Tablet PCs Stake Out Higher Ed
- By Paul McCloskey
The new Tablet PCs from Microsoft and a host of PC manufacturers were announced
last month with the usual coast-to-coast fanfare as the next big thing in personal
computing. And while that is always the hope and the hype in such smash announcements,
for the higher education community, it just might be true.
That's because seldom has there been a new computer introduced that seems more
in tune with both the way business is conducted and the nature of the workers
in a single professional community. In this case, the actors are teachers and
students, true information nomads moving from one learning oasis to another,
receiving multiple daily presentations, engaging in bursts of collaboration,
then moving on and synthesizing their experience in periodic reports.
For each of those traits or activities, the new Tablet PC appears to offer
support and real innovation where its predecessor, the hardworking laptop, sometimes
falls short. The most striking of these differences, especially for the higher-education
community, is the Tablet's ability to give users the power to incorporate free
handwriting into the personal computing experience.
"The Tablet combines all the power of the desktop with notepaper and the ability
to take notes," says John Bailey, director of the Office of Educational Technology
at the U.S. Department of Education. "The result will be that teaching and learning
will become more accessible. Students won't have to stay hidden behind their
The secret formula of the Tablet PC is its operating system, Microsoft Windows
XP Tablet PC Edition, which allows the computer to act as a highly mobile traditional
computer as well as a writing tablet. "There have been tablet-like devices that
have been introduced before, but for the most part those have been sacrifices
to broader computing," says Tim Tiscornia, education product manager for Microsoft
Corp. "The difference here is that [the] Tablet PC is really the evolution of
the notebook. Everything you can do on your notebook PC today you can do on
the Tablet PC, but more."
In this case, "more" is contained in three key applications at the core of
the new Tablet computers: Windows Journal, a handwritten note-taking utility;
digital pen, which lets users write directly on the screen; and handwriting
recognition and conversion technology. Together, these applications have the
power to transform the way teaching and learning are conducted in U.S. higher
education, experts say, much like the introduction of desktops, laptops, and
small calculators, in turn, shaped higher-education processes over the last
Have Tablet, Will Collaborate
When MIT hosted this year's International Design Contest (IDC)—a robot
design competition—Tablet PCs played a key role in the early design process.
Participating student teams received Acer TravelMate 100 Tablet PCs.
They worked in teams, moving around different environments, and creating
robot designs. "The Tablet PC acts like a pen and paper, so students could
quickly sketch out their ideas," says John Williams, director of the Intelligent
Engineering Systems Lab at MIT. "Even sketching complex shapes or writing
math equations is easy—something that is an otherwise time-consuming process
using a laptop and presentation software or a CAD system."
"Equipped with the flexible, mobile Tablet PC design notebooks, the students
and faculty [in the IDC] looked like we might imagine engineers of the
future," says Thomas Magnanti, dean of the MIT School of Engineering.
"From the experience, we can envision all kinds of possibilities for using
the Tablets at MIT, education more broadly, and in the engineering workplace."
Williams predicts the Tablet PC will soon replace the laptop. Many students
are already required to have laptop computers, and as professors offer
more project-based classes to students, Tablet PCs will enhance team learning,
he explains. "The Tablet PC is a 'killer' computer," he says.
Paper and Ink
Like many innovations, the Tablet PC is likely to be first carried onto campuses
in the knapsacks of students, who will be attracted by its sleeker form factor
and easy portability and mobility. But it won't be long before the Tablet PC
will start to fundamentally change the way students conduct their business,
claim Tablet developers, especially in the classroom. The key tool here is Microsoft
Windows Journal, the note-taking utility that lets users take, keep, search
and manipulate digital notes in their own handwriting. With Journal, they can
also convert handwriting to typed text, input typed text into notes, and search
for keywords across all their text and handwritten notes.
"Taking notes on a laptop is fairly difficult, especially in math, statistics,
or economics classes, where students needs to draw," says Ted Clark, vice president
of the new notebook business for HP, one of six original equipment manufacturers
who announced new Tablet PCs last month. "Journal supplies the student with
an unlimited sheet of paper to capture what's on the board as it's delivered."
While the ability to write in freehand on the computer screen is a profound
innovation, it would not be half as useful without the Tablet's use of handwriting
recognition technology to perform keyword searches of handwritten text. "Students
take a lot of notes, and a potential downside is to then have to locate where
they recorded something," explains Bailey, who says that the search function
worked effectively in the beta test.
