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A Prescription for Tablets

While the tablet market is still in flux, early pilot programs reveal a variety of benefits on campus.

Today's tablets are small and light, they're relatively inexpensive, they have a long battery life, and, with the exponential growth in applications, they can do almost anything. The technology may be in its infancy, but experts say there's a tablet explosion on the horizon.

Michael Gartenberg, technology adviser for Gartner, points out that tablet technology has been in the works for years, but it "was really Apple that created the mass market for tablets. The iPad has set the standard for other devices." Many other manufacturers--Samsung, Motorola, Toshiba, Lenovo, and Acer to name a few--have since joined the fray, building their tablets mostly on the Android platform.

Is There an App for That?
The availability of applications is the main distinguishing factor in the burgeoning market. "Most tablets have a pretty good form factor, a pretty good battery life, so it really comes down to whether the applications are there," explains Gartenberg. "Is the ecosystem there, with support for things like accessories and content?"

Apple has led the field in terms of app development, now boasting 140,000 apps for the iPad. It's essentially Apple and all the rest, Gartenberg says. And in a bid to catch up, the other tablet manufacturers have invested big in Android app development.

On the app front, for example, Motorola is focused on making sure it "has the right partner ecosystem to attack the market," notes Sheldon Hebert, the company's senior director of enterprise business. "We're making sure we're working with the Blackboards of the world; making sure we're working with the textbook companies, so that you can leverage textbooks online instead of having to buy a book with your tablet as well. And we're making sure we're leading the foray when it comes to cloud-based applications." As an example, Hebert cites the capability for students to use Google Docs to publish a document and share it with their peers for editing.

For its part, Samsung runs pilots with university nursing and journalism programs to discover new uses for tablets. "Every time you do a pilot, you learn something," says David Lowe, vice president of enterprise sales at Samsung. "It may be about a particular application, and then we can roll that application into our portfolio of solutions. We may learn about a different use case that we haven't seen before. We may learn about a business model that we hadn't considered before--how these tablets are delivered, paid for, and supported."

Forming a Tablet Plan
With so many new options--and the tablet field changing so rapidly--many higher ed institutions are struggling to come up with a comprehensive plan for these devices.

"Every university we've talked to has been really interested in discussing tablets," says Lowe. "But the discussion has changed recently, probably in the last year: Before, they said tablets were going to disrupt classrooms and be a big challenge. Now they say, 'I can't stem the tide of these devices, so how do I embrace them? How do I make them valuable to the learning experience?'"

These are the very questions the University of Southern Mississippi hopes to answer through a new pilot that kicked off in the fall semester, when USM handed out about 700 Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablets to select students, staff, and faculty.

Homer Coffman, USM's chief information officer, says the goal is to measure student usage and figure out what it's going to be like two years from now. The pilot will also evaluate the impact on IT, as well as the social and pedagogical effects of tablets.

"We noticed a proliferation of these devices throughout campus, and we noticed a gross disconnect between 'bring your own device' [BYOD] and the university and ERP systems," Coffman says. His team settled on Samsung Android tablets, in part for their ability to integrate with the school's Blackboard LMS. Coffman sees the integration of tablets as inevitable and pervasive, especially once the trend toward e-texts gains momentum.

"We're also seeing the students use the devices for more social reasons," he adds, citing a statistic that one in five students is on Match.com. "It's part of the total student experience to be both resident on campus and also virtual in cyberspace."

For now, the pilot tablets are paid for by technology fees. Coffman and his team are considering a number of funding options for expanding the program to the entire student body. Some options include advertising, with sponsors possibly wrapping the tablet with a branded design or delivering ads (carefully monitored for appropriate content) to students via the tablet interface. In addition, since the tablets make it easy to access digital course materials, Coffman's team is monitoring how tablet use reduces printing costs.

It's too soon to know the results of the tablet pilot, but Coffman says students and faculty are already beginning to use the tablets in innovative ways, particularly in cross-campus collaboration. Nonetheless, many users tend to return to their comfort zone, trying to make the tablet work like a laptop. In order to support more creative tablet use, USM is working with Blackboard Consulting to help faculty develop tablet-based solutions for the classroom. After all, says Coffman, success lies in rich implementation.

Affordable Textbooks
Other schools are taking a more measured approach to implementing tablets on campus. Daytona State College (FL) has been looking at tablets as just one option to solve a very particular problem: the high cost of textbooks.

Roberto Lombardo, chief information officer at Daytona, says his department wanted to find a technical solution for the many Daytona students who simply can't afford high-priced textbooks. When Lombardo and his team started looking at the numbers, they found e-texts at a savings of 40 to 80 percent off the price of the printed text.

Since many Daytona students already have their own devices for reading e-texts, including laptops, smartphones, and tablets, the school doesn't want to force a schoolwide change to just one device. Instead, it will rely on a BYOD scenario. For students and faculty who don't have their own device, Daytona expects to provide some tablet recommendations, though the school is still in the pilot stage for determining which models to select.

Lombardo acknowledges that the students who can't afford textbooks are likely the same students who will not have an existing device for reading e-texts. He says the school will encourage these students to purchase a device, since "the savings on two or three books essentially covers the cost of the device."

For now, at least, Daytona is shying away from implementing a tablet program like that at USM. "If you try to tackle the whole project--giving students the course, giving them the book, giving them videos--it becomes almost mind-boggling. There's just too much," Lombardo says. "We're trying to simplify. We're just going to replace the book. Start with that." He adds that he expects the uses of tablets on campus to evolve over time as the devices become more common.

For now, choosing a tablet is largely about determining your institution's needs. Do you want to invest in one standard device for the entire campus, or rely on a BYOD scenario? Do you have specific applications that your students must access, and which platforms provide those? Will you need to provide technical support for your school's tablet program, or will students have to fix and replace their own devices? These questions, rather than cost or form, are likely to be the deciding factors when you choose a device. And sooner or later you're going to have to ask them, because the tablets are coming.

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