Friday, October 15, 2010

Why all students need a real tablet

By real, I mean one with an active digitizer, and a pen.  One that prioritizes handwriting over multitouch party tricks.  Not that pinching to zoom isn’t useful, but these new tablets are all about the flashy side of touch and consuming media, rather than harnessing the power of the pen for content creation.

A recent Wall Street Journal article that was covered by several blogs in my google feed, confirms what we all really already knew.  Handwriting trumps typing for memory and cognition.  Duh.  Taking the time to form the letters by hand will cause what you write to stick in your head way better than just pushing buttons on a keyboard.  As a kinesthetic learner, this makes a big difference to me.  My method of preparing for a mid-term or final in college was to sort through my daily notes from lectures and re-write them by topic.  Just re-reading my notes didn’t get me anywhere, it was re-writing them that did it.  Of course, not everyone is a kinesthetic learner, so not everyone will get the same benefit, but everyone can benefit from the physical action of forming letters. 

So why don’t schools give out tablets?  What good are netbooks and macbooks?  Or even iPads and slates with capacitive screens.  Sure the reviewers all love them for their responsiveness.  They open a web browser and zoom with two fingers, or spin and resize photos, and then ooh and ah over how slick and responsive it is.  But how does that help anyone learn?  Intel came close with the convertible classmate tablet, but still no active digitizer.  Okay, maybe they’re more expensive to build in, and you have to deal with kids losing pens, but resistive and capacitive screens even with styluses don’t even come close to a normal writing experience.  If you can’t lay your hand down and just write, without worrying about selecting things, or generating extra ink, or having the computer think you really want to zoom, it’s no good.  Inking on a tablet with an active digitizer is, for me at least, no different than writing on paper. 

Except for the fact that it’s way better than paper.  You have an infinite writing surface in Evernote or OneNote; the page just keeps getting longer as you get near the bottom.  OneNote will let you insert blank space in the middle of your handwriting too.  It will also let you search your handwriting, and link from page to page.  Today’s lecture expanding on a concept that was introduced last week?  Link to it.  Insert audio so you can listen to the lecture if you’ve got one of those teachers who can talk faster than you can write.  Insert PDFs and write over them, without having mess up the originals. 

I used my tc1100 with OneNote to take notes at the training institutes I attended over the summer, and was very pleased with the experience.  I was able to write as much as I wanted for each page without running out of space.  Some of my collegues couldn’t take notes through a whole observation because they were using single page observation templates and filled them half way through.  I had scanned in all the music, so I was able to mark it up while still keeping my books clean.  I could ink in music notes if I wanted, and I did want to, a lot.  There was another trainee taking notes on a netbook and I have to wonder how she managed to type music.  If I had to do school over again, or any more academic work, I know I’d be living off my tablet and OneNote. 

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