by Paul McCloskey
The new Tablet PCs from Microsoft and a host of PC manufacturers were announced 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 screens.”
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 three decades.
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 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 OEMs 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 does 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 Crusoe 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 at $1,699.
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 $1995.
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.