Along with text search, the Tablet PC's ability to let users mix freehand notes
and text digitizes a practice that is as old as scholarship itself. Says Clark:
"If I walk into a classroom I can wirelessly download a presentation, markup
that presentation right on the screen, adding my notes right on top of PowerPoint
slides, for instance." The application will not only help students retain a
greater amount of information from the classroom experience, but help maintain
the distribution chain of learning materials between teachers and students in
a simple, effective, way.
Handwriting over text, together with the slim form factor of Tablet PC, might
help revitalize another moribund e-learning tool, the electronic book reader,
experts say. "We've been hearing about eBooks for years, but the form factor
has always been somewhat difficult," says Education's Bailey. "You've been limited
to notebooks and desktops while information is displayed in a still-awkward
fashion. Here you have a Tablet you can hold, move around, and use like a normal
book. It might help revolutionize the eBook."
Because Tablets are also wireless devices, with most versions incorporating
802.11b standards, the introduction of Tablets could lead to a rise in the already
popular practice of campus and classroom messaging. "Not only can I be capturing
things from class, I can also be communicating with others in class," says HP's
Clark, who notes, however, that it "sometimes may be a good thing and sometimes
may not be such a good thing."
Clark allows that such pervasive messaging, which exists in classrooms today
via text messaging, "is probably going to require that some hard boundaries
be drawn between people and their technology as they walk into a classroom,"
especially during classroom exams. Even so, "the fact is I can collaborate with
others in a way that's completely unobtrusive. I can write something down on
a piece of paper, capture it and then send it around electronically. That's
a real change in the way we think about taking a note."
Of course, such nifty applications might be a nullity without another clear
improvement the Tablet PC makes over the notebook computer: it advances computer
mobility an order of magnitude. While the laptop is portable, you cannot hold
a laptop in one hand while talking to a professor in the hallway and scribbling
a note to yourself.
Indeed, some of the computer makers who introduced Tablets last month believe
the high mobility of the Tablet might be as desirable as the ink applications,
especially in the more youthful, higher-ed market. "If anything, we've erred
on the side of mobility," says Tom Offut, general manager for the advanced technology
group at ViewSonic Corp., another of the six 'EMs that introduced a Tablet in
a slate form factor that weighs about three pounds. "We really tried to give
a real ergonomic feel to it: how d'es it feel in your hands, how useful is it
to you on the go?"
Faculty Adoption Rates
The purveyors of Tablet PCs believe students will be early adopters, but they
are also confident that teachers will convert quickly. That's because Tablet
applications have the potential to truly change the classroom teaching experience.
One of these scenarios is the interactive whiteboard. "The technology is there
today that would allow the professor and the students to have access to a live
whiteboard," explains HP's Clark. "Students could in fact take control of the
pen and start marking and asking questions right on that whiteboard."
The Tablet might also be useful in some of the practical arts of teaching.
Tablet makers envision that in using a Tablet PC, a professor would accept assignments
digitally, and then use the Tablet in "slate" mode to sit comfortably and grade
and comment on the papers in ink. Instead of carrying the stack of assignments
in their briefcase, a professor could e-mail hand-annotated assignments back
to the students.
Tablet markers are sanguine about the prospects for the computer, especially
given the habits users have already adopted in their portable computing. "The
thing about higher education is that it has always been an environment where
pen and paper have always been a comfortable medium of input," explains Microsoft's
Tiscornia. "The Tablet PC, by taking pen and paper and putting it into digital
format, really removes the barriers for anybody who might be thinking about
whether or not they want to be using the device."
Powered by these qualities, Microsoft expects that by the end of 2003, one-third
to one-half of mobile PC sales will be Tablet PC. He adds, "And the reason for
that is that you don't give up anything; you only gain."
Introducing Tablet PC Contenders
The Tablet PC provides what users expect in a mobile PC, in a form that
allows them to be productive in more situations. Here is a quick rundown
of some of the key features from six Tablet makers.
Acer TravelMate 100
The Acer TravelMate 100 Tablet PC is an ultra-portable convertible notebook
that transforms from clam shell to Tablet mode by twisting the LCD panel.
It's powered by the Ultra Low Voltage Mobile Intel Pentium III Processor-M,
which is optimized for high-performance computing with low power consumption.
