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Colleges Say Tablets Improve Teaching and Learning
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Integrating tablets with the curriculum is the key to their success, says Paul E. Fisher Jr. of Seton Hall University. “If there is not meaningful integration in the disciplines, a tablet is just another device.”

Matthew Furman

Colleges Say Tablets Improve Teaching and Learning

IT managers say tablets work best when they are integrated with the curriculum.

posted January 27, 2012  |  Appears in the Winter 2012 issue of EdTech Magazine.

A wave of interest in tablet devices is surging across college and university campuses.

And among those who have successfully deployed the devices for students and faculty, the primary focus on campus is to use tablets to improve teaching and learning.

At Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., integrating tablets with the curriculum is most important, says Paul E. Fisher Jr., associate CIO and the director of the university's Teaching, Learning and Technology Center. "If there is not meaningful integration in the disciplines, a tablet is just another device."

Seton Hall issued Lenovo's ThinkPad Android pen-based tablet to about 400 freshmen and faculty in the sciences, the humanities honors program and the business leadership program.

The stylus attached to these tablets is a crucial part of the strategy behind choosing this tablet and distributing it to these groups, says Fisher. "If students need to write a chemistry equation down during class, there is no easy way to do that with a keyboard," he explains.

Other reasons, both practical and pedagogical, have driven Seton Hall's commitment to tablets, Fisher says, noting that incoming freshmen in other disciplines still receive a traditional notebook, a program that started in 1997.

"Students don't want to bring their notebooks into the lab environment, where there could be chemicals and liquids," he says. Also, students wearing gloves during an animal dissection can't very well slip off the latex and wash up every time they want to make a note on a touch screen, so that's another selling point for the stylus.

Closely collaborating with faculty and students in the sciences, Fisher and his team are also developing a process in which students log in to the network, choose an appropriate application and then are walked through vital safety procedures before they begin their lab assignment.

Mobility and Portability

At South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D., faculty members ranked mobility and portability as the two leading features they wanted in a computing device that they could use as an instructional tool.

Shouhong Zhang, manager of instructional design services, mobility and portability and computing power at SDSU, says about two dozen faculty members are testing the Fujitsu Stylistic Q550 tablets. The units are being used in tandem with the university's 3-year-old Active Learning Cloud, a program that seeks to deliver computing services and applications to support greater collaboration and interaction among students and instructors.

Zhang says the old paradigm of an instructor speaking from a podium while a sea of students absorb a lecture and take copious notes is giving way to something far more fluid. And the tablet helps promote that shift.

Equipped with a tablet, "the instructor can sit among the students and pull out a video or other online resources," he explains. "It's not so much about the lecture-based style anymore." Moreover, a professor can take part in collaborative tasks with groups of students, or pull information from the web and project it straight from the tablet.

The Stylistic Q550's light weight of 1.7 pounds is a big plus, as professors made very clear. "They did not want to bring a 10-pound notebook to the classroom," Zhang says. But they didn't want to compromise computing power either. Early feedback on the Stylistic Q550 seems to indicate that its weight and power are meeting expectations.

9 hours The typical battery life of the Lenovo ThinkPad 183925U tablet

SOURCE: Lenovo

Sans Stylus

Both Seton Hall and Fairfield University, in Fairfield, Conn., are piloting tablets without styluses in areas where pen-based tablets are not as critical.

Seton Hall is testing tablets without styluses in its education and health and medical sciences departments, Fisher says. At Fairfield, some faculty members now have such devices, says Jay Rozgonyi, assistant director for academic support in the Computing & Network Services group.

Considering academic computing in higher education as a whole, "I personally think we are getting relatively close to replacing notebooks with tablets," Rozgonyi says. "As someone in IT, I would welcome them because of the minimal to nonexistent support required for them."

Accolades aside, Philip Clarke, research analyst with ­Nemertes Research, says a robust network is absolutely essential. "Future-proofing is a really good idea," he says, especially in a densely populated area like a college campus.

Seton Hall's Fisher continues to view tablets as serving a set of purposes different from a notebook. For researching and writing papers, he envisions students continuing to rely on their notebooks for the foreseeable future. But for fieldwork, taking notes in class and other situations where portability ranks high, tablets have no peer.

"Tablets could replace notebooks," says Fisher. "I don't think I will fly across country without a notebook in my bag yet, but when I need to answer e-mail or surf the web, I rarely take my notebook out anymore." 

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