Tablet PCs: The Killer App for Higher Education

As wireless networking becomes available at universities, college administrators must decide what hardware appliances to use. Should they recommend that students use notebook computers, handheld appliances, or the forthcoming Tablet PC? What are the advantages of each device?

At Indiana State University in Terre Haute, the Cunningham Library's Project Mercury team has been implementing wireless technologies for about a year, experimenting with various ways to deliver wireless services for student and faculty patrons of the library. We stock notebook computers (IBM Thinkpads) and PC Cards for wireless computing within the library environment. The Project Mercury team also stocks wireless adapters for Handspring Visors and wireless expansion packs for Compaq iPAQ devices.
Graduate students and faculty, who can check out the PC Cards for an entire semester, are delighted with the project, because it allows them to work from their carrels or another location while still accessing the Web and e-mail. Undergraduate students can check out the PC Cards for three weeks and are beginning to take advantage of the benefit.

When Tablet PCs become available this summer, the Project Mercury team will add several of them to the library offerings, giving the team a chance to compare these hardware alternatives and make some recommendations to the university community.

Although the laptop computer boasts the obvious advantages of screen size and hard drive capacity, it d'es have some deficiencies. Laptops take up most of a student's desktop. Once the laptop is open, the screen partially blocks the student’s view of the lecturer. Limited typing ability also hinders laptop use. PocketPC and Palm devices are in many ways more suited to classroom use, but are somewhat limited by their small screen size and the frustrating amount of scrolling required to access Web pages.

The Tablet PC may just land in that elusive middle ground between the bigger laptop and small pocket-sized device. Although the initial device designs vary, the concept is to have something the size of a writing tablet, about 8 inches by 10 inches and less than 1 inch thick. It has the functions of a laptop, but has digital ink technology so that users can write on it with a stylus similar to pen and paper. The operating system is a unique version of Windows XP with the digital ink and related software.

We already have a model for ubiquitous computing using laptop computers on many campuses. To that we can add what we know about the Tablet PC. Students would write their notes in digital ink instead of paper. Using the Tablet PC, faculty might develop dynamic, interactive classrooms along the lines of WebCT’s forthcoming Slate project, a push and pull technology for wireless classroom communication.

Outside the classroom, students find their notes from every class, in various multimedia formats, available for instant review. In the library, using embedded wireless networking, they have complete access to all library catalogs and databases. The built-in 802.11 wireless connectivity gives them instant access to the Internet. They can use it in campus common areas and dorms, and it takes up less room than piles of paper notebooks. They can even use the device's ports as a hub for digital cameras and other accessories.
The Tablet PC could save the university money by eliminating the need to constantly expand computer lab space and monitor security and software updates on hundreds of desktop computers.

However, several issues may deter universities from adopting Tablet PCs. First, cost. The makers of these devices—Compaq, Acer, Fujitsu, and Toshiba, among others—project initial prices of about $1,500. Other factors to be considered include battery charging and ergonomics of classroom use. Bootup time may be a factor as well. The decision to have these devices run XP over PocketPC means that they require a traditional bootup and shutdown versus the instant-on ability of PocketPC and Palm OS. Finally, the university will have to build the necessary network, hardware, and software support.

As laptops get smaller and pocket devices become more powerful, Tablet PCs will have to secure a unique niche in order to succeed. It remains to be seen if the Tablet PC will actually deliver the goods or not, but the concept is clearly in tune with the needs of the university.

For more information, contact Paul Asay at libasay@isugw.indstate.edu.

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