Software giant Microsoft Corp. is expected to release a new technology this fall that the company hopes will revolutionize the concept of one-to-one computing in schools.

Not much larger than the spiral notebook found in most students’ book bags, the Tablet PC combines the handiness of a handheld computer with the power of a laptop. It’s an innovation Microsoft says will make the integration of technology a less daunting experience for teachers and students, many of whom have yet to embrace portable computers fully.

Several original equipment manufactures (OEMs), including Hewlett-Packard Co., Acer America Corp., and Toshiba Corp., have made plans to roll out the new high-tech, notebook-size devices later this year.

Microsoft will fashion the Windows-based operating system for the devices, creating what it hopes will be an ideal solution for schools, said Mary Cullinane, a former teacher and manager of Microsoft’s K-12 business.

Unlike traditional laptops, she said, the Tablet PC will incorporate Microsoft’s digital ink technology, which includes a digital pen or stylus that lets users take handwritten notes directly on the device’s screen. These notes then can be saved and stored in the students’ own handwriting, or translated to text and added to other text documents.

Cullinane said the digital ink component is an essential part of the Tablet PC’s educational value, because it performs a feat not yet attempted by classroom laptops.

“With a laptop, the screen presents a barrier between student and teacher,” Cullinane said. “The Tablet PC is just like using a pad and paper.” Instead of integrating a flip-up screen, the tablet machines will more closely resemble large personal digital assistants (PDAs), in that the screens will lay flat or pivot to create more of an ideal writing surface, she said.

Students using the digital ink feature also will have the ability to save their notes and then search these handwritten notes by typing in a keyword or phrase they want to find. The idea is to move toward the evolution of a paperless classroom, Cullinane said.

The Tablet PC will run on Microsoft’s Windows XP Professional operating system and carry with it all of the functions and standard programs available on almost any Windows platform. Whether taking notes in Microsoft Word or creating spreadsheets in Excel, students will be able to perform a host of computing tasks in much the same way they could on standard desktop machines, the company said. Plus, wireless internet connections will make it possible for students to go online anywhere, at any time.

Cullinane believes the Tablet PC will be seen as an all-in-one learning tool, where students conceivably could take and store notes for every class, read electronic versions of textbooks, perform online searches, compose documents, trade eMail, and take computerized tests.

“People should think of it as, ‘What my laptop does, my Tablet will do, and more,'” Cullinane said. “Tablet PC is not a companion device. It’s a fully functional machine.”

Cullinane said Tablet PC devices, which will weigh less than three pounds, will be available in two models: a convertible model, which will include an integrated keyboard; and a traditional slate model, equipped with ports to attach familiar desktop devices, including a keyboard and mouse.

Microsoft and its band of participating OEMs are not the first to create a tablet computing device that works with handwriting recognition technology. IBM and Sony already have put to bed similar attempts that originally showed promise but eventually fell short.

Sony’s Vaio Slimtop Pen Tablet was discontinued in January, just two months after Microsoft unveiled the Tablet PC concept at an industry trade show in Las Vegas. According to Sony, the product was cheered by technology enthusiasts but shunned by average computer buyers, who favored cheaper desktops over Sony’s digital pen and handwriting recognition tools.

IBM’s TransNote came to a similar demise in February when that product, which sold for more than $3,000, was pulled for lack of sales. But Microsoft said it is undeterred by such failures. “Microsoft has brought this technology to a new level,” Cullinane said. “We are very excited.”

Part of this excitement can be traced to Microsoft’s ability to slash the price of its Tablet PC offering. Although pricing for Tablet PCs will vary based on the manufacturer, Cullinane said schools should compare the purchase to that of a mid-range laptop and expect to pay around $1,800.

Tech-savvy educators already have begun to speculate as to whether the movement will gain a foothold in schools. So far, opinions are mixed.

Brenda Moxley, instructional technology resource specialist for the Birmingham City Schools in Alabama, said she began researching the possibilities of pen-tablet technology more than a year ago.

Moxley, who entertained the idea of using pen-tablet devices not unlike those envisioned by Microsoft in Birmingham schools, said the larger screens provided what she thought was a more user-friendly environment than could be found on smaller, PDA-type devices.

“I really thought it would be much easier on the eyes,” Moxley said of the technology. She compared the shape and size of pen-tablet devices to the Ohio Art Co.’s popular Etch-A-Sketch children’s toy.

Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor affiliated with a commercial effort to introduce Palm-style technology into the classroom, believes the Tablet PC’s size presents more obstacles than advantages when it comes to ubiquitous computing.

“Kids are not going to schlep around a three-pound brick, balancing it in the cradle of their arms to write. The whole point of handhelds is ease of mobility to promote learning in context—learning wherever and whenever a child is thinking, collaborating, writing, and collecting data,” he said.

To the contrary, Moxley said screen size was just one of many advantages. She also was impressed by the additional memory and added functionality associated with the slightly larger pen-tablet devices.

“I was impressed that [students] could store all the materials they needed in one device,” she said.

Bob Moore, executive director of instructional technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, agreed. There is potential for the Tablet PC in K-12 schools, he said. But it would be premature to categorize the new devices as “total educational solutions.”

“While I think that the idea of one-to-one computing is interesting, the real issue is that each learner has the technology he or she needs at any given moment to accomplish a particular task. There hasn’t been a single technology invented yet that meets all of those diverse needs. Suggesting that a Tablet PC can meet all of the needs is just as silly as suggesting that a PDA will,” Moore said.

Educators who haven’t already will be able to form their own opinions about Tablet PC technology compared to laptops, handhelds, and other computing solutions when Microsoft releases the operating system to customers worldwide in November, Cullinane said.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Hewlett-Packard Co.
http://www.hp.com

Acer America Corp.
http://www.acer.com

Toshiba Corp.
http://www.toshiba.com