When classes begin at Mayville State University (MSU) a few weeks from now, education professor Rick Holman will have the same goal he’s always had: to help aspiring teachers learn to integrate technology effectively into the classroom. What’s different this time around is that he plans to do it all using tablet PCs.

This fall, MSU, an 800-student institution in rural North Dakota, will become the first college in the nation to offer tablet PCs–the pen-enabled, half-laptop, half-notebook devices–to all of its full-time students. According to Keith Stenehjem, MSU’s chief information officer, more than 40 percent of the students enrolled at the school are studying to become teachers.

MSU isn’t alone in its interest in tablets. Back in June, Winona State University (WSU) in Minnesota announced the largest-ever higher-education implementation of tablet PCs in the United States when it purchased 4,000 of the devices as part of a seven-year deal with Gateway Inc. expected to exceed $40 million.

Students at Winona State University in Minnesota are enjoying the benefits of the school’s decision to purchase 4,000 Gateway tablet PCs.
(Photo courtesy of Gateway Inc.)

Though a recent report by market research firm In-Site/MDR says tablet sales in the business and consumer sectors have lagged short of expectations, software and hardware vendors say interest is mounting in academia, where the tablet’s versatility and digital ink capabilities are slowly beginning to make their mark on individualized classroom instruction.

That’s the hope at MSU, anyway. The deal will bring more than 700 of the portable, wireless-enabled devices to campus and will cost the university more than $1 million over the next two years, Stenehjem estimates.

The machine of choice for both Mayville and Winona is the Gateway m275. Billed as a “convertible notebook,” as opposed to a traditional tablet, the m275 combines the processing power of a standard laptop computer with the convertible design and digital handwriting capability of a tablet. The m275 has a 14-inch display and retails for approximately $1,700 with options, a price Gateway sees as comparable to what schools might pay for a high-end laptop.

Officials at MSU, which began offering laptops to its students in 1997, said they didn’t anticipate being able to provide tablets to students this year, but changed their minds when they saw the price of the m275.

First unveiled in November 2002, tablet PC technology, powered by a scaled-down version of the Windows XP operating system, was seen more as a nifty luxury for high-tech enthusiasts than as a practical tool for the classroom.

Early critics of the technology said the machines were too expensive, too fragile for use by students, and laden with buggy, imperfect software applications. But the tablet’s most vocal supporters, including Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, lauded the technology as the “future” of one-to-one computing.

Holman, who also teaches mathematics at MSU, can believe it. Though he has yet to teach his first full class with the tablet, this teachers’ teacher has high hopes for the device’s use.

As a presentation tool, he said, the tablet–coupled with a wireless environment–is virtually unmatched in its potential. With the handwriting capability, which Holman described as “95-percent accurate,” teachers have the ability to send customized presentations to students so they can take and save their notes directly on the tablet. The software also lets students search their notes electronically and highlight and flag important information for review, he said.

Unlike a laptop, where students’ and teachers’ note-taking abilities are constrained by a keyboard, Holman says the tablet lets users draw mathematical equations and other formulas directly onto the screen. Students no longer have to worry whether a symbol is represented on the keyboard, he said. Now, they cam simply draw symbols in by hand.

The professor also favors the device’s adjustable display, which students can lay flat on their desktops during class time, thus alleviating the physical barriers created by laptops with upright screens.

Another potential benefit is the tablet’s ability to turn recorded speech into text. Using one of the m275 models issued by the university, Holman said, a student in one of his summer classes dictated a full written assignment and converted the entire recording to text with reportedly “only a few minor tweaks here and there.”

“It’s about getting kids physically and visually interested in learning,” he said of MSU’s initiative. “The teacher who thinks [he or she] can accomplish everything with lecture notes is really going to lose out. …This is about extending the ability to use technology in the classroom.”

Whether schools eventually arrive at this technological zenith will depend on many factors–not the least of which is price. Most tablet models today, including those sold by the likes of Hewlett-Packard Co., Acer, and Toshiba, still cost upwards of $2,000. Even Gateway’s m275, which sells for slightly less than its competition, is expensive when compared with traditional desktop and low-end laptop models, many of which sell for under $1,000.

