Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why the UA Faculty Should Get Tablet PCs

Warning -- long post, mostly of interest to the UAkron faculty and IT folks.
*** Version 1/31/07a S. Myers ***

The University of Akron has an opportunity to take a major evolutionary leap in instructional technology, leveraging its existing multimillion dollar investment in learning support services, by revamping the faculty laptop program with The University of Akron Faculty Tablet PC Initiative.

The faculty laptop program, begun in 2001, is about to be refreshed at UAkron. For the last year I have been asked to use, test and evaluate a Tablet PC in my work as an economics faculty member and I thank my on-campus sponsor for putting a Tablet PC in my hands. I have used a Gateway M280E exclusively for all tasks from the highly professional to the highly personal. As a result it is my belief that there should be a Tablet PC option and recommendation that only Tablet PCs should be in the offering in the laptop refresh of 2007 for UA.

In the last laptop refresh the faculty had two choices, a small and a large Dell Laptop and departments had to pay from their budgets the "delta" or extra cost of the larger laptop. This occurred primarily because of the budget pressures of buying a 1000 or so laptops at once and any small delta becomes a huge hit on budgets. If this model persists for the next refresh, there will be a base laptop and departments will have to pay the "delta" for the pen enabled screen of the Tablet PC. While I supported the two tiered budget system last time, this time such a premium would be a mistake because ...

The Tablet PC is an Evolutionary Leap In Instructional Technology

In our paper on Mobile Learning Technologies, Dan Talley and I used the word "evolutionary" seven times in 24 pages and on one of those citations we debated whether it should be revolutionary, so we settled on "(r)evolutionary." In our opinion, an evolutionary jump occurs when the Tablet PC is added to two other environments: system support software and the wired and wireless environments of the classroom and beyond. UA has made tremendous investments in the many-millions of dollars in these environments, has put laptops in the hands of faculty, and is uniquely positioned to move to the next level of prominence.

(1) System Support software

We have invested in system level software which includes a course management system (ours currently is WebCT added in 2000) and have enjoyed the synergies of this with our ZipLine that allows faculty to get into the Student Information System (in our case PeopleSoft installed in 2000) to check rosters, assign grades and do other course management functions and to find valuable information for Faculty. All of this can be accessed from the office desktop, but that decries its real value.

(2) Wireless Network and Technologically Enhanced Classrooms

We have been on the network so long now it is hard to imagine not having assess to the local network and the Internet. Still I remember well trudging through the snow uphill both ways to get to the computer center since only there could one access the mainframe. But now I write this in the comfort of my home connected to vastly greater university resources via wireless Internet signal from my laptop through my purchased ISP and by the magic of Virtual Private Networking (VPN). For all intent and purposes I am "on campus." At the same time I am connected by blue tooth listening to one of the podcasts at RadioEconomics.com.

At school I can connect wirelessly from my office, from Starbucks, from anywhere and most importantly from my classroom. The classrooms on campus began to transform starting in 1995 thanks to Del Williams, then Dean of the Libraries, and Tom Bennett, director of Audio Visual Service, because they decided to support the raving-cravings of an economics department faculty member for the ability to have access to a laptop and projection so as to bring presentations to the highly visual subject of economics. Suddenly, graphics and equations could be easily shown and commented on by the lecturer and we knew we had a winner in that dark dingy auditorium with that dim, but wonderful image on the screen. From there we planned and saw executed more and more of these rooms about campus. Now 86 Technology Enhanced Classrooms (TEC) are available in general purpose classrooms and many more "private" TECs exist such as the three in the Department of Economics. So today I can walk into the classroom and project my prepared lecture notes and activities for the students. Integrating with the systems software and the general Internet I can bring a huge amount of selected content into the classroom for engaging the students. One of the design principles of the TECs was there would be no computer in the classroom and faculty would bring in their content on their laptops. Hence we thought the third leg of this "stool" was the laptop. And indeed it was until the release in 2003 of the Tablet PC.

