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Learning with Tablet PCs: True Learning Tools or Trendy Devices

Tablet PCs have arrived on our campuses: appealing, lightweight devices that have all the features of laptops plus the option of pen-based or keyboard entry. But even with their obvious potential for mobile computing applications, their best uses in classrooms are yet to be defined.

In the accelerating upward spiral of eLearning technology, great effort has been made to lead the somewhat confused user to a golden land of personal computing. Recent developments such as portals, learning objects, and ePortfolios have been offered to make information more accessible.

However, these technologies also require a sophisticated and knowledgeable user base and a will to engage. New monolithic projects pop up with the regularity of Paris fashion shows; last year’s fad is this year’s faux pas. The onus of finding the right fit for emerging technology often remains with the inexperienced user.

A similar trend is occurring in the classroom. With electronic delivery of media allowing rapid delivery of extensive—maybe too much—material, special value is being placed on the assemblage of knowledge through social interactions. Successful students interact with one another and the media to master a subject. Now, the social and collaborative aspects of education are being recognized as more important than the simple consumption of educational materials.

The Tablet PC is at the perfect juxtaposition of the
monolithic technology initiatives now dominating
the eLearning landscape and the spontaneous, playful,
social learning environments reminiscent of schoolyards
and chalkboards.

Thus, there is a dynamic relationship between content and interaction. Currently, widely used tools such as e-mail, discussion boards, and chat rooms can be seen as examples of the increasing need and opportunity for collaborative interaction in a classroom setting. While most students are adept at such tools, applying them in an academic situation requires careful design and experienced coaching.

The most fascinating aspect of these collaborative modalities is the cyclical development of content and interaction, where object-oriented collaborative interactions point toward the re-use of the interactions themselves as learning objects. In the end, knowledge building becomes three-dimensional, across-content, and content-based interactions, and the result is new learning objects.

Object-Oriented Collaboration and the Tablet PC
How d'es the Tablet PC fit into this model of object-oriented collaboration? It is most promising to consider the Tablet PC as a social device. In itself, the Tablet PC might easily be a candidate for a fad. It is not widely available and everybody wants one, even unseen. It is the culmination of many years of research and is as appealing and portable as any personal digital device.

Yet, the Tablet PC is at the perfect juxtaposition of the monolithic technology initiatives now dominating the eLearning landscape and the spontaneous, playful, social learning environments reminiscent of schoolyards and chalkboards. The Tablet is a return to the basics of intuitive computing, where ‘the basics’ has been elevated by the dialectical mixing of rich content and rich interaction.

A Tablet’s primary input is pen-based. Tablet PCs allow the user to input data in the manner that they are most comfortable with. Data can be entered as symbols, lines, and scribbles. Alternately, the user can revert to the keyboard. The Tablet’s shape and profile allow for easy passing and sharing among peers. Unlike laptops, the screen is less individualized and d'es not serve as a barrier between users.

Even more promising is the ability to set up ad-hoc, peer-to-peer wireless networks independent of the existing IT infrastructure. Most Tablets come with 802.11b wireless capabilities built-in. So as more campuses develop a wireless infrastructure, Tablet PCs will be a good tool to provide students with instant access to facts, figures, simulations, and other course content. Using applications such as Silicon Chalk, Colligo, or others, users can discover one another, set up connections, and start to communicate in an informal manner. These features make the Tablet PC the number one candidate for a return to the small-scale, simple, collaborative, 'back-to-basics'-type of learning environment.

... it is clear that without the complete trust,
buy-in, and unconditional support of these players,
IT modernization projects will die on the vine.

Back to the “Basics”
Can a Tablet PC properly reflect the richness of content in object repositories, ePortfolios, and in simulations of reality? The real strength of the Tablet is seen when it encourages users to explore unmediated, peer-to-peer forms of communication. This signals a move away from learning via pure dialogue toward an emphasis on learning within social structures and processes that are supported but not dominated by technology.

In an environment where facts can be instantly verified, teaching value shifts from ‘knowing’ to processing. Much of the promise of the Tablet PC rests in its potential to support the creation of adhoc communities, where a given task is jointly processed. Rather than teaching facts, an emphasis can be placed on teaching inquiry within a discipline. In the classroom or beyond, communities can then spring up effortlessly, allowing the sharing of research, data, and the collection of data and collaboration between students.
In this context the Tablet PC has two roles: It streamlines processes like data creation and presentation through its easy-to-use stylus and its intuitive interface. But it also presents itself as collaborative tool, connecting to the human and technical network alike.

In the first role, it is a workable platform or outlet for the built-up eLearning infrastructures of the past several years. But in its second role, it promises new approaches to technology in learning. Social interactions and group processes may supplant technology as the gateway to knowledge. This will lift the Tablet PC and its applications from the level of a fad into the ranks of a ‘true blue’ learning tool.

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