Monday, April 18, 2011

Tablets in the Classroom part 3–Intel’s Classmate Convertibles

Note: this is the third in a series of articles I will be writing for, reposted here with permission.  It will go live over there whenever image hosting is fixed.

In parts one and two of this series, I put forth my ideals for the use of tablet PCs in the classroom. I'm certainly not the first person to think this way though, and Intel has already done a lot of great work with their Classmate PC series. The more I researched for my initial articles, the more I saw that Intel has really done most of what I had hoped for. From the website: "The Intel Learning Series is a complete education solution designed for 1:1 eLearning in classrooms around the world. It includes infrastructure, hardware, software, content, training, and support delivered by local vendors to meet local needs. "

The reference design hardware includes two clamshells and two convertible tablets. There are also some really great software solutions. It's also nice that they've created the full support ecosystem of training and infrastructure to help schools easily get a complete set up. The training is really vital to ensure that the teachers know the full capabilities of the set up. Support is really vital when you're asking a teacher to alter or add new stuff to a method of teaching that's been working just fine for years.

First, the software:

Easybits software overlay
From the website: "Easybits offering the Magic Desktop based on the Intel-powered convertible classmate PC. The Magic Desktop is a simplified Windows based interface, creating an open and safe online environment for children."

It's a little more cluttered and catroony than what I imagine, but it's the right idea. It simplifies the windows interface so the kids are presented with just the programs that are relevant to the current educational tasks.

The really great part is the classroom management software. It allows the teacher to see each screen, send one screen to a projector, group students into projecting and sharing setups, and all sorts of other useful things. This is exactly what I had imagined and I'm really excited to see it brought to life so well.
"Sanako Study 700 provides a language laboratory solution for the Intel-powered convertible classmate PC that puts the teacher in control."
"Teachers can monitor individual students' progress with the SMART Classroom Suite, which is part of the Intel Education software stack included in the Intel-powered convertible classmate PC."

The hardware is very close to what I would imagine for the elementary set, with a few exceptions.

1. There is no active digitizer. The compromise they made to make the pen work with decent palm rejection was to use a resistive screen with relatively low responsiveness. That prevents it from reacting to a light palm touch, but also makes for a frustrating touch experience. I'm afraid that for a generation that has grown up being pacified by their parent's iPhones, nothing less that a good capacitive screen will do. But then, there are no good capacitive stylus options, you have to add in an active digitizer. That gets closer to a natural writing experience anyway.
"The new design for the Intel-powered convertible classmate PC features palm-rejection technology so children can rest their hands on the tablet and maintain proper writing form."

Having used several machines with active digitizers, and several with resistive screens myself, I really believe that an active digitizer is essential for kids to maintain natural writing form on the computer. Even their picture explaining palm rejection looks more like the student has their hand propped up on the bezel rather than resting anything on the screen.

2. They are convertibles rather than slates. I think that at the elementary stage, the keyboard really isn't as important as kids perfecting their handwriting. Sure, the keyboard is convenient, but adds bulk. I would love to see a slate version of the Classmate PC.

The good news is that they are well ruggedized, mobile with good battery life and a carrying handle, and while I would prefer the slate form factor, the convertible form is very useful in many situations.
"The new design for the Intel-powered convertible classmate PC features a water resistant keyboard, touchscreen and screen."
"The new design for the Intel-powered convertible classmate PC is specifically designed for “micro-mobility” – small scale mobility within a classroom or the home such as moving from the desk to the floor to the sofa."
"The new design for the Intel-powered convertible classmate PC is compact and ruggedized, tough enough to withstand a backpack."
"The new design for the Intel-powered convertible classmate PC features a touch-optimized user interface for eReader applications."

I do think these convertibles would be good for elementary students, but I wonder if middle school students would view the hardware as too "little kid" and would want something that looks more like conventional consumer hardware. I have had the chance to play with the first generation convertible for a few minutes. I remember it being comfortable to hold and a neat design for kids. However, the touchscreen was way off calibration, so I couldn't really say much about the quality of the touch experience. Intel has done a lot of research and development in this area, and I can only hope they keep going.

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