In 2004, Winona State University transitioned its laptop lease program from a standard PC to a convertible tablet, resulting in one of the largest mandated tablet deployments in higher education at the time. Armed with a good price from our vendor, we were able to make the transition without increasing the lease price for students or altering program features and services. Because the model was a convertible tablet that could be used in either standard laptop or tablet mode, the tablet features were simply promoted as value added. The attitude at the time among laptop program decision-makers was, “If we can maintain our edge by offering new tablet features without changing the program, why not do it?”

Early indications were that the tablet features were popular with instructors, especially in STEM fields that relied heavily on board work and overhead transparencies in class. WSU invested in DyKnow to assist these instructors and expand the collaborative capabilities of tablets in the classroom. Faculty also began using digital ink to develop online course materials and evaluate student assignments. Students began using MS OneNote to take notes in and out of class. Overall, our transition to tablets was smooth and did seem to add value.

Today, we are considering a move back to a standard laptop model and discontinuing our support of the tablet.  Why change? Here is my take on why this is under consideration, with reasons listed in decreasing order of importance:

  1. The Cost Gap. The gap in cost between a convertible tablet and a similarly configured standard laptop has increased over the years. For the price of our current tablet (Toshiba Portege M700), we could probably be providing students with a standard laptop with performance and features that exceed the tablet model in some key areas (e.g., graphics processing). Taking another approach, we could be providing students with a less expensive standard laptop that meets minimum specifications, perhaps allowing us to either lower the lease price or add value in other areas of the program (e.g., software, support). As we enter the worst budget crisis in state history, this option may be quite appealing to stakeholders.
  2. The Mobility Trade-off. Tablet functionality has become more closely aligned with mobility over the years. In our laptop RFP last spring, only one vendor presented a convertible tablet with a screen larger than 12″ and that company is now out of business. There is much to be gained from emphasizing mobility in our laptop program. Many instructors use their laptops in class, in their offices, at home, and when traveling. Our students are not only mobile themselves, but are preparing to enter an increasingly mobile workplace. However, concessions must be made to achieve greater mobility. The laptop screen and keyboard are smaller and more difficult to use, particularly for older faculty. Tablet graphics processing is insufficient for various productivity and entertainment applications. These are the primary workstations for students and faculty who must be comfortable using their laptops for long periods of time and for a wide variety of tasks. Surveys of students and instructors indicate a clear split in preference for a heavier, larger desktop-replacement versus a more portable laptop. Employees appear divided down the middle, whereas the majority of students want greater mobility and this preference becomes more pronounced over time. For last year’s RFP, we decided that we could not support two PC models cost effectively. Many employees have addressed usability issues using external monitors and keyboards, but are unhappy about covering this unexpected cost. If we must select a single model again this year, there is a good chance that mobility will lose out to usability and performance.
  3. The Mixed Laptop Environment. WSU has always offered both a PC and Mac laptop model. Thus, there is no guarantee that all students in a particular course will have tablets. This is an obstacle for faculty who want to use tools like DyKnow, the power of which are optimized when all students have their own tablet. Although we address this by asking Mac students to install Boot Camp, it has been enough of a hurdle to put off many faculty and slow adoption. Our decision to maintain the tablet will be based mainly on end user applications versus the more compelling collaborative applications that could really transform learning. This leads to what might be the final deciding factor.
  4. Preference for the Mouse and Keyboard. Setting innovative tools like DyKnow aside and looking at end-user applications, taking notes in MS OneNote and inking in MS Office tools emerged at WSU as the most common uses of the pen as an input device. Instructors and students who use their tablets to take notes and grade papers regularly swear by them and those who don’t, don’t. A good conservative estimate based on a survey administered last spring is that 25-35% of our tablet owners use digital ink regularly. There is a third group of users who don’t use digital ink daily, but absolutely love to use it on ocassion. The pen is great when you need it, but many people don’t seem to need it that often. Perhaps they don’t know that they need it and this is a training problem. Perhaps they would like to use it more frequently, but are bothered by human factors issues. Maybe they have tried it, decided that they really don’t need it that often, and are more effective using the mouse and keyboard instead. I will dig into this in another post, but this will not change the current perception that, since adoption in 2004, the number of regular tablet users has remained relatively low and perhaps WSU could do without digital ink.

As we move forward some of these factors might change and new information might come to light. I am looking forward to the conversation and will keep you posted. I am guessing that we are not the only laptop university engaged in this sort of discussion.

Ken

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