When Tony Harkins won a Tablet PC in a prize draw, it was only a matter of days before he was re-assessing his plans for ICT. "We were considering buying a few interactive whiteboards," says Harkins, who is ICT teacher at St Aloysius' College in Glasgow. "But now I'm starting to think we could buy Tablet PCs plus projectors, and forget the whiteboards."
The theory behind his thinking is straightforward: link a Tablet PC to a data projector - perhaps one of the new wireless models - and the Tablet becomes a roving platform for interactive presentations. Anyone in the class can use it to make a contribution. "For the price of a whiteboard, you can have a Tablet PC, which a teacher can use at home and in school," says Harkins, who won his machine at a teaching conference hosted by RM.
The Tablet PC may only recently have made its debut in the classroom, but teachers are already looking at its potential to re-shape the way they deploy ICT. Like Harkins, some believe it could provide a viable alternative to the interactive whiteboard. Others argue that this approach would suit neither their objectives nor their carefully crafted classroom style.
One of the first to use the Tablet PC was Carol Webb, ICT advanced skills teacher at the Cornwallis School in Maidstone, Kent. She took part in a pilot scheme run by Microsoft and RM, and has been using Tablet PCs with her A-level ICT students. "What the Tablet PC has done for me is to pull together all the technologies I have ever worked with - from paper and copying machines to laptop and desktop computers and interactive whiteboards - into one device," she says.
Webb has wired up the Tablet to a projector for presentations. "I couldn't link my Tablet to my whiteboard as it didn't have the right connection - but then I realised I didn't need to. In fact, the Tablet PC is better than my whiteboard, because I can pass it around the class," she explains.
"Students are prepared to rest it on their laps and make notes for the others, whereas some are very reticent to stand at the board."
Webb stresses the ease with which she can call up a worksheet or exam paper on screen, making notes with the class and publishing the annotated version on the school's network, or emailing work to students to complete on their Tablet PCs and send back for marking. "I am still only on the edge of what the Tablet PC does," she says. "This is not just another computer - it is a whole new technology."
Amanda Dennison is head at Millennium Primary School in Greenwich, London, which also took part in the pilot. She used Tablet PCs intensively with year 6 for literacy and maths lessons, linking her own Tablet to her whiteboard (a SMART Board) in place of a laptop machine. "When I write on the board, I have my back to the class and my hand over the writing, but when I write on the Tablet I can face the class," she says. "I did handwriting with Years 3-4, and they could see very clearly how I was forming every letter. It also encouraged them to write neatly, because they wanted the Tablet PC to recognise their own writing."
Dennison believes there's much more potential for combining the use of Tablet PC and whiteboard, and says: "It's not a case of 'eitheror'. The Tablet PC is just another way into learning for the students."
John Prosser is ICT co-ordinator for science at The City School in Sheffield. He has had great success using Promethean's wireless graphics slates and handheld voting devices, which work with his Promethean ACTIVboard. "If we're collaborating on a discussion, the children canwork on the slates up to five metres away from the whiteboard, and they can still come up and interact with the board too," he says.
"The whiteboard is the focal point of the lesson, and the ability to interact with it is very important. The children would lose that access if an image was just projected on to a screen from a Tablet PC. Without doubt, Tablet PCs could complement our work. But I don't feel they could replace what we can do with the whiteboard and slates."
Sheyne Lucock is general inspector for information technology for Barking and Dagenham LEA, and one of the driving forces behind a highly successful whole-class teaching approach used in primaries for the last decade. To support the approach, the LEA introduced not whiteboards but data projectors, which beam images from the teacher's computer onto a giant screen. The children make their contributions with the help of A4-sized graphics Tablets which communicate wirelessly with the computer.
"The Tablet PC has lots of appeal, but as far as interactive whole-class teaching is concerned, I can't see how it could possibly replace the technology we have," says Lucock. "Tablet PCs are more expensive than our graphics Tablets, and updating the projector to work directly from them would be a slow business with today's wireless technology. If we wanted to substitute a Tablet PC for the teacher's computer, we would have to add bits on just to match our existing laptops. Our computers are permanently set up to go, and we have something that really works."