Tablet PCs in the classroom

Funny how you can be using a tool in the classroom, which was startling and new and fresh a couple of years ago, but then over time just becomes somehow normal and unremarkable. I suppose that’s what good tools do; become part of good practice. So I was in some meetings this week planning some professional development for teachers about to get a tablet pc for the first time and realised I hadn’t blogged about the tablet PC experience for a long time.

I’ve just finished my second year of using the tablet PC in my teaching and daily work, and next year all new staff and student computers will be tablets. They’ve been a real success, so I thought I’d spent a bit of time here reflecting on that, and what we’ve learned.

For some staff and students the fact that you can write and draw directly into documents makes no difference. For others, it’s very empowering. I’m a good typist so I found that 80% of the time I was continuing to type just as I always did. But there were times when the tablet functionality was great.

As a teacher I could correct and mark essays student had submitted online pretty much exactly as I could with pen and paper. Except these essays were submitted online, downloaded by me and corrected with the stylus and given back to the students with no paper used in the whole process. Better than that, both the students and I had copies of the annotated work and I could refer to it at parent-teacher-student conferences, or in writing my reports.

I could also use the table in the classroom, displaying the screen on the data projector. I’ve done that for a while, tending to use PowerPoint and more recently OneNote to capture student discussions and display them at the same time. Rather than using the whiteboard and noting down student points, which everyone had to write down or they’d be lost, I took those points down in PowerPoint, and then emailed the .ppt file to the class after the lesson. With the tablet I could use the stylus to take these notes, or even better get some students to take notes. There’s no need for them to have any typing prowess and they enjoy it.

In meetings, especially small formal-ish meetings around a board table, I found that folding the tablet flat and making notes with a stylus was much more comfortable and less intimidating and distracting than dividing us all and hiding behind a screen. I take my meeting notes in OneNote, and if there’s a meeting agenda that’s been sent around, I send it to OneNote via the printer driver, and simply annotate the points, circling, drawing, underlining and even doodling, just like I used to in meetings before. This time, however, I don’t’ end up with hundreds of un-searchable, unfindable scraps of paper, but all the notes easily accessible, forever. The same applies for conferences; you can hold the tablet folded and it’s no bigger than an A4 page and you can take notes in smaller spaces than the unfolded notebook.

The applications I’ve used have been the normal ones; the Office applications with OneNote coming into its own with the inking facility. I like OneNote and would use it now tablet or not and I got my English students to use it this year to organise their English notes, and it worked well. There are some specific inking applications, Equation Writer and Flash Cards but haven’t used them all that much. One application that’s very handy is PDF Annotator, which allows you to ink on PDFS. It’s surprisingly useful.

The tablet PC software can often translate ink into typed text. Even my poor handwriting works most of the time. Funny though, in most cases if I’ve made ink notes they stay ink notes. I don’t take the time to convert them to typed text unless I want to share those notes with others.  For me, the ink functionality is for quick personal notes, plans, brainstorming or annotating documents for revision.

Other teachers have found other uses. Some teachers like the fact that you can draw diagrams, flow-charts, concept maps and sometimes just plain drawings, either as part of Office documents or stand alone visual documents. It’s a boon for some maths teachers who are often frustrated by the clunkiness of typing equations.

There are a couple of downsides. You can lose the stylus. They’re heavier and maybe slower than a similarly equipped vanilla notebook, and the screen isn’t that shiny glossy sheen that looks good when you play DVDS!

Still, after two years with this tool, which does everything a normal notebook does, with the added features, I wouldn’t want to go back.

I’m excited what the students will do when they get their hands on it.

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