The write stuff

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
There's much excitement, but also mixed feelings, among early adopters of Tablets PCs. Jack Kenny gets the grass roots reaction

"It's what paper should be," said Jim Wynn, head of John Cabot College in Bristol after using a Tablet PC for some time. It's difficult to remember a technology that has had as much immediate impact as the Tablet.

Peter Kite of Kings College School in Wimbledon is head of computing services and also a maths teacher. Kite has an RM Tablet that he's evaluating as a teaching tool. Using a keyboard to reproduce calculations had always been a problem for him, but the Tablet's Journal software has made things easy, all he has to do is write. Kite explains that he can store his work, search for it and make it available to staff and pupils.

"What I've found particularly interesting," says Carol Webb of Cornwallis School, in Maidstone, Kent, "is other people's perceptions of the Tablet.

They see it in relation to what they already know. I tell them that it's not a desktop, not a laptop but a new technology. It's a totally new device."

Wynn, at John Cabot College in Bristol, has been working with a Tablet that has a wireless connection to a projector. Wynn uses the Tablet and sits facing his small maths group, who are in a half circle around him. The projector is behind him. No wires at all and no interactive board necessary. "I can change the colour of the pen and I can keep everything that I write. It's wonderful. On the other hand, it's not so good with ordinary written work; I took some minutes at a meeting and that was hard work getting it accurate."

The Tablet hasn't been a complete success story at Aylsham School in Norfolk, either. Bravely Aylsham has equipped a whole class with Tablets and they have experienced difficulties. The wireless network finds it tricky to cope with such a large group logging on, and because children haven't got their own machines they don't have a feeling of ownership. But Claire Brayne, their teacher, is sure that, once they overcome these teething problems, the technology will have real benefits.

At Cornwallis, the Tablets were given to students in the sixth form. Webb explains: "We needed the students to get to grips with the technology pretty quickly and then be able to use it in practice. There are 10 students in the group and we had 18 Tablets so they had one each to use as they wanted in all their lessons. In a German lesson one boy even used a downloadable e-book dictionary on his Tablet. They just gave up on paper, they used the Journal software all the time. They didn't have keyboards and generally they didn't find that was a disadvantage. But they did have difficulty in ICT, trying to code Visual Basic without a keyboard can be a bit tricky. Chemistry was fine though, they can write the long equations in Journal and cut and paste them into Word as handwriting."

Cornwallis has wireless connectivity across the school. "We were printing by wireless as well. Some of the lads have laptops of their own and some laptops belong to the school," says Webb. "They developed a system where they would transfer files between laptops and Tablets using Net Meeting.

They found that really conducive to learning."

Webb has even set up an exam paper using the Tablet's Snipping Tool. "The exam board that we use distributes specimen questions as PDFs. I snip them out, then paste them into Word. These can go into the Journal. I then email the questions to the students. They answer the questions and email them back to me and l electronically mark them.

"I have tried electronic marking in a variety of ways over the years and this is the best. The students email work to me and I open it up in Journal. And by changing the colour of the ink I can colour-code my responses: green for comments, red for marks and so on. I can send that back to the student as a document that they can't change, or as an HTML document that they can edit.

"I've always kept an electronic account of the progress of my students. You can use a spreadsheet and put marks on it just as if it was paper-based.

All my marks are kept that way," explains an enthusiastic Webb.


A basic Tablet PC, sometimes referred to as "a slate", looks like a screen that has been detached from a laptop. It's actually a Windows computer running the XP operating system, usually with Office software (Word, Excel and PowerPoint).

The big difference with a Tablet is that you can write directly on the screen with a stylus. A Tablet mixes the ease of use of writing with a pen on paper with the sophistication of a powerful computer.

Using the built-in Journal utility you write on the screen using the stylus and the software saves your words as handwriting or translates them into text.

Most of the models available also have built-in modem and wireless networking capabilities.


So is the Tablet a solution or a problem - a genuine development or a gimmick? Before you invest in this new technology you should ask yourself a few questions...

* What are the pedagogical issues? Is the Tablet more effective in some curriculum areas rather than others?

* Is the Tablet a tool for teachers rather than pupils?

* Are keyboard skills still essential?

* What are the implications for handwriting?

* Apart from handwriting, what can a Tablet do that a laptop can't?

* Is personal ownership essential?

* Are we in danger of procuring before we understand the issues?

* Should we encourage students to store work as handwriting or as text?

* Are the Tablets robust enough to withstand classroom conditions?

* Are they adjuncts to desktop PCs or replacements?

* Wireless networking with handwriting and speech recognition - is this too much for the classroom?

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