The TravelMate weighs 3.08 pounds and has integrated 802.11b wireless
connectivity, an extended battery life of 3.5 hours, and a Disc Anti-Shock
Protection system, to reduce the impact of knocks and bumps.
Fujitsu Stylistic ST4000
The Fujitsu Stylistic ST Series Tablet PC weighs 3.2 pounds, measures
0.88-inches thick, and runs on an Ultra Low Voltage Mobile Intel Pentium
III Processor 800MHz-M. The Tablet has a shock-mounted hard drive, and
up to 768MB of system memory. An optional Tablet Dock features ports needed
to connect desktop peripherals, as well as a modular bay to accommodate
a DVD/CD-RW combination drive. The Tablet is powered by a high-capacity
Lithium six-cell battery and is equipped with standard 802.11b wireless
LAN capabilities. Pricing starts at $2,199.
HP Compaq Evo Tablet PC
HP's Compaq Evo Tablet PC measures .8-inches thick, weighs three pounds,
and includes: a Transmeta Crus'e TM5800 1.0GHz processor; a 10.4-inch
TFT display featuring a wide viewing angle, hardened cover glass, built-in
802.11b wireless LAN capabilities, up to 60GB hard drives, and USB 2.0
connectivity. The Compaq Tablet also incorporates programmable launch
buttons and a jog dial to enable users one-touch access to launch preset
programs and navigate through applications. The Q menu allows for access
to common functions such as display brightness, internal wireless control
and video-to-projector controls. The Tablet PC TC1000 is priced starting
Motion Computing M1200 Tablet PC
Motion Computing's M1200 Tablet PC weighs less than three pounds in a
base configuration. The clipboard-sized design, with a slate form factor,
is engineered for mobility. It features a 12.1-inch XGA display that is
35 percent larger than a conventional 10.4-inch screen. The M1200 can
be adapted for conventional desktop use with a selection of peripherals
such as a keyboard, mouse, and docking station. The wireless 802.11b standard
is built-in to the unit, which has a memory capacity to 1GB and hard disk
drives from 20GB, 40GB or 60GB. The system, powered by Intel's ultra-low
voltage 866MHz Mobile Intel Pentium III Processor-M, is priced from $2,199.
Toshiba Portégé 3500 Series Tablet PC
Toshiba's Portégé 3500 Series Tablet PC convertible weighs
4.1 pounds and features an 802.11b Wireless LAN Module, integrated Wi-Fi
antenna, Bluetooth wireless connectivity options, and 10/100 networking.
The Tablet includes an Intel Pentium III-M processor, 1.33GHz, Secure
Digital (SD) Media slot as well as integrated CompactFlash to maximize
workforce productivity. The Portégé includes the Zinio Reader, which brings
a digital magazine on screen, and Sensiva's Symbol Commander, which offers
end users a natural way to use their device by drawing symbols with the
pen. Priced at $2,299.
ViewSonic Tablet PC V1100
ViewSonic Corp.'s Tablet PC V1100 uses the Mobile Intel Pentium III Processor-M
at 866MHz, along with 256MB RAM, 20GB hard drive and a 56Kbps modem. It
features a full-color 10.4-inch display and up to a three-hour battery
life, weighs just three pounds, and is less than 1-inch thick. The system
comes with embedded 802.11b wireless connectivity and an optional dock
adds one-touch access to common USB peripherals and local area networks.
A suite of accessories includes an extended battery, battery charger,
USB keyboard and handgrips for added protection. The ViewSonic Tablet
PC V1100 is currently available at an estimated street price (ESP) of
Xplore iX104-TPC, Rugged Tablet PC
The Xplore iX104-TPC is a ruggedized Tablet tested around military standards
(MIL-STD 810F) for harsh outdoor or mobile environment extremes. The 4.5-pound
system has a sealed magnesium housing, a removable bumper protection system,
a 10.4-inch XGA Hi-Brite color LCD, Wacom Pen-enabled Sensor technology,
lithium polymer phosphate batteries, dedicated, programmable function
keys, sealed on-board ports, and options including GPS receiver and video
camera. The Tablet integrates a Mobile Intel Pentium III Processor-M at
866MHz, a supporting Intel 830 chipset, a 133MHz system bus, and 512KB
L2 cache. The iX104-TPC has embedded Bluetooth capabilities in addition
to multiple wireless radio bays to accommodate Wireless LAN (802.11b)
and Wireless WAN (CDPD, CDMA, GSM/GPRS) radios simultaneously integrated
into the system.