Tablets in Higher Education

We believe the tablet will be instrumental in changing how students learn and influencing teacher-student interactions in and out of class.
Michael Schmendlen
WW Education, Lenovo

As I read the recent release about Seton Hall's ThinkPad Tablet pilot, a few ideas came to my mind about the role of the slate form factor in higher education. Having spent 10 years on a college campus, half as student and half as a faculty member, I wondered how my days long ago might have been different with the technology of today. While my thoughts here may not be the immediate reality for teachers and students today, hopefully they will be soon realized, or better yet exceeded.

As a student (and still as an adult) one of my greatest challenges was organization and preparedness. Too often in college, I'd set out for the day only to realize I'd forgotten a text, some notes, or a coursepak in my dorm. Today, I'd have universal access to all my critical learning materials. My notes would be synced to the cloud, possibly with Evernote. Because I'd be renting all my text from Amazon or other vendors, I'd be able to carry all my reference and reading material with me. Now those often wasted chunks of time between classes or meetings could be more productive. If I happened to forget something or to need a special application on my primary computer, I'd remote desktop back to my dorm room for access.

While most of today's students remain very connected with each other socially via cell phones, I'd extend that connectivity to study groups using collaborative spaces such as Fuze Meeting. In addition sharing resources would be much easier. In class, I’d no longer feel like a stenographer. Instead, I'd be annotating lecture notes and adding emphasis and denoting key points. In addition I'd be participating in a “backchannel” as the conversation expanded. Finally, I’d relish the fact that all my work would be submitted electronically.

Certainly there are many obvious benefits for students, but how would I as a faculty member benefit? Before I answer that I must confess I am not a big fan of the "sage on stage" format that dominated my college experience. I have always thought that one-to-many distribution of information is best done outside of the classroom. Instead I like the work of such people as Eric Mazur, Cathy Davidson, and Bob Clemen. So, I'd be using video and prescribed notes for outside of class and focusing “together time" on conversation and problem solving. As a rule, students would come to class ready to engage. When possible teaching assistants would monitor a backchannel and facilitate the discussion. Student work would be gathered electronically, both in and out of class, using the university LMS or Dropbox and returned electronically as well. Paper would be forbidden. I'd make all my resources available electronically for my convenience and for the students’ benefit. Also, it always seemed silly that we had office hours at the worst possible times for students. (I know that wasn't always an accident). I'd take advantage of online tools to offer more appropriate and dynamic office hours. Oh, and let's not forget my organizational challenges. So I'd certainly be carrying a slate so that I could easily access all those tools that would have helped me as a student. While these tablets are neither necessary nor sufficient for how I’ve described my hypothetical experiences, they have certainly accelerated the shift. Because of their portability, extended battery life, and range of functionality, they are a great companion device for faculty and students in higher education. That said, there are many challenges ahead. Overall costs of attending university are becoming increasingly more difficult to sustain. As a result online courses are becoming more prevalent. Although I did not address them specifically here, there isn't much of a difference in how tablet technology will impact online courses, if anything it may be slightly less significant. Also, a great deal of work needs to take place in upgrading the "content delivery" models.

While Amazon and others are moving the needle in terms of electronic texts, we need to be re-imagining the presentation. I am inspired by some of the "dynamic texts" that are being developed by Push Pop Press. Let’s hope Facebook does not derail them. Hopefully, the rest of the industry can move in this direction.