other and share their work with instructors electronically.
[The institution] will be providing training this summer so that faculty can adjust to using the machines in classroom presentations, the school said. The software that will be used includes Microsoft Office OneNote, SketchUp and Classroom Presenter.

I can see that engineering students could in principle benefit from software designed to let them draw and sketch as part of their note–taking process. And collaboration and sharing are the motherhood and apple pie of education these days, so it's hard to argue with anything which supports that. But I remain slightly unclear about how exactly this will work when next autumn rolls around. Will students be turned away from class if they turn up without their tablet? Will the institution fit power outlets to every seat in all the lecture theatres and other teaching spaces where these devices are to be used? (Tablets tend to have a battery life of about three or four hours, so you couldn't go a whole day without recharging it somewhere.)

And if one were being ruthlessly cost–benefit about it, is sharing sketches and notes wirelessly from one tablet PC to another really thousands of pounds better than sharing (higher resolution!) notes and sketches made on paper, using a photocopier and some shoe leather? I watch with interest to see if Virginia Tech report back on the value of the program after the first semester is done.


- 10 comments by 4 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Robert O'Toole

    This sounds like a big risk. It took me over two weeks of constant use to get to the point at which I could use a Tablet PC for notetaking. Even then I never became really comfortable with it. The interface just is not good enough. What will happen to those students who fail to master it?

    04 Jul 2006, 16:08

  2. Steve Rumsby

    I've found my ability to take useful notes during meetings and demos has increased since I started using MindManager, which has a fairly well thought out tablet mode. While taking notes in Windows Journal was easy enough, I just never found a way of organising them afterwards that I found useful enough. I guess OneNote is the intended application for that sort of thing. I tried that a while ago on a non–tablet PC and didn't really get on with it too well. I've not seriously tried it on a tablet – I guess I should give it another go?

    But MindManager is a serious step forward for me from an organisational point of view also, so I think I'll stick with that for the moment…

    But that's all about my own personal stuff. I can't see sharing things between a classroom full of students working that well. Not well enough to justify the costs, anyway. Maybe I'm lacking a bit of imagination? I can certainly see some potential, but I can't see the infrastructure being there to support it.

    04 Jul 2006, 17:32

  3. Robert O'Toole

    Sometime ago we investigated using a wifi projector and a Tablet PC. The idea being that the tablet could be passed around the room, along with control of the big screen. Unfortunately, Win XP did not (and i think still doesn't) allow simultaneous wifi connections to the network and to the projector. The projector can be set up as a hub, with the Tablet getting its network access via the projector, but the ITS network people were not happy with that idea.

    Perhaps they will be doing something like that?

    05 Jul 2006, 11:16

  4. Steve Rumsby

    I've occasionally wondered about WiFi projectors. I can imagine such devices being quite useful in small meetings where access is easy to control, and where everybody has a laptop/tablet. I've certainly been in meetings here where it would have been convenient to interrupt the speaker briefly just to throw up a quickly sketched diagram or similar for everybody to see, but the hassle of switching seats and cables just isn't worth it. I assume WiFi projectors make that sort of thing easy?

    In the context of a large lecture, though, I can imagine controlling access could be quite tricky if lots of people want to display something.

    05 Jul 2006, 12:18

  5. John Dale

    it would have been convenient to interrupt the speaker briefly just to throw up a quickly sketched diagram or similar for everybody to see, but the hassle of switching seats and cables just isn't worth it. I assume WiFi projectors make that sort of thing easy?

    That's certainly what they're supposed to do. I'm not sure how seamless it actually is right now, though. How do you control which laptop is driving the projector? From the projector or its remote, presumably, but I've never seen it done in a way I'd regard as effortless.

    05 Jul 2006, 12:46

  6. Steve Rumsby

    If the projector is a permanent installation in a meeting room as ours usually are, I'd hope there would be a way of doing it without needing physical access to either projector or its remote, since typically we don't have either. A web server on the projector to control which PC has the display? I've never used one so I have no idea!

    05 Jul 2006, 13:20

  7. naz

    We all know what the students will actually be drawing, don't we?

    05 Jul 2006, 13:22

  8. Julian

    Rather than using wireless projector as hub/access point, an alternative may be to install the Net Op school software. This allows one person the ability to monitor others work and switch it onto the projector at any time.

    Have used this with RM Tutor, which is based on Net Op, and worked well

    05 Jul 2006, 16:48

  9. Robert O'Toole

    Steve B has tried using something like NetOp exactly in this way. However, we haven't found a solution that is simple and reliable.

    06 Jul 2006, 08:50

  10. I love my Tablet pc now after 18 months of use.
    I don't use paper and so have all my notes form meetings etc in one place (my hard drive)
    Best of all for me is the ability to use it during lecturers to annotate slides, collate input from the group, show how calculations, methods and other tools can be used with examples and use it as an electronic whiteboard. By saving these presentations it's then easy to upload online for all students.
    Second to this, I can import word and pdf papers submitted online and handwrite on them – which is a little more useful than using comments or track changes in word docs. as it allows multiple colours, and I can real give copious feedback really easily. Plus again I have no paper and can share assignments with colleagues for second marking & moderation.
    I don't like the Tablet pc input panel – it's far too laborious to use a pen typing input where handwriting doesn't work so quickly or effectively (like with excel).

    07 Jul 2006, 06:46


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