RealTime IT News

Schools Tap Tablet's Flexibility

In the mid-1960s, it was not uncommon for Captain Kirk's banter with the crew of the Starship Enterprise to be interrupted by a request to give his approval signature on a tablet. That's about as far as the show's writers took the idea but, as any visiting UPS delivery driver can show you, it proved prescient.

The greater promise of tablets as a replacement to mobile computers -- and even as a new kind of mobile information and communications device -- is starting to be realized in education and business.

The increasing availability of Wi-Fi, which makes tablets more practical for communications such as e-mail, instant messaging and Web surfing, was a big help. More flexible designs gave another boost to adoption.

"You have slate tablets that are good for vertical markets like health care and manufacturing, but they have limited appeal," Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, told internetnews.com. "But where we're really seeing an uptick in interest is in the new generation of convertible tablets that also perform as an ultralight notebook.

"They really have the potential to go mainstream, particularly if the cost is about the same as a notebook, and that seems to be where it's headed," Bajarin continued. "I predict that within three years, all the ultra-light notebooks will have tablet functionality as well."

Bajarin's favorite convertible is the Lenovo ThinkPad X41 Tablet PC. The unit's unique swivel hinge allows the screen to rotate 180 degrees. Users can take handwritten notes directly on the 12.1-inch screen with Lenovo's Tablet Digitizer Pen.

"There's been a perfect storm of all the technology coming together," Michael Schmedlen, eastern regional manager for education at Lenovo, told internetnews.com. He credits manufacturing and materials advances that enable companies like his to keep the unit's weight relatively light at under five pounds, as well as advances in Wi-Fi, OCR and an optimized version of Microsoft's Windows XP operating system.

"We weren't the first to market, but I think our timing has been spot-on," said Schmedlen.

One of the early success stories for Lenovo has been in education. The company recently announced a deployment of X41s to close to a hundred students plus faculty at St. Mary's School, an independent women's college preparatory school in Raleigh, N.C.

Tablet PCs enable the school's faculty to approach traditional classroom exercises with an innovative twist. For example, instead of sketching a costume design for dance class using a pen and paper, students can use graphical software and the tablet's stylus to quickly create, review and modify images, changing scene and costume colors with the click of a button.

Music teachers can e-mail handwritten lessons in musical notation to student tablets for tailored homework assignments. In biology class, a student's well-executed molecular diagram can be instantly distributed electronically.

"I am impressed with the increased level of interaction and enthusiasm this technology has created," said Theo Wilkes Coonrod, head of Saint Mary's School, in a statement. "Classroom instruction and student learning have been revolutionized with this one cool machine."

St. Mary's is also using additional classroom management software to enhance the utility of the X41s. For example, lectures notes, as well as the complete classroom lectures and discussions, can be recorded to the tablet for later review. On every X41 tablet, Lenovo includes 3,400 writings on Western civilization, including the complete works of Shakespeare, every presidential inaugural address and numerous musical scores.

As with any mobile device, theft and damage are an issue. Lenovo offers an additional service plan to repair any unit that incurs accidental damage. As for theft, "It's always a concern," said Schmedlen, "but we've found at the schools where everyone has one, there's almost no theft."