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Take II Tablets

After years of false starts, true tablet computers may actually be ready for primetime.
University Business, Jan 2011

Back in 2003, University Business ran a cover story that asked, "Is the Tablet PC the Future of Higher Education?"

It was an exciting time, when computers were faster and more powerful than ever, and everyone was still just scratching the surface of how to interact with the internet.

On college and university campuses across the country, people were talking tablets, and students, professors, technologists, and administrators alike thought we might be witnessing the next generation of computers.

Early tablet computers came in two basic designs: "slate" devices with detachable or wireless keyboards, and "convertible" devices that mimicked the clamshell design of notebook computers, only with displays that swiveled 360 degrees and closed over the keyboard, face up. Most of the slate devices (as seen in the cover illustration from that issue, above) had docking stations so users could work on them as they would work on a desktop computer. Some included stylus pens that made it easier to interact with the touch screen.

Tablets are likely to be seen in use by students outdoors, as at the University of Minnesota...

There was no shortage of entries in this budding tablet market. Companies like Acer, HP, Toshiba, ViewSonic, NEC, and others all wanted in on what they predicted would be the "next big thing."

"Two years from now, I wouldn't be surprised if this technology was more the norm than the exception," said one CIO at the time. "Who knows? Soon enough, every notebook in the academic world could be a tablet."

But the devices had their problems. For one thing, by most measures, they were basically notebook computers turned on end. They were dependent on mechanical hard drives and heavy batteries, which brought the weight up to almost five pounds in some cases. They also were expensive, with an average price of $2,200.

That was enough to make most tablet programs fizzle.

...or indoors in the classroom or library, as this Seton Hill senior (above) demonstrates.

"From the technology standpoint, I've worked at another university that had a tablet program that failed miserably," says Phil Komarny, vice president for information technology at Seton Hill University (Pa.). "It didn't work in almost every aspect of the rollout."

But a lot has changed since 2003, and one reason is the introduction last April of Apple's iPad. "There are a lot of things that have come together and make the iPad work well," says Dave Ernst, director of academic and information technology at University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development. "The iPad is really a different device from anything that has come along before."

What makes it different? First, it isn't a computer in the traditional sense. That is, it's not like a laptop with command-line capabilities that can be tweaked and modified to your liking. The iPad's closed environment device doesn't invite tinkering. It uses a flash drive, rather than a conventional hard drive; combined with new, lighter battery technology, that brings the weight down to about 1.5 pounds. A touch-screen interface eliminates the need for a stylus, and if you need a keyboard, a near full-sized virtual keyboard appears at the touch of an icon. And at just a half-inch thick, it is easy to carry anywhere.

"Our office of information technology surveys students regularly and has found that while 90 percent of students own laptops, they don't often bring them to class," says Ernst. "They generally don't want to lug them around. The iPads seem to fit a whole different niche. There are huge advantages in weight, ease of use, and instant access. Just push the home button and it's instantly on."

'The iPad is really a different device from anything that has come along before.'
-David Ernst, University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development

Here's one more thing to consider: In that 2003 story, one industry analyst offered a market prediction. Tablets will struggle in the market, he said, selling perhaps as few as 1.9 million units over the next few years. By contrast, the iPad, with a starting price of $499, has already sold an estimated 8.25 million units, according to Fortune magazine.

So now, in 2011, we ask the question again: Are tablets the future of higher education?

Seton Hill and the U of M are just two among a number of institutions taking a close look at the iPad's potential in the classroom. Add to the list Reed College (Ore.), the University of Maryland, Duke University (N.C.), North Carolina State, and, most recently, Buena Vista University (Iowa).

Buena Vista has committed to an iPad pilot program to begin this spring. "We feel at this time the iPad represents a shift in technology and information delivery which we cannot ignore," says Matt Morton, director of information services.

An ongoing program at Seton Hill has nearly all students and faculty members using the devices. In August 2010, the school issued 1,870 iPads to students, faculty, and adjuncts as part of its Griffin Technology Advantage program (named for the school's mascot, and not related to the company that, coincidentally, makes iPad accessories).

"We were very lucky," says Mary Ann Gawelek, provost and dean of faculty. "We were in the middle of a big federal grant project that allowed us to send all our faculty to a year-long training program to figure out how to use Web 2.0 tools to enhance the learning experience. Later, we made the decision to distribute both iPads and MacBooks to students, and that has allowed us to really think about how we do high touch with students in the classroom."

Higher education faces a challenge it has never had before, Gawelek says. "Students coming in now have learned in a significantly different way than students did a generation earlier. What we can attribute that to most is the availability of immediate information and connectivity. They are used to texting each other and having access to information on the internet with such ease. What the iPad--and other devices, like smartphones--allows you to do is to garner the capabilities those devices provide to be useful in education rather than being a distraction. This represents a paradigm shift in terms of how we pedagogically approach things in the classroom."

