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Talking about a [silent] revolution: PC makers haven't realized the widespread adoption of tablet PCs trumpeted two years ago. But if the small group of early users have their way, tablets will be the next big thing in educational technology.

When Microsoft introduced its Tablet PCs two years ago, and promised a revolution in education technology, expectations were high. But revolutions aren't spontaneous, and two years later K-12 adoption of tablets has been minimal, held back by high prices and low functionality.

But educators (and, curiously, not Microsoft) are nurturing the seeds of the revolution with their long lists of educational benefits that tablets offer, both in 1-to-1 computing environments and other deployments. Among their claims: students and teachers can learn to operate a tablet in minutes because the pen-based approach is so intuitive; tablets maximize mobility and foster collaboration; tablets may be the machine of choice for many special needs students; tablet functionality caters to differentiated learning styles.

"It's like the tablet has turned educational technology inside out," says Joe Hofmeister, director of technology at Cincinnati Country Day School where more than 500 tablets will be in use in the school this year. "Now, instead of everybody having to learn how to deal with this machine through the keyboard, now the machine has adapted itself to people."

Micro-revolution

There's no accurate count of how many K-12 schools in the U.S. are using tablet PCs in the classroom, but a quick survey of the top manufacturers puts the number at less than 500. Hewlett-Packard says it has "hundreds" of deployments. Gateway says it has somewhere around 100. Averatec, the newest and lowest price player in the market, has none. IBM, Sony, and Apple don't even make a tablet or a "convertible," which is essentially a notebook PC with a screen that swivels around to rest flat over the keyboard and recognizes handwriting and drawings entered with a special pen. Microsoft, which created the Tablet PC operating system that runs on all these machines, declined to comment on the adoption rate in education.

"By no means would I suggest this is an overwhelming movement; [education] is still very much a notebook and desktop market," says George Warren, director of K-12 computing at Hewlett Packard. Warren estimates HP sells three desktops for every notebook in the education market, and that tablets make up less than 10 percent of the notebook share.

Convertibles, which are likely to replace plain tablets as the pen-based computer of choice, makeup only about 1 percent of notebook sales, says Sam Bhavnani, senior mobile computing analyst at Current Analysis.

These numbers place tablets at the very beginning of the typical technology adoption curve. It's the technology "innovators" that have embraced tablets at this point. If experience holds true, they are likely to be followed by early adopters, the early majority, the late majority and finally the diehards (who are reluctant to adopt anything new).

"Some people are talking about the death of the tablet, saying the tablet's not doing well. We're not seeing that at all," says Ted Ladd, spokesman for Gateway. "I think there were a lot of kinks to iron out."

Barriers to Adoption

Perhaps the biggest kink to be ironed out has been the cost. Even with the various manufacturers discounts that might be available, schools that have adopted tablets or convertibles put the price tag at about $2,000 per student machine. Analysts say the price hasn't followed the usual erosion curve for a couple of reasons: First, Microsoft charges more to license its Tablet OS than it does for the desktop or notebook version. Second, manufacturers have had to increase memory and processor speed to create machines that meet user demand.

That said, prices are just now starting to drop. Averatec, a relatively small player in the market, introduced in July a convertible that retails for less than $1,300. Gateway offers its newest version for around $1,700. Toshiba's tablets cost districts about $200 more per trait than a comparably configured notebook, says senior product manager Craig Marking.

The second major barrier to tablet adoption has been the functionality of the machines. Users accustomed to speedy desktop processors were turned off by the relatively slower speeds of early tablets. The handwriting and voice recognition features that are part of the Microsoft Tablet OS have also improved since the early release, analysts say. Additionally, some tablets don't have integrated keyboards, large hard drives, or CD or DVD drives--all problems remedied by the new convertible models.

PC makers are clear that these are the issues that need to be fixed before tablets will make a significant dent in the education market.

"Schools embrace the tablet function and the mobility of a tablet or convertible," says Toshiba's Marking. "But they would prefer the functionality and price point of a desktop."

What will likely bring this about is to have the rest of the big PC players get into the tablet market. If Apple, IBM and Dell start to make tablets or convertibles, competition will drive prices down and functionality up, say market analysts.

These explanations for slow adoption are the market-centric ones, through, and probably apply beyond the education market. But educators who have adopted the technology blame their colleagues for a lack of knowledge.

"They're worried about price, they assume the price is going to be a lot more expensive. They're worried it's going to be a delicate machine that' going to break down," says Hofmeister, "These are all assumptions that are incorrect ... People have no clue about the relationship of this machine to differentiated learning styles and kids who have significant learning difficulties."

So are tablets the next big thing in educational technology? Given the way the innovators who are using them already rave about the device, and that the prices are slowly coming down as functionality increases, the answer is a qualified yes.

"This is probably one of the first pieces of equipment that's come around that I think will be around for a while," says Diane Bode, education technology specialist at Judson Independent School District in San Antonio where more than 300 tablets are in use. "I think this will be it in five years."

But will tablets stir a revolution?

"There are no revolutions in education," Hofmeister says. "Schools have an incredible immune system. They react to new things coming into the system the same way our immune system does: They gather around it and try to kill it as soon as they can.

Judson (Texas)Independent School District

Staff and students at Judson Independent School District in Texas began piloting HP Tablet PCs last year with 250 tablets configured as part of mobile labs in elementary, middle and high schools, and also gave tablets to central office and school-based administrators. The tablets were found to be valuable at all levels, and particularly in elementary school because students can input information to the machines using their voices, handwriting, drawing pictures, or typing, says Diane Bode, educational technology specialist for the district.

But the next major purchase of the machines within the 21-campus district came from the special education department which purchased more than 50 machines for use by students and by speech pathologists, diagnosticians and others doing student evaluations. The machines offer the ability to record and playback sound, and convert spoken inputs into text files. Teachers can also give notes to students electronically (in PowerPoint, or Word, etc.), and students can make their own additions to the text using the stylus while listening to the lecture.

"[Tablets are] really helping students with learning disabilities," Bode says. "They really helped empower their organization, and allows them more time to listen to what the teacher is saying."

Bode and her colleagues do all they can to help departments and teachers make the most of their technology. One of their tactics is to constantly monitor Internet blogs devoted to tablet use, and pass on any techniques or insight to teachers.

"What we try to do is foster their imagination of how others are using them," Bode says. "Once you spark their imagination some of them just take off." www.judsonisd.org, www.tabletpctalk.com

Hinsdale Township (Ill.) High School District 86

One of the largest deployments of table in a public school setting can be found in a high school district in the western suburbs of Chicago where there are nearly 600 tablets available for student end teacher use. Hinsdale began piloting tablets last year when the district acquired 50 machines and gave 25 of them to a math teacher to use in Algebra 2, Computer Science 1 and 2, and AP Computer Science classes.

And then they watched.

"The teacher became much more interactive with the class, and the student can interact with one another also," says James R, Polzin, assistant superintendent of Hinsdale Township High School District 86.

The technology allowed students to project work done on their tablets through the LCD projector. "Kids were much more open to sharing their work by capturing the LCD projector rather than by going up to the board and standing in front of the group," Polzin says. "Adolescents are so concerned about self image. With this technology, there's more of a community sense of problem solving and learning.

After the math pilot, Hinsdale issued tablets to science teachers. This year they'll be studying tablet use in science, humanities, English, math and foreign language classes. But next year is the big leap.

"If everything goes well this year, and we think we have a tool that supports instruction and learning, we'll ask 250 freshman families to invest and buy a tablet," Polzin says. "What we will guarantee is the student will be in a class with other students and teachers who have tablet. The year after, the district is considering making tablets mandatory for freshman.

Part of the goal of Hinsdale's deployment is, with the help of the participating technology companies, to create research on the impact of tablets on classroom instruction and learning. "There really isn't a lot of research in terms of connecting the tablet with instruction," Polzin says. www.hinsdale86.org

Cincinnati (Ohio) Country Day School

It's easy for Joe Hofmeister to ask "Why would anyone dealing with a 1-to-1 program go with a laptop over a tablet?"; the upper portion of Cincinnati Country Day School where he is technology director has been a 1:1 computing environment since 1996. Since then the school has gotten rid of all of its computer labs, and asks parents to shell out about $2,000 every four years to buy their child a new computer.

True, the nirvana of a 1:1 environment, and parents that gladly pay $2,000 for new computers every couple of years, are not realities for most K-12 educators in the U.S. But what Hofmeister and other innovators have learned is invaluable to districts who will eventually replicate all or part of what he's doing.

"We've stopped buying laptops," he says. "Anything new that's coming in is a tablet."

In particular, CCD uses Toshiba Portage M200 Tablet. Those who haven't played with a convertible might worry about the durability of the machines, especially the swivel point that allows the notebook screen to rest flat for tablet-style writing. Hofmeister says don't.

The school's 1:1 computing structure allows students to bring machines in need of repair to a central office where they're given a loaner computer until their computer is fixed. On any given day, six to eight computers might come in for repair before 8 a.m., Hofmeister says. During first 60 days that 240 tablets were in use, one repair was necessary. Since the school began using tablets they've never had a swivel break.

Similarly, the school bookstore stocked up on replacement pens, knowing that only the specialized devices can be used to input text. During the entire year no students came to buy new pens--the only sale was to a teacher who had lost hers.

Cincinnati Country Day is hosting a three-day "Tablets in the Classroom" conference at the end of October and a documentary video about the use of tablets at the school is available on their Web site. www.countryday.net

Rebecca Sausner is a freelance Writer who frequently covers Education issues.
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Author:Sausner, Rebecca
Publication:District Administration
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Date:Oct 1, 2004
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