(3) The Tablet PC

In class: Carrying a laptop into a classroom was amazing. I could engage students not only by my words, but visually as well in a much more engaging way. I could use prepared slides and video, and when connected by wire to the Internet I felt nothing was in my way. But now I go into the classroom, connect wirelessly to the Internet and the system support software, and with my Tablet PC I can show prepared slides and I can write on them by writing on the screen of my Tablet PC. Using digital ink and a variety of applications, I can use my Tablet as a whiteboard and whatever I write shows up for students to view. If we have a wireless connection to the projector, then with a Tablet I can teach from anywhere in the room and not be tethered to one space. I can put the tablet in front of a student and have them complete a problem. Laptops were fine, but the enhanced flexibility of the Tablet PC causes it to be light years ahead of the poor laptop.

I had been interested in digital ink ever since my first view of a SMART board, and later the SMART Sympodium, both of which we have in the distance learning suites on campus. With the SMART board or Sympodium faculty have access to an electronic white board which replaces the need for the chalk board. Unlike the chalk board, the electronic whiteboard can allow import of any document and faculty can begin to annotate them. The Tablet PC is the ultimate white board.

When our new building opened a few years ago I was excited to see how the classrooms were designed and was disheartened to see that the screen was in front of the white board. Some faculty, might want both I thought, since I often did, but I realized that the Tablet PC was the overhead projector and the whiteboard...all I needed was in the Tablet PC with projection support.

Outside of class: The classroom does not have to end at the walls since with the powerful combination of system software, wireless networking and the Tablet PC we can continue our instruction anywhere. I regularly correspond with students, grade papers and connect by distance which I can do with a laptop, but the natural form factor of pen and virtual paper means that I am far more efficient and comfortable. In economics, like so many other disciplines, I am required to draw graphs and write equations. If a student walks into my office it isn't long before I am responding and drawing graphs and writing equations. Now, even at a distance in email or in other communication strategies I can respond with the pen. To be able to respond in this way is so much more efficient and I believe it truly aids student learning.

Evolutionary Jump: The Tablet PC completes a Mobile Learning Environment

So by way of summary, the Tablet PC intersects with the Wireless Networks, enhanced classrooms and the system support software to complete a Mobile Learning Environment. By adding general application software and specific disciplinary content to the faculty member's Tablet PC much of what once required many steps and resources now can all be in one device.

The value to faculty of the digital ink features and the evolutionary leap in potential for instruction when use in a mobile learning environment is worth the extra costs (about $100 per unit - Gartner). Even if you look at the possibility of buying 1000 laptops, the $100,000 or $33,333 per year is well worth the synergy when merging with the existing millions of dollars of investment in the finest facilities for teaching that we already have. To ignore Tablet PCs in this environment for everyone on the faculty is "penny wise and pound foolish."

Slate, Hybrid or Convertible?

The longer I use a Tablet PC the more I think I prefer a slate. Slates are essentially screen and pen only computers, there is no keyboard since all input is with the pen. Of course a USB keyboard and monitor and external optical drive can be added at the desktop to give a more typical setup. Slates are also the lightest.

If you need a keyboard then you are into a hybrid (the HP TC1100 might be the only one) which has a detachable keyboard, or a convertible like the Gateway M285. The convertibles are actually laptops complete with anything a typical laptop has including an optical (CD or DVD) drive. My Gateway is more powerful than the Dell it replaced from the last laptop refresh. The primary drawback is weight.

Windows or MAC OS

The Tablet PC is a windows based machine using XP Tablet PC edition or Vista operating system. There is one tablet out that runs Mac OS, but that computer is not made by apple and I do not know any more than the posting elsewhere in this blog.

Evaluation of the Gateway M280E:

My evaluation of the Gateway M280E comes down to tastes. I preferred the form factor of the M275, it is lighter and easier to hold. However, I do find the wide screen and 12 cell battery of the M280E, both necessary and the part I dislike the most. As I said before I am drawn towards smaller and lighter Tablet PCs. However, I am buying Gateways under a grant I have because I believe them to be the best all around value and lowest price per feature.

I have enjoyed having the Gateway M280E and can never go back to a non-Tablet PC. I do appreciate how this has become a total laptop replacement, and how everything I want to accomplish is possible, as possible as the laptop it replaces.

One thing I really like is the "Intel graphics media accelerator driver for mobile" program that sits in my task bar. From here, the control of the graphics output in connecting to external monitors and projectors in classrooms has never been the slightest problem. It is pretty bullet proof and in front of class that is essential.

I also like the fact that the M280E comes with a pen that has the weight, size and feel of a real pen and is not like so many of the competitors pens, a thin short plastic straw with a tip. Writing with the fine point pen is a breeze and feels very natural. The only downside is the pen contains a non-replaceable battery so the pen clearly can "run out of ink." I have replaced the pen (under warranty) twice in a year. Gateway says this is a known problem and hopefully the versions with later models are improved.

Do I need a Tablet and a laptop or a desktop? I wondered about this at first. I thought I would use the Tablet for somethings and depend on the laptop or desktop for the other. What I have done, however, is move in to the Tablet PC 100%. However, I do not always use it as a tablet, screen turned down writing with my pen. Much of the time I have the Tablet connected to the port replicator. From this position, I have an external mouse, keyboard, and monitor. I use the second monitor as an extended desktop. Most of the time I use the tablet keyboard, but on occasion I swivel the screen around and use it as a second input device. This way I can annotate in ink, while using the external keyboard for typing. In short you do not need a laptop or desktop for most applications. You certainly do not need a laptop since the convertible Gateway M280E is a laptop with the digital ink enabled screen.

As to power, I just ordered a tablet on grant that has these specifications, Intel Core 2 2.00 GHz, with 4MB (what? cache?), 2 MB memory, 80 MB 7200 RPM hard drive, DVD writer (8x, multiformat), ATI Radeon 64MB Graphics card, blue tooth enabled, a 12 cell extended battery, and port replicator. I will not tell it's price, but it is clearly competitive with laptops and from the specifications you can see that it will rival any other laptop. (For price see Computer Solutions on campus or consult your own retailer).

The handwriting recognition is fabulous. Sure it messes up once in a while, but the tools to easily fix the mess are fabulous.

The voice recognition built into word is not so fabulous -- very good, but you have to be very diligent to make sure what you said gets typed and not something else.

What Applications should be on the Tablets?

I would group these in to three categories. The first is all the software that is currently on a UA machine such as MS Office Professional 2003 and programs such as SAS that are currently available for departments to acquire. Possibly in this list should come Adobe Professional or some means of writing and annotating pdf files. This is a critical step in electronic distribution and markup. Faculty need to be able to create pdf files. I have professional and love it, but there may be lower cost solutions.

The second category includes software that come with the XP Tablet PC Edition or are free to download. I do know this will change with Vista, but here is my list of software that I use a lot.
  • Windows Journal - this is the best environment in which to write. Combine the fine markup tools with the print driver and you have an essential program. The print driver means anything you can print, you can "print" to Windows Journal and once there you can mark it up. Think of "printing" a student submission or a JSTOR paper and then highlighting, commenting, marking and grading. Everything in Journal is searchable including your handwriting. Print a form to journal and you can fill it out and print or save as a pdf and send it on. You can come close to not using paper at all. Other tools include sticky notes and the tablet pc input panel.
  • Microsoft Power Toys for Windows XP Tablet PC Edition - check this link for many useful general and discipline specific tools, e.g., Physics Illustrator, Music Composition Tool, Art Tool, and Calculator for Tablet PC)
  • Microsoft Education Pack - includes programs such as equation writer where you write a mathematical equation and it converts it to type-set quality. Also in this pack is "Send to One Note" a print driver that works like the Journal print driver does.
  • Microsoft Experience Pack - includes the most useful "snipping tool" which not only allows you to clip any area on the screen to your clipboard for copy and paste into another document, it also allows you to ink on the clip. I can clip a quiz question a student took in WebCT, write on it and then paste into an email to send back to the student to show him or her the correct answer or how to solve a problem. Also included is "ink desktop" which turns your desktop view into a ready memo pad for those quick notes. Someone tells you their phone number, you don't have to fumble around for a note pad and pen; you can just jot it down on the desktop.
  • MSN messenger -- I haven't tested it out, but you can send messages to each other in ink.
  • MS sticky notes -- from Microsoft, no more real yellow sticky notes. Now you can have as many virtual ones as you want and stick them anywhere in your applications. (Included in XP Tablet PC edition).
  • Avaya Message Manager -- it is so nice to be able to get my office messages and faxes when I am not in the office.

The third category is free and not so free software that I have acquired and use a lot.

  • Microsoft One Note -- incredibly useful. The idea is that everything is in one place, in a binder of sorts with tabs. You can have a conference folder and a tab with multiple pages for each different conference you have attended. All of the notes you took at a conference and "lost" are here and searchable. Another folder for classes, for personal stuff... etc. With the print to one note driver from the education pack you can send anything from a web page to a document to one note. It shows up in the "sent files" folder and you can easily move it at anytime to a better place or delete it after its usefulness has run out. For conferences, printing the city map and other highlights is indispensable.
  • SyncBack from 2BrightSarks.com -- a great backup and synchronizing program and its free. I use this to back up and keep in sync my tablet and my portable hard drive. I won't lose data again. I also use it for student grading. We have students save their work to a server. I can run SyncBack to make sure I always have on my laptop for offline grading all of the files submitted.
  • Audacity and the Lane MP3 encoder -- perfect for making podcasts. The built in microphone for the Tablet PC is pretty good as this was a design requirement by Microsoft. Nevertheless, I do use a separate headset.
  • ZD Soft Screen Recorder -- perfect for making video-casts. Will allow you to record anything on your screen and use a voice over. It creates a Mpeg4 file perfect for streaming.
  • Answer Tool -- a small database that stores answers for frequently asked questions. Great to use when you are answering the same question for many students each in separate emails.
  • DyKnow Vision and Monitor (DyKnow.com) -- An outstanding tool for presentation and collaboration in the classroom. This software will revolutionize how you collaborate with your students.

Where can I see some examples of Tablet use?

This blog, if you are reading this online, has many links to places that you may see how others are using the Tablet PC. I would also point you to the PowerPoint presentations on my web page. See the following:

Finally here is a page from U Tennessee - Martin with each faculty member from many disciplines telling how they use the Tablet PC. I find it interesting and instructive. (Here is their Gateway Case Study)

What Colleges and Universities embrace the Tablet PC?

Dakota State University (Univ. wide), Virginia Tech (Eng. college), Oklahoma State University (Vet School), University of Arizona (Eller College of Mgt. Tech), Villanova University (Eng. College), University of Virginia, Kansas State, University of Vermont (School of Business), MIT, Indiana University (Kelly School), Fort Hayes University (univ. wide), Mayville State University, University of West Florida (eng. college), Univ. of Mass-Amherst (committee report), Notre Dame (Tablet PC Initiative), University of Dayton, University of Houston (College of Tech.), Texas A&M (College of Architecture), University of Washington (College of Education), Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Executive MBA), U Texas - Austin.

Bentley College, Bentley College 2,

Summary Pages:

See also references in the Myers and Talley paper.

Case Studies: Tablet PCs and UMPCs in Education, (or full version from Microsoft Developer Network, Vista development center)

"Is this the future of college computing?" University Business, June 2003. (Matt Villano) citing University of Purdue and MIT.

"Tablet PC Benefits Overview," Virginia Tech College of Engineering.

"I Became a Born Again PowerPoint Fan -- Thanks to my Tablet PC"


UA is perfectly situated to create a campus that is an ideal mobile learning community because of investment in the support software systems, wired and wireless network and past experience of over six years in the laptop program. The faculty laptop program at The University of Akron should become the faculty Tablet PC program and the University should invest support in helping UA take the evolutionary leap in instructional technology.

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