Mary Spataro, director of the Center for Innovative Teaching at Seton Hill, says mobile devices like the iPad may help redefine how teaching and learning happen in coming years. "A big challenge is not to focus so much on the technology, but to focus on how you can use it to enhance the classroom experience," she says. "If it's a tool that can help us encourage interactive engagement and activities with our students, then that's all the better for us."

At the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, another research project has the school providing iPads for the entire freshman class. The cost of less than $216,000 is being funded entirely by private donations and will have no bearing on tuition, according to the university.

"We handed out the iPads during the fall semester," says Ernst. "We now have a faculty learning community dedicated to finding ways to integrate these into the curriculum." The plethora of cheap applications or "apps" that are available for the devices are finding their way into the classroom. "There are lots of things to play with and see what works. The students are discovering appropriate apps and alerting their professors. We've also had a number of faculty that use apps that work as student response systems," he adds.

"Our writing instructors have figured out how to use applications on the iPad that increase creativity and critical thinking," Gawelek says. "Our faculty are looking at how to use the devices for different aspects of classroom management, such as assigning some students who might be disengaged from the classroom experience to the role of fact checkers. We are looking at this in a way that encourages more interaction between students and teachers. It diminishes the old lecturer on the stage."

Another use for which the new tablets are especially suited is as digital text readers.

At Seton Hill, virtually all students and faculty were issued iPads. Michael Arnzen, associate professor of English, has his graduate students using their devices in the study of fiction writing.

"I think electronic textbooks are helping lead to the success of these things," says Ernst. "The price of a digital text is significantly less than a print book." U of M undergrads can expect to pay an average of $1,000 a year in textbook costs, according to the university. "The textbook companies are very motivated to figure this market out," Ernst says, "not because they see electronic texts as the future, but because they are being eaten alive by used textbooks. If a student buys a textbook, and sells it back to the bookstore at the end of the semester, the bookstore will sell it again. The publisher isn't going to see a dime from that."

Instead, he says, some publishers are trying a digital lease model, where students can lease a text for a period of 120 or 180 days, at about a third or half the cost of a new text. "One of my colleagues saw a student with an iPad and asked why he liked it so much and his answer was 'cheaper textbooks.' She asked whether he was concerned that at the end of the lease he wouldn't have the book anymore. He said, 'If for some reason I want it again, I'll just lease it again.' The students have a different mind set. They get it when it comes to cheaper textbooks."

One thing playing to the connective advantage of the iPad and other devices is that digital texts can be interactive, rather than passive. Several mainstream educational publishers, including McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Kaplan, signed up with a company called ScrollMotion to produce interactive digital versions of their texts.

'A big challenge is not to focus so much on the technology, but to focus on how you can use it to enhance the classroom experience.'
-Mary Spataro, Seton Hill University

Another company, Inkling, counts Seton Hill among its clients. "They create highly interactive e-texts," Gawelek says. "I'm not calling it an ebook, because it has many more capabilities, including note-taking and the ability for instructors to share notes with students." More than 100 students in the marketing and psychology classes acted as beta testers for some of Inkling's products, and provided feedback to the company about what works for them and what doesn't.

Most CIOs would cringe when a new device begins to access an institution's network, and, at some schools, that is true of the iPad. Princeton caused some rumbles last spring when it banned the just released iPad from campus use, saying it caused some conflicts with the school's wireless network.

"They do interact with the network strangely," says Ernst, "but we really haven't had a problem. We are keeping an eye on it and plan to release a white paper on security issues with these devices in the spring." He notes that the iPad design doesn't allow for the same security modifications a laptop computer might get before being allowed to join a network. "We changed some settings when they came in, but that's about it. These aren't really made to be enterprise devices as regular computers are. Another difference is that the software isn't attached to the device as it is on a laptop. Instead, it is attached to the user's iTunes account. That means that any device that connects to the iTunes account will have access to the same apps. The closest thing we can do to modifying them that way is to provide links to the apps that a professor may want to use in a class."

Seton Hill's Komarny says they are looking closely at the iPad traffic compared to other devices. "We rebuilt our whole network in 2009 with a 300-access point wireless network. We were able to direct traffic from the iPads over one network and the MacBook over another. We'll look at how much data passes across each network every day and we'll be able to show trending and usage rates based on each type of device. I think that will be a nice metric to look at going forward."

Although Apple has taken an early lead in this second coming of tablet devices, there are other vendors that are closely watching the company's successes--and failures--as they prepare to release their own tablets.

Samsung's Android-powered Galaxy Tab is similar to the iPad (although it has a smaller form factor) and uses the same touch-screen/app model. Released in September, it features both back and front cameras (for videoconferencing), and it weighs about a half-pound less than an iPad.

Microsoft is also expected to throw its hat in the ring, following the successful release of the Windows smartphone last fall. The company has been rumored to be working with Samsung and Dell among others on several tablet devices to be unveiled this month at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. The Samsung device is said to have a real keyboard that slides out from the body, similar to those found on some smartphones.