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Tablet PCs: A Natural Choice for Campus Mobility

Faculty, students, and administrators at higher education institutions are now active mobile users of technology, as pervasive wireless networks are built-out across campuses and software knits curricular and administrative systems more tightly together. Everyone on campus now expects to use computers for electronic mail, writing papers, spreadsheet and data analysis, PowerPoint presentations, group collaboration, accessing online library resources, as well as for communications and Web applications.

A combination of WiFi networks, faster processors, improved hardware, and greater software support have made the Tablet PC a reasonable work-a-day choice of mobile computer users. Tablet PCs allow campus dwellers to take full advantage of wireless environments, provide a more intuitive means of interaction with other computers, and eliminate many of the problems associated with using laptops and PDAs in the classroom.

Part of the growing market includes an ever-growing class of users who need to do "real computing" while they are truly mobile. Tablet PCs are designed to combine the portability of paper with the computing power and wireless connectivity of a laptop. This is good news for those who have been relying on a combination of notebook PCs, planners, spiral notebooks, and handheld devices. Tablet PCs are full-featured computers that integrate PDA-like features with active (RF) pens to enable jagged-free writing—a vast improvement on the previous generation of touch-screens.

PC Past is Tablet Prologue

Tablet-style computers have actually been around for decades, but they were not practical because of limitations on processing speed, size, and screen resolution. Manufacturers have now made tremendous advancements in tablet and notebook hardware, improving form factor and footprint, processor speeds, displays, hard drives (some with up to 60G of storage), and batteries that can last more that eight hours. Moreover, the recent release of numbers of Tablet-enabled applications by software companies—encouraged by Microsoft and its Office XP Pack for Tablet PC operating system —has helped make the Tablet PC a more viable option for use on campus.

The times are now ripe for a campus infiltration by Tablets. Laptops have been unable to meet the need for an all-encompassing mobile device. In addition to digital note taking, students need searchable lecture material, collaborative environments, and sketchpad ability. Laptops have proven to be difficult to manage in the classroom by students and professors alike, who find that too much room on the desk needs to dedicated for the computer. At the same time, when opened, displays create a barrier between the lecturer and student. And last but not least, the use of laptops for note-taking can be a distraction to others.

Designed for the Classroom

Pocket PCs and PDA devices with touch-sensitive LCDs seem suited to the classroom. However, they don’t match the versatility of the Tablet, which provides a combination of high-resolution digitizer display, pressure sensitive stylus, handwriting recognition, and drawing capability that enables groups to collaborate. A small screen size and incessant scrolling also limit pocket PCs for classroom use.

In the typical university classroom, special value is placed on gathering knowledge via social interaction. Successful students interact with one another and with a lecturer electronically in order to master a subject. In fact, the social and collaborative underpinnings of education are being recognized as more important than simple content consumption as a means of learning.

The combination of tablet PC with the increasing range of applications from producers such as AcuLearn, Colligo, Mindjet, MathJournal, and Sketchbook Pro, provides for the more advanced presentation of material by lecturers, greatly enhancing the use of a Tablet for lectures.

Nuts and Bolts

To make the most of the Tablet’s handwriting feature, Windows XP Professional Edition for Tablet PC uses a new application called Microsoft Journal. Journal is a writing application that allows the user to write with "digital ink" to create handwritten notes. These notes can be converted to text and are fully searchable using key words or phrases. The freedom to save handwriting, sketches, and text simultaneously opens up a range of possibilities for note-taking within the classroom environment. The notes can be saved, e-mailed, printed, or archived the same way as regular text, without changing their original handwritten form.

Also, applications have been developed that expand the uses of PowerPoint for the Tablet, allowing users to create, edit and archive media-rich content, annotate slides, and preserve embedded objects. Other essential applications include computer recognition of mathematical characters and terms, interactive sketchpad, and the ability to create seamless Peer-to-Peer networks for collaborative projects.

Most Tablet PCs come with Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. They feature displays as large as 12.1 inches for easy editing of handwritten notes, drawings, diagrams, and annotations. The PC-level processes allow professors to supplement lectures with multimedia content while satisfying students' desires for rich media content for their computer of choice. A long battery life and lightweight design are also important, since carrying a computer long distances, away from electrical outlets, is necessary for both students and instructors. Classes that participate in fieldwork can especially benefit from this.

Campus Test Beds

A number of higher education institutions, such as MIT, the University of Texas at Austin, and Bentley College, have experimented with Tablet PCs within the classroom. In these projects, the Tablets are distributed at no cost to students and faculty under agreements with Microsoft and other Tablet vendors. Students and professors in programs ranging from design and engineering at MIT, and community planning at the University of Texas, frequently develop their ideas through sketches and group discussion.

The Tablet's smoother drawing surfaces and styli were instrumental in easing collaboration among project teams on these campuses. For example, Alexander Slocum, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, used the tablets to help students work together at a robot-design competition. One student would begin by drawing on the Tablet, and then several others would make additions, each using a different color to make notations.

Abel Sanchez, a Ph.D. candidate in information technology at MIT, used to make sketches on paper, but now prefers to draw on the Tablet. "The 'Aha' moments I had while waiting for the bus, and other odd times during the day, are now captured electronically." Marketing students at Bentley College also gave the tablets a thumbs-up. "In our class, the Tablet would be perfect to go out and take surveys with," says Redmond Rodriguez, a Bentley senior majoring in marketing.

The option to work with handwriting and sketches gives Tablets the advantage over laptops, according to Slocum. “Very rarely do you draw with just words. Maybe in an English class, but even then sometimes you want to quickly highlight what you took a note on, or you want to circle something or draw and arrow and tie things together. Communication is not just in words."

Michael Pickett, deputy chief information officer at Duke University, says Tablet PCs have had proven benefits for administrators and faculty. After meetings, trying to organize notes scribbled on yellow paper, he would have trouble finding specific information. Now using a Tablet PC, he can search his handwritten notes electronically.

Tablet PCs are ideally suited for campus users who spend much of their day moving from class to class or in meetings. Both students and faculty need access to their information at all times, and the lightweight, mobile form of the Tablet allows users to take their PC with them throughout the day. The versatility of its handwriting and speech recognition feature extends the powers of the traditional notebook PCs and provides a better-suited means for interacting with computers on campus.

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