With close to 7500 convertible tablets deployed across campus, should WSU change course and move away from digital ink? WSU has had a fully implemented laptop mandate program since 2003. Students and faculty lease one of two laptop models: an MPC (Gateway) M285 or an Apple MacBook (more). The majority opt for the PC and everyone receives a new laptop every two years. We standardized on the convertible Tablet PC in 2004. Three months after the first batch of tablets were distributed, we asked faculty to describe how they were using digital ink. Approximately 50% reported using their tablets to do one of the following: 

  • Mark up Word documents (e.g., student papers) outside of class
  • Annotate PowerPoint slides in class
  • Use OneNote in class in place of an overhead projector

In spring 2007, we invested in DyKnow Vision and Monitor. This fall, we rolled out Office 2007 and the new version of OneNote, a much improved app. In short, our move to tablet computing has been relatively smooth. We did not need to adjust the cost of the lease, the move was well-received by students and faculty, it helped our laptop program maintain its edge over the past few years, and it opened up opportunities for academic innovation. 

This semester, we are preparing for a laptop vendor RFP. One of the major questions on the minds of the members of the RFP team is, “Should WSU continue to standardize on the convertible Tablet PC?” We are currently gathering feedback from faculty and students. Here is what’s on my mind today: 

  • Tablet computing is not a flash in the pan. I always feel silly saying this because it’s so obvious to me, but I feel as though I sometimes need to defend digital ink as a serious educational technology. According to the 2007 Gartner Hype Cycle for Higher Education, the Tablet PC is steadily climbing up the “Slope of Enlightenment” to the “Plateau of Productivity.” Good tablet tools are maturing. DyKnow Vision is a very exciting application, designed not to simply support lecture capture/annotation and later playback like Tegrity, but to allow instructors to transform the classroom and engage students in collaborative learning activities that would be very difficult to manage otherwise. We have only started to tap the potential of OneNote 2007 as an academic application. Inking on Web pages is coming (see Silverlight InkPresenter). Good practices are being disseminated. There is still a lot to be learned and gained from a university-wide tablet deployment. If innovation is one of the major goals of the Laptop Program, then I think returning to standard laptops would be a step backward.
  • An all-tablet, cross-platform campus may soon be possible. WSU is a cross-platform environment. Mac users do not have tablet functionality and there are enough students who opt for MacBooks that the probability of having at least one Mac user in class is relatively high. This complicates an instructor’s decision to adopt tools like DyKnow for classroom use, although students with MacBooks configured with Boot Camp can run DyKnow in the Windows partition (albeit without the stylus). This would seem to be a strike against the tablet. However, a Mac tablet may not be far off. The ModBook, an after-market hardware modification, was demonstrated at Macworld Expo in January and there are rumors circulating that Apple already has a tablet of its own. Tools like DyKnow and OneNote are also still quite useful using the keyboard instead of the stylus.
  • Changes to the Laptop Program take two years to implement. Half of all WSU students and faculty receive a new laptop every summer, meaning that any change to the laptop program takes two years to implement fully. It would take two years to phase the convertible tablet out and two years to bring it back if we change our minds again. These transition periods can be difficult for IT and elearning support units.
  • Changing the direction of the Laptop Program is a strategic decision. All too often, I think decisions like this are made in the heat and chaos of the moment, without adequate consultation, representation, and collaboration. Our decision about whether or not to continue with tablets should not rest on the shoulders of the RFP team. It’s a university decision that must take faculty and student input into consideration and align with the university’s mission, vision, and strategic goals. Moving away from tablets may allow us to reduce the cost of the lease and offer more than one PC option (e.g., an ultra-portable and a desktop-replacement). Continuing with tablets may allow us to remain distinctive, teach our students new skills, and explore new educational applications of digital ink. How do these outcomes (e.g., choice, cost, distinctiveness, innovation) stack up as strategic priorities for the Laptop Program? For WSU? How do they align with WSU goals and objectives? Most importantly, how do you engage students, university administrators, and academic leadership in a process that has historically been left up to IT?

More on this journey later and please don’t hesitate to comment if you have any words of wisdom.