Oct 24 2007

Tablet PCs Require Academic Support

Mobile learning tools are only as good as instructors' devotion to using them.

Mobile learning tools are only as good as instructors’ devotion to using them.

Can computers in the classroom enhance learning? Maybe — but the answer might depend on some fundamental insights about how students learn.

For several years at the University of Virginia, we have been using tablet PCs in a variety of classes. It started in 2003 when a collaboration between Thomson Learning (now Cengage Learning), Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft brought 425 tablet PCs to Virginia. The tablets were loaned for a semester to students taking courses in biochemistry, psychology, statistics, astronomy, religious studies and drama. Our tablet PC program is voluntary, but students continue to use them.

In class, the students’ reaction to tablet PCs depends strongly on the degree of instructor buy-in. Instructors who devote serious effort to developing software and exercises for the tablets find that students respond favorably to their use, but students get little out of the tablet experience if their instructor is not strongly invested in the program.

How do tablets fit in the learning experience versus notebook PCs? There is a place for both. Most students bring notebook PCs to Virginia, but they are usually heavy machines that are great for gaming, videos, and music downloading — popular pastimes for today’s students. But they’re too heavy for the daily slog from class to class, lunch, and workouts. When we did our tablet pilot, 90 percent of our students were bringing notebooks to school, but only a small number were bringing them to class. With tablets, we found students taking them everywhere.

I encouraged my biochemistry students to use the tablet’s stylus for writing. They learned to rewrite their class notes on the day of the lecture, reinforcing the learning experience in class. When they completed an electronic worksheet on the tablet, they could save the file on their hard drive and then later open a fresh copy of the same exercises, repeat the assignment and save another copy.

Tablet PCs still have room for improvement, on both the hardware and application sides.

A great strength of tablet PCs is their combination of power and portability, although at times power and portability are at odds depending on the form factor. Motion Computing and others sell slate tablets that can fit into docking stations. It’s hard to attach a keyboard to a slate, but they are light and convenient for taking notes. HP, Toshiba and others offer “convertibles” with keyboards attached and swivel screens. But the convertibles are heavier to carry around. Maybe somebody can come up with lighter convertibles or keyboards that can more easily attach to slates.

We also need more and better software for college-level courses, and we need to be able to port and share learning objects seamlessly from application to application, from student to instructor, and so on. And because no college or university can afford to foot the bill for development of meaningful software across the curriculum, we need more collaboration between educational institutions, publishers and manufacturers of hardware and software.

Finally, we must change the campus culture to make true mobile computing a priority. In such an environment, learning might just take care of itself.

Take Note

Tablets are especially good tools to help students take notes in class.

I put all my notes in Microsoft OneNote — it’s part of the Office suite for tablet PCs. Many students use a tablet stylus to take notes right on the slides themselves.

Students can sit with lecture slides in OneNote, take notes and circle things, while I’m doing the same thing in the front of the room. Also, tablet PCs have a built-in microphone. I record my voice, and students can take that back and replay it. They literally get a blow-by-blow recording of everything that goes on.

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