Tablet PCs are recent additions to the range of portable, connected devices that comprise mobile computing. Although the devices are just now entering the mainstream market and there are many technical and user glitches still to be overcome, the devices show much promise as a future component of the online learning infrastructure. This paper discusses early applications of Tablet PCs in learning environments and outlines key applications where the devices might have the greatest impact on online learning in the future. The paper starts with a general description of the Tablet PC and its market potential, followed by a review of current reported deployments of Tablet PCs in education and a summary of findings regarding its utility in such settings. We close out the paper with a discussion of the potential future role that Tablet PCs can play in online learning. Note that at the time of this writing, a Tablet PC model from Apple computing, though much anticipated, has not been introduced into the general market. Hence, this article only discusses Tablet PCs running the Microsoft Windows operating system.
Tablet PCs have the potential to radically change the way we relate to and with computers. Much of this impact comes about through two key features of Tablet PCs – ink and portability. Ink – or, more exactly, digital ink, enables a wider range of information entry options than the traditional keyboards currently in use. All Tablet PCs come with a pen as an input option. With this pen, one can draw and write on the Tablet PC’s screen surface using a variety of digitally controlled ink settings – changing color, pen size, pen shape, and so forth, as needed. These freeform inputs can take the form of meeting and class notes on a digital notepad, doodles and complex, full-color drawings. The inked material can then be saved as images for future enhancement or incorporation in a variety of document formats. A user can also opt to have any handwritten ink input interpreted and converted to digital text for editing using word processing tools such as Microsoft Word.
Aside from expanding the range of input options, this digital-ink-based mode of information entry makes it possible to do without the keyboard for certain tasks. Users have the option of using ink or a soft keyboard to enter information. Without a keyboard, the Tablet PC has a form factor roughly equivalent to a heavy (4 pounds or so), one-inch-thick notepad portfolio. Tablet PCs without a keyboard are categorized as “slate” types. A second type of Tablet PC is a “convertible,” which comes with a special swivel attachment between the screen and keyboard, allowing a user to switch between a more conventional laptop configuration (with the keyboard) and a slate configuration. A third option, typical of the Compaq/HP Tablet PCs, allows a user to fully detach the keyboard and carry the screen component independently as a slate.
Most Tablet PCs weigh (and cost) roughly the same as ultra-light laptops. However, with the slate configuration, Tablet PCs provide a unique portability option. Essentially, the slate provides a digital notepad that allows the computer screen to lay flat on a surface rather than upright. This makes it possible to envision the Tablet PC as a replacement for many activities where a paper notepad or clipboard is used – from meetings to all types of distributed service functions usually performed by nurses, doctors, utility technicians and delivery persons. Furthermore, the slate form factor reduces the barrier that the computer with an upright screen places between its user and other people that a user might be interacting with. For example, nurses will be able to input notes into a device without the upright screen acting as a barrier between them and a patient, or teachers can more easily maintain eye contact with a class while teaching a lesson with digital material.
Other key features that Tablet PC users can benefit from are its connectivity and multimedia capabilities. Tablet PCs generally come with multiple connectivity options, including wireless options such as 802.11b and infrared. This expands the range of materials available to a user at any moment that the Tablet PC is in use. For example, a teacher can be walking around a wirelessly enabled room and pulling in material from the Web to illustrate a point. Tablets come with fairly good-quality audio and video capabilities that allow the quality display of any content. Furthermore, the devices allow quick switching between portrait and landscape mode, letting users display content in the best format possible.