The price was right for WSU, at least. The 8,000-student institution eventually plans to standardize on the tablet devices by purchasing an additional 3,500 machines in an effort to make the technology available to its entire student population.

Pat Paulson, a professor of information management systems, envisions a number of uses for the technology in his classes. From creating instructional videos complete with voice-overs for students to giving multimedia presentations and collecting and grading homework online, Paulson says, the tablet is a tech-savvy educator’s dream.

The University of Virginia (UVA) also is poised to try its hand at the tablet PC. In May, Microsoft announced a three-way partnership with UVA and digital content provider Thomson Learning in which professors will design curricula and other pedagogical approaches to take advantage of the tablet’s unique features, including its digital ink functionality.

Even K-12 schools, with their anemic technology budgets, are getting into the act. Last year, Florida’s Ocoee Middle School became one of the first to put tablets into the hands of students as part of a pilot program with Microsoft, HP, and educational publisher Holt, Reinhart and Winston.

Principal Katherine Clark said students and teachers alike have praised the technology for its ability to serve as both a writing and communications tool. Students reportedly use the machines to store their notes, conduct research, and hand in work to teachers.

With the many tablet PC projects under way in schools, initial concerns about the technology’s speed and the efficiency of its handwriting-recognition application–which enables users to take notes directly on the screen with the aid of a digital pen or stylus–appear to be waning. Hardware and software manufacturers say the tablet design has undergone significant improvements since it was first launched two years ago.

Gateway’s m275, for instance, is powered by the efficient Centrino chip from Intel Corp., which pairs notebook-comparable speed with low power consumption, an advantage that enables the m275 to go more than four hours without a recharge, Gateway engineers said in a meeting with eSchool News.

As for the software, Microsoft recently released a beefed-up version of its XP tablet operating system, which customers can download for free as part of the company’s Service Pack 2.

Chris Barry, who manages the software maker’s Tablet PC Group, said the update includes an upgrade to its OneNote application, the program that enables tablets to turn handwriting into text. Barry said the company relied on user feedback and other suggestions to bolster the quality and accuracy of the technology, which familiarizes itself with an individual’s handwriting based on how much time a user logs with the program.

“This is a product that is well-suited to the education market,” contends Gateway’s tablet product manager, Joe Torres, who called the m275 an “all-in-one” notebook for students.

But that doesn’t mean schools aren’t anticipating problems. For starters, the four-hour battery life is less than enough to get students through an entire school day.

To deal with the power issue, Ocoee provides its students with an additional battery, which can be swapped out when the machines run out of juice. At MSU, officials plan to provide a “battery café,” where students can trade in used batteries for freshly charged ones. In some cases, students also will have the option of plugging their machines in during class. Gateway reports that the battery in its m275 takes less than two hours to reach 90-percent capacity.

In the event that the technology breaks or needs repairs, MSU’s Stenejhem said the university will provide replacement units to students until fixes are made. Full-service warranty plans and insurance programs are another way for schools to ensure their investments are well protected, officials said.

Even amid the growing enthusiasm, Bill Rust, research director for independent research firm Gartner Inc., says it’s still premature to call tablets the future of one-to-one computing.

“Eventually, I would expect another form factor to steal the thunder from tablets,” said Rust, who envisions a hybrid machine that would integrate all the features of the laptop, notebook, and tablet seamlessly into a single, portable device.

Even with their scaled-down price tags, Rust said, convertible models such as the newly designed Gateway m275 remain cost-prohibitive for most schools, especially K-12 institutions. When compared with the prices many schools are getting for laptops, he said, the tablet’s price is still too high.

Another question mark is durability, he added. Though most school customers don’t anticipate a dramatic increase in hardware fixes from tablets, Rust wonders whether the machines will withstand the general wear and tear of daily classroom and home use.

In the end, he predicts the success of the tablet will hinge not upon the hardware, but on how educators deploy the tool to meet students’ needs.

Links:

Gartner Inc.

Gateway Inc.

Hewlett-Packard Co.

Mayville State University

Microsoft Corp.

Winona State University