Note: this is the first in a series of articles I will be writing for TabletPCBuzz.com, reposted here with permission.
Tablet PCs are generally considered niche devices, relegated to specific industries. You will mostly see advertising targeted at health care, construction, warehouse, and other "clipboard" jobs where the tablet is basically used as a digital clipboard. The new crop of "entertainment" style slate media tablets are generally presented in scenarios where the user is lounging on a couch or chair and the tablet is in their lap.
But what about that other major industry where you can frequently observe many workers, pen in hand, scribbling away? You know, school.
There have been so many initiatives looking to add computers to the classroom, but why not look at improving what's already happening in the classroom? Students spend a lot of time reading from books and writing on paper, and this has proven to be generally successful in getting information into their heads and giving them sufficient opportunity to work with and understand that information. Rather than trying to supplement the books and paper notes with flashy interactive clicky computer games, why not start by just being better at books and paper notes?
In fact, my new teacher orientation a few years ago at a small private school included an admonishment to use less paper. Apparently, the photocopying of worksheets in the previous years had been so excessive that it was becoming a budget issue. I can remember in my own elementary education keeping a box of papers that I brought home throughout the year. At the end of each school year, the box just got thrown away and we never missed it. I'm still hanging onto notebooks from my undergrad "just in case" I decide to go on to a DMA. Educational paper work takes up a lot of space, in addition to just using up a ton of paper.
This series of articles will be more focused on how a tablet PC can take over certain tasks within the current educational methods and set ups, rather than trying to "revolutionize" the educational system with computers. I'm going to try to look at current tasks that can be improved with the use of a tablet PC as well as several examples of tablet PCs already in use in lecture halls and classrooms. I have some limited classroom teaching experience myself, with all of my current teaching now done privately in a studio (ages 3 through high school), so I will be drawing on my own classroom memories as both student and teacher, as well as the experiences of current teachers and students. Please add your own ideas, experiences, and opinions in the comments.
This would be my ideal foundational elementary school set up:
A 1:1 set of graded classroom slates with both capacitive and active digitizers. This would be set up similar to the way each classroom currently has a set of textbooks for each subject, hopefully one for each student. Just like how students are currently assigned a classroom owned textbook for the year that they can take home if they need it for homework, they would be assigned a classroom owned slate for the year that would be returned at the end of the school year and used for that same grade level next year. The younger grades would get super ruggedized machines with lots of soft edges and a thicker stylus (think Leapster type hardware but with a larger capacitive screen and active pen). The older grades would move to sleeker machines with textbook/notepad sized screens and a smaller, more pencil sized stylus. These machines would only need to be upgraded when the hardware could no longer support the display needs of the texts (assuming digital textbooks will become more and more media rich), and would hopefully last many years with only software updates needed to keep the textbooks current.
These slates would not only hold all the various subjects worth of textbooks the kids would need for their grade, but they would also serve as a digital notebook. All those worksheets that elementary kids go through could be done digitally on the tablet. While students are very good at figuring out how to manipulate a touch tablet, this task would absolutely require a high quality active pen setup to keep the experience as close to paper as possible. What good is copy work, if the physical motions learned won't translate to paper? Also, there are so many studies out that show how necessary handwriting is to cognitive development. I would hesitate to give a keyboard to an elementary student for the same reasons I would hesitate to give them a calculator before they could comfortably manipulate numbers in their head. The main goal would simply be to digitize the bulk of the work so as to eliminate unnecessary paper clutter and waste.
But what will parents tape to the refrigerator? All of these worksheets and notebooks filled out by the kids should be made available online through the cloud, in an account associated with the students log in. That way, even when they get a new tablet with the next grade level's textbooks, they will still have access to all their previous work. These documents should also be accessible via the web for the parents to download to their home computers for reference over the summer, and for printing out fridge displays. But this way, only the most important work ever makes it onto dead trees. Art would still be done on the real medium so kids learn the feeling of chalk vs crayon or textured paper vs plain paper.
Ideally, I would see these slates running a proprietary interface built over a lightweight linux or Android (or whatever) base. The only programs the slates would run would be a textbook viewer with pen tools for annotations and highlighters, a worksheet viewer with pen tools for completing the work, a notebook with organization into subjects and subtopics with developmentally appropriate lines, maybe a calendaring app to track homework assignments, maybe (really maybe) a simply messaging program for students to communicate, and nothing else. No games, no internet browser. If educational games are really necessary, they could be included as part of the textbooks. Recess should be on the playground and internet access in the library for learning how to research. The main goal would be to create a tool with minimal distraction potential. The slates would only have connectivity for keeping the notebooks and worksheets synced to the cloud. This could also be accomplished with a sufficiently locked down windows system with a kid friendly overlay.
The teacher's system would have access to screen share with any of the classroom slates, project either the teacher's screen or any student's screen to a big screen at the front, access the students worksheet's in a format that can be written on for grading, grading and attendance systems, a system for the teacher to keep private notes on each student, and a public student notes area that parents would also be able to view. Perhaps this could be accomplished with a larger slate or convertible that could be docked at the teacher's desk or carried around the classroom communicating wirelessly with the projector.
Of course this would also require some major training for the teachers to learn how to use the system, and for the parents to know how to help their kids with homework on the slates and how to access their cloud work. The kids themselves would require minimal instruction to figure out their slates. As with many new technologies, it's the adults who would have the hardest time adapting. Intel has gone a long ways towards these goals with their Classmate series, and I will explore those machines in another article, but the fact that they compromised on a resistive screen with low response to finger touch to allow stylus use with minimal palm interference, and the fact that even the convertibles are primarily marketed in notebook mode with kids typing on them, prevents them from matching my ideal.
This set up would set the foundation. In the next article I will talk about my vision for transitioning through middle and high school to more typing for longer form essays and papers, letting the kids have more access to the internet, and a transition to students being able to use their own personal machines in the classroom.