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Curriculum - ICT - Hooked on tablets

The iPad may have taken them to the masses, but schools were among the first on the tablet computer wagon. George Cole reports on the glorious rise of the flexible tech friend loved by teachers and pupils alike

The iPad may have taken them to the masses, but schools were among the first on the tablet computer wagon. George Cole reports on the glorious rise of the flexible tech friend loved by teachers and pupils alike

For Leanne Robson, director of raising achievement at Manor College of Technology in Hartlepool, pupils taking an active part in lessons without having to leave their seats is an ideal learning environment. "Some pupils are not comfortable standing in front of a class and feel more confident sitting down to answer a question," she says.

The answer has proven to be tablet PCs. While many schools have invested heavily in personal computers, in the shape of laptops, desktops or netbooks, tablets offer a third way, one their advocates claim combines all the advantages of the alternatives.

Unlike a netbook, a tablet is a fully-functional portable computer. Unlike a laptop or desktop, its screen is operated either by a stylus or the user's finger, dispensing with the need for a keyboard. So they combine a wide range of functions with greater portability, and wireless connectivity between the tablet and the projector means it can be easily passed around the class, says Ms Robson. This means pupils can put their contribution on screen without having to stand at the front of the class.

Although Manor also uses laptops and netbooks, all 90 teachers have access to a tablet PC. Ms Robson says many prefer it to the interactive whiteboard (IWB).

Tablets are more flexible than their rivals. In maths, for example, it is easier to write algebraic equations than to type them. Tablets allow notes to be printed out easily and also permit teachers and pupils to annotate texts, producing personalised resources. "There's a lot of free software that allows you to write over documents or web pages, cut and paste parts of a file or create electronic sticky notes," says Ms Robson. A program called PDF Annotator, for example, lets you write over PDF documents and save your annotations.

Tablet computers have been steadily building a following for a couple of years, but it was the unveiling of Apple's iPad earlier this year - and its launch in the UK last month - that has really brought them to widespread attention. At Invergordon Academy in Ross-shire, Scotland, however, teachers have been using them for years.

"I saw them at a conference and I felt they would make a good alternative to the IWB," says Michael Aitchison, acting deputy head. Around a quarter of Invergordon's teachers regularly use tablet PCs, fitted with wireless technology so they can connect to the internet, and with handwriting recognition software so users can write, annotate and draw directly on to the screen.

For Mr Aitchison, one of the advantages of tablets is that the teacher can use them from any part of the classroom, while IWBs often mean teachers have their backs to the class. At Invergordon, they are used as overhead projectors, computers, graphic calculators and in preparation and planning. They are not just issued to teachers, either: six students in an advanced higher mathematics group have been entrusted with them.

While the iPad may be getting all the attention, Mr Aitchison does not see it having as much application as the RM or Motion Computing versions in use at Invergordon. "The iPad screen is touch-sensitive, so you can't lean on it with your hand as you can with a stylus-operated tablet," he says.

The stylus is one of the potential drawbacks of a tablet PC, not because it is hard to use - it isn't - but because it is small and easy to lose. In three years of use, though, Mr Aitchison says the school has only lost one.

Some schools have found tablets have other disadvantages. At Hugh Christie College in Tonbridge, Kent, pupils still use tablets for project-based work, but have switched to laptops and the IWB for most classroom work. One issue was cost, says Janet Hudson, assistant principal. A tablet typically costs around #163;500-#163;1,500, while both laptops and netbooks start from around #163;200. "We also found that most pupils preferred using a keyboard and mouse," says Ms Hudson. "We had to purchase plug-in keyboards and mice, which was expensive."

Kathryn Broadhurst, headteacher of Green Lane Infants in Leicester, says tablets provided a useful part of learning to use ICT for pupils, although the school has now switched to IWBs. "Tablets encouraged children to use their fingers, which gave them confidence when using a whiteboard or plasma screen display."

There are other options, though. The Toshiba tablets in use at Manor incorporate a built-in keyboard that can be folded out. "Teachers will need to type at times, for example, when writing reports, so a keyboard is essential," says Ms Robson.

Tablets do not need to replace existing laptops or netbooks, and instead can be part of a school's overall ICT provision. Most of the 1,250 pupils at Invicta Grammar in Maidstone, Kent, have one of their own. The school also has more than 70 IWBs and around 90 tablet PCs, used by teachers.

The school was part of a tablet pilot in Kent, and teachers liked them so much that they were issued to all staff, says Carol Webb, assistant headteacher. Smart Notebook software allows teachers to create lessons and presentations for IWBs on their tablets, she adds.

Netbooks are cheaper, lighter and more portable than tablets, and so more suitable for pupils, but tablets still have an important role to play. "Netbooks are a more viable solution for the children, but tablet PCs have been a very good investment for our school," says Ms Webb. "Staff like using them: it's easy to make notes and draw. Many teachers prefer to use a pen rather than a mouse."


- There are two basic types of tablet PCs: slates, which have a large screen and can use a plug-in keyboard, and hybrid versions, which include a fold-out keyboard for typing. Slates are lighter, but you need to buy a plug-in keyboard to type. Hybrids are more versatile, but they are generally bulkier and more expensive than slates.

- Some tablet PCs are operated by a stylus; others use touch technology and are controlled by the user's fingers. A stylus makes it easier to write and draw on a tablet, but care has to be taken not to lose the stylus. Touch-operated tablets, which rely on fingers, are very easy to operate, but are harder to use for writing, as users cannot lean their hand on the screen, as they would with a sheet of paper.

- If you use a stylus-operated tablet PC, purchase one or two spare electronic pens.

- Wireless connectivity makes it easy to connect a tablet PC to the internet and a digital projector, and for collaborative work.

- If you plan to connect your tablet PC wirelessly with a projector, check that all the equipment in the connectivity chain is compatible.

- Check what software comes with your tablet, such as programs that enable users to annotate documents.

- The accuracy of handwriting recognition technology varies, so test this before deciding on a particular model.

- Some students will prefer writing on a tablet PC than on paper, but others will prefer using a keyboard and mouse, so try to offer your class a choice of computers to use.

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