4/01/2003 Tablet Computing: The 'next big thing' in school computing has arrived The ‘next big thing’ in school computing has arrived Bishop Hartley High School is about to make history. This fall, the 600-student private Catholic school in Columbus, Ohio, will put to the test the Tablet PC—the new technology that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates recently called "the future of one-to-one computing." In one of the first ever large-scale deployments of Tablet PC technology in schools, every Bishop Hartley senior will receive Hewlett-Packard’s Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 unit in September. The three to four-pound machines come with detachable keyboards and run on a special Tablet PC edition of the Windows XP operating system. The school has ordered 160 of the machines, 25 of which already have arrived to help prepare educators and students for the coming implementation. According to Ken Collura, technology coordinator for the schools of the Diocese of Columbus, the students and teachers will use the tablets to move toward the evolution of a completely paperless classroom. It seems fitting that a school from Columbus would be among the first ever to explore the Tablet PC’s potential for education. And if industry watchers are correct, the device just could be the "next big thing" in school computing. The ‘ideal’ classroom tool? About the size of a spiral notebook, Tablet PCs combine all the speed and power of a desktop computer with the portability and digital touch-screen capabilities of a Palm personal digital assistant (PDA). Though tablet screens run on average three to five inches smaller than the standard 15-inch monitors found on most desktop machines, the device’s processing power is more than sufficient for student use. Each device typically carries at least 256 megabytes of RAM and between 30 and 40 gigabytes of hard- drive capacity, and most can be converted from tablet format to a laptop-like machine via the use of an attachable keyboard. Loaded with all the usual suspects in the Microsoft Office product suite, tablet computers can be used in class or at home to compose documents, create spreadsheets, surf the internet, and even exchange eMail and instant messages. The availability of these applications in a portable format is nothing new. What proponents of the tablet computing movement believe will make the technology indispensable in schools is its much-improved digital stylus function, which enables users to take handwritten notes directly on the tablet screen and then save those notes in digital format, just as they were written. Tablet PCs also are equipped to translate these handwritten notes, as well as voice recordings, into typewritten computer text—a powerful function that makes them ideal for use in the classroom, proponents say. Collura said the area’s Catholic high schools had been considering possible classroom applications for the Tablet PC ever since Gates first unveiled the concept at a national trade show three years ago. "We were considering very seriously how to address the various learning styles of our students," he said. When Collura caught wind of Microsoft’s new technology, he immediately wondered whether it was the solution he’d been searching for. The key, he said, lies in the Tablet PC’s ability to offer multiple forms of input and output from a single, convenient, easy-to- carry device. Laptop computers are bulky and aren’t always conducive to taking notes in class. Students must be proficient at typing in order to use them, and in many classes—such as science and math—the presence of equations makes note-taking with a keyboard difficult. Handheld computers, like Palm’s "m" series of devices, solve the bulkiness problem—but they, too, have their drawbacks, most notably the fact that it’s not easy to input information into them. Their stylus capabilities are rather limited, and although many can accommodate portable keyboards, this doesn’t solve the note-taking challenge. Tablet PCs, on the other hand, solve both problems rather elegantly. In essence, they function like a digital notebook, enhancing students’ capabilities for learning without getting in the way of the process. Imagine a classroom where students are allowed to take notes directly onto their textbooks and then save those notes for immediate reference with the touch of a button. The Tablet PC has the potential, Collura said, to make even the simple, mundane task of reading an interactive experience for students. Using the device, students effectively could download texts and read them directly from the screen, highlighting passages, taking notes, and saving critical information as they go. What about the old argument that reading from a computer screen can be tough on the eyes? Hewlett-Packard (HP) offers its Tablet PC with a screen composed of tempered glass, which reportedly reduces glare and softens the impact. "The [tablet] screen is surprisingly easy on the eyes," Collura said. "It’s like reading from a book." But don’t be fooled. The tablet computer is much more than a glorified eBook reader dressed to the nines with stylized note- taking functions, Collura said. Bishop Hartley eventually intends to provide students with what would amount to an entirely paperless classroom experience. While Collura admits some educators might scoff at the idea, the arrival of the Tablet PC has brought a dose of reality to that possibility, he said. During the first-year program, educators plan to use tablets to give tests, collect assignments, and issue grades both in and out of class without collecting a single sheet of notebook paper. "For the teachers, the increase in organization means a reduction in volume," Collura said. And for students, it means the ability to keep their notes for each class in one fully portable, customizable, computerized notebook. That way, kids aren’t faced with the mistake of bringing the wrong notebook to class or the inconvenience of misplacing important papers in cluttered and often overcrowded lockers. Students also could use the tablet to cross-reference their notes between classes, Collura suggested—for instance, taking a concept or definition they learned earlier that day in science class, looking it up in their notes, and then applying that same concept to a project they’ve been assigned in English or social studies. The fact that each student uses the same tablet in every subject makes that ability a cinch, he added. While in school, the students also will have free wireless internet access that will allow them to go online, exchange eMail, and use instant-messaging services. The only restriction is that all internet searches will be subject to the review of a filtering program that complies with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, Collura said. By giving students a tool they can go home with, Collura hopes they will embrace the technology not just as a device that’s been forced upon them by teachers, but as an attribute that can help them succeed in whatever projects they choose to undertake outside the confines of the classroom. "Kids take a sense of ownership to these things when they have the technology in their hands," he said. "This is their tool. They can reshape it and mold it for whatever purpose works best for them. It’s just like they’re bringing their book bags—now in the form of Tablet PCs—to the classroom." At home, of course, students won’t have the same free access to wireless internet connections that are available to them in school. Instead, they’ll have to configure their tablets to run on their parents’ or guardians’ existing accounts via dial-up or high-speed internet connections. While this detail isn’t likely to furrow many brows at Bishop Hartley, where Collura estimates 96 percent of seniors have internet access from home, the problem may raise serious questions at schools where home internet access is more limited. Charting potential pitfalls By being one of the first schools in the nation to test the practical applications of the Tablet PC technology in the classroom, Collura said he hopes Bishop Hartley will help expose any potential pitfalls ahead of time. One of the problems the school already has taken into consideration is the question of day-to-day durability. To protect its investment from the wear and tear of everyday school use, the school will provide each student with a foam-insulated carrying case for their tablet computers. Of course, while the carrying cases will protect the tablets in transit, they’ll do little to keep the machines safe when they’re in use on students’ desktops. According to Angela Smith, a spokeswoman for HP, even the tempered-glass screens have been tested for strength. The company has prepared the technology for its school customers by building a Tablet PC screen that was strong enough to withstand the impact of three and four-pound metal balls dropped from a distance of several feet. Still, when you put technology into a school, nothing is indestructible. Every student who chooses to participate in the tablet computing program must insure the device against his or her parents’ or guardians’ homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, Smith said. The school is not responsible for broken, lost, or stolen machines. However, Collura did say there would be extra machines on hand in the event that students’ tablets are sent in for repairs. All students will be instructed to back up their files on the school’s server so that, in the event of an emergency, students can retrieve their notes and school work. But students should think twice before asking for a replacement tablet. If their reasoning indicates a lack of responsibility on the students’ part—for example, if they accidentally leave their machine at home or in their car—replacements will not be provided, Collura said. Students also are responsible for keeping the machines’ batteries charged. Because HP’s tablets only last about four and a half hours before requiring a recharge, Collura was forced to purchase an extra battery for each machine to provide students with enough power to make it through the eight-hour school day. "When students are at home," he said, "it’s their responsibility. They can plug [the tablet] in." There’s also the issue of making sure both teachers and students are equipped with the knowledge and skills to use the tablet technology effectively, Collura said. Already, the school has begun enrolling students slated to participate in next year’s program in one-hour training sessions designed to introduce them to the technology and its applications, he said. Students are quick learners, he added, and it typically takes only an hour or less for them to understand how to use its basic functions. For teachers, it can be a different story. Its technical convenience and versatility aside, the Tablet PC still is a new technology, and—like any new innovation—it runs the risk of rejection at the hands of experienced teachers who are comfortable already teaching a certain way. Some educators have been known to resist new technologies on the simple grounds that learning how to use such tools requires additional overtime, for which they are rarely compensated. Surprisingly, Collura said he hasn’t encountered even the slightest resistance to the tablet training programs among Bishop Hartley’s teachers. The technology, he said, isn’t changing the way teachers teach in the classroom. Effectively, they are still teaching the same lessons and using the same methods they were using before. The only difference is that the assignments are being completed, turned in, saved, and returned by way of the tablets, which increases the efficiency of managing classroom assignments. The technology "allows the teachers to teach what they’ve been teaching and the students to do what they’ve been doing," Collura said—thus reducing culture shock to a minimum. Cost is a major hurdle If anything poses a significant hurdle to tablet computing in schools, it’s cost. Collura estimates the price of the Bishop Hartley project—from planning, to infrastructure upgrades, to training and implementation—will run upwards of $350,000, all told. Educators looking to buy Tablet PCs for their schools or for their own personal use should expect to pay anywhere from $1,700 (the cost of the HP model being used at Bishop Hartley) to close to $3,000, depending on which model they choose. At $129 a piece, the price for extra battery units alone wound up costing Bishop Hartley close to $21,000 in additional expenses, Collura said. Of course, Bishop Hartley is a private school. And although Collura claims he didn’t dip into a single dollar of tuition money to pay for the project—and that he chose the school because of its unique socioeconomic diversity—private schools still don’t share the same fiscal concerns as public institutions. For one thing, they normally are responsible for a far smaller number of students, and second, they aren’t funded through state budgets. The latter factor is especially critical in today’s uncertain financial landscape. As lawmakers nationwide are tapping into education spending to alleviate mounting budget gaps, many educators are hard-pressed for money to preserve existing programs, much less to create new ones. For instance, Maine’s laptop initiative, which is midway through the process of supplying 36,000 laptops to students and teachers under a $37.2 million contract with Apple Computer, already has seen $50 million in funding—put in place by former Gov. Angus King to keep the program running indefinitely—slip to a recommended $16 million, which critics are complaining would only account for three years of the four-year contract. With such problems in mind, it’s difficult to believe many public school systems nationwide are poised to take the plunge on a wide-scale deployment of Tablet PCs just yet. Even if schools did have the money right now, it would be a mistake for such institutions—public or private—to rush too quickly into purchasing tablets for large-scale use in the classroom, Collura warned. According the him, the integration of the technology at Bishop Hartley has been a long, tedious, and very methodical process. Before agreeing to put tablets into the hands every senior at the school, Collura said the first step was to reposition existing infrastructures so the system would be able to maximize the benefits of the technology. "We needed to switch to more of a mobile educational world," he said. The school gradually built out its wireless access points and turned over traditional desktop machines in favor of laptops and other ubiquitous alternatives, he said. Still, Tablet PCs eventually will filter into more schools from coast to coast, Collura predicted. And as they do—and as the cost of the technology begins to drop—there might come a day when the desktop machines of today find themselves packed away next to such long-forgotten relics as the once indispensable Apple II and other fallen giants. "It’s just so flexible that you can use it on the go," Collura said of the Tablet PC. "I really see no reason for a desktop. The whole idea is mobility."
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