With the Tablet PC looking set to revolutionise the classroom, Jack Kenny asks the question, "are schools jumping on the bandwagon too early?"
Has there ever been a technology as instantly appealing to schools as the Tablet PC? It's like a return to the slate - which is what many teachers actually call it - but this time with all the capabilities that computers can provide. RM, quick to recognize the Tablet's educational potential, was selling the new machines as far back as last summer, and many other educational ICT companies, such as Viglen and Time, are hot on its heels.
RM is usually quite cautious, so does this indicate confidence in the new technology? RM's secondary business manager, Ray Fleming, says that RM immediately identified the Tablet PC as a "great tool for schools". "We then worked with a number of schools to assess its potential," he explains.
"We saw that the technology had the potential to transform and we also recognised that we needed to supply a Tablet PC at a price that schools could afford."
Some would urge caution, arguing that a school is not a place to prove new technologies. No one doubts this technology will have a tremendous impact in the classroom, but surely the lessons need to be learned first? The Tablet PC might change the face of computing - but not overnight. And the benefits for teaching and learning should always be the priority.
Early users believe that some of the benefits are fairly obvious, like the extraordinary impact of handwriting recognition. You write a word using the stylus and the Tablet PC recognises that word and transforms it into text.
Teachers can be excused some scepticism about this technology after disappointing early implementations of voice recognition, but the fact is handwriting recognition has suddenly reached a stage where it's not only useable but very useful. The computer keyboard has been a barrier to many and remains a stumbling block to many more. And, let's face it, the mouse is far inferior to the stylus or pencil.
Tablet PC handwriting works in two ways. You can either write in "ink" on a lined page on-screen and then ask the software to change your words into typed text, or you can write and leave your words as ink, just as you would with notes, and many of the early users seem content to do that. You can even do a search through your notes to locate a specific handwritten note.
Journal is the software for writing with "ink". There, on a lined page (where you can adjust the space between the lines), you can write, erase, highlight, format text, insert spaces, drag and drop, and convert your handwriting into computer text. Journal supports a variety of background images and stationery. You can choose your stationery - lined paper versus wide-ruled or grid paper. Other stationery could include an electronic form, such as a register or mark book.
But the feature that could make the biggest difference is the built-in capability for wireless networking. Wireless is still in its infancy in schools and the Tablet is going to accelerate its growth. The mobility of the Tablet and the freedom of wireless were meant for each other. The instant collaboration between pupil and pupil, and pupil and teacher has the potential to re-shape the classroom, as does the ability to work anywhere on campus.
David Burrows of Microsoft, the firm that developed the Tablet concept and the software, believes that the slate (a Tablet without the keyboard) is a good student device, but for versatility a teacher will probably gravitate towards a clamshell design (a Tablet with a keyboard, more like a laptop).
Burrow's colleague at Microsoft, ex-teacher Mike Lloyd, says: "I think that teachers will use Tablets for doing what they do routinely, like taking a register. They will have an impact from the ground up. I can see them being very useful in the teaching of handwriting. The test is, if a child forms a word does the computer recognise it? Instant feedback! And in Design and Technology it's far more natural to use a pen than to draw with a mouse. In art you can dip the pen into a colour and run it across the page and watch the intensity of the ink decrease as it would on paper."
David Burrows says that the task of the Microsoft team is to work with innovative schools, find the best practice, then disseminate it through a strategy that works to the benefit of the profession rather than to the advantage of a technology marketing machine. "We're not going to be surprised at some things - they will be obvious - but we will be amazed at some things that we haven't even thought of."
* Art Tool - Simple colouring software
* Calculator - Use a stylus to write the numbers
* Drawing Animator - Draw doodles and then animate them
* Snipping Tool - "Cut out" anything on screen and share it
* Music Composition Tool - Create and play your own music files
* Thumbnail View - View your journal files as thumbnails
* Journal Viewer - This handy utility allows users not running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition to view files that were created in Microsoft Windows Journal on a Tablet PC.
Visit www.microsoft.com windowsxptabletpc to downloadthe files listed above, together with other Tablet utilities.
* Sketchbook - Download the 15-day trial version of Alias SketchBook Pro software.
* School experience - read up on one American school's experience of working with Tablet computers.
Microsoft has released an update of its Microsoft Reader software to coincide with the introduction of Tablet PC. This program lets users create their own books from electronic libraries.
Microsoft Reader software
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