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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.


I was inspired to blog tonight by Rachel Happe’s latest post on The Social Organization, which I just learned about from one of Lawrence Liu’s tweets. I started following Lawrence on Twitter yesterday. I saw his tweet on my NetVibes homepage as I finished my bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. So, let’s review. I am writing something that I would probably have never written based on several seconds of very minimal social contact with two people I have never met, contact mediated by simple tools that allowed all this to happen in seconds while I was happily eating my ice cream. For me, that’s a successful application of social computing.

Rachel’s post related to the difference between social networking tools and computer-supported collaborative work tools or groupware. If you ask people why they use groupware like SharePoint, Domino, ThinkTank, and WebEx, the easy answer is, “to accomplish group work and increase productivity.” When you ask people why they use tools like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, the easy answer is, “to socialize.” As Rachel describes, these two broad goals share a set of common processes that can be facilitated by tools from both categories. Also, the boundary between these categories is getting blurrier by the day.

Of course, the motivation to socialize is very complex and I am going to focus on just one aspect of it here. Outside of improving productivity and finding the love of your life, why do we seek the company of other people? Leon Festinger (1954) had some ideas about this that he developed into his Social Comparison Theory. Although subsequent research has indicated that things are much more complex than Festinger theorized, the basic principles of social comparison have held up and have implications for online social networking.

Festinger argued that the only way we can evaluate our own abilities in the absence of objective standards is to compare ourselves with others. Am I a good eLearning Director? Do I have a good understanding of new and emerging technologies? I ask myself these questions every day. I try to answer them by finding others with whom to compare. Who do I choose? Festinger held that we sometimes choose people or groups that are clearly worse than us. This downward social comparison is quick and reassuring (e.g., “At least I know more than that guy”). However, if all we did was compare downward, we would never improve. Festinger suggested that human beings are motivated by a unidirectional drive upward. We want to improve our abilities, so we must evaluate ourselves against others who are better than us – not light years better, but just a little bit better. This way, we gain some sense that we are improving. Of course, those people with whom we compare are improving right along with us, so we may end up comparing ourselves with the same person for quite awhile, locked in a friendly and mutually beneficial game of leapfrog.

That’s one reason why applications like Twitter are so valuable and so different from other workplace collaboration tools. They appeal to different motives and satisfy different, but equally important, social needs. Second, the people with whom I compare myself are often not working for Winona State (no offense WSU colleagues). Of the top five most influential people on your Twitter list, how many work inside your company or institution? Of those on your list from within your organization, are you following them for social comparison purposes or for other reasons? I think we purposely pick people who don’t work inside our organizations in hopes of finding new partners, new ideas, and new standards of comparison that will challenge us to move upward. Facebook and Twitter, as open, free, accessible tools are more appealing for social networking than enterprise collaboration systems like SharePoint that are currently more difficult for external friends and colleagues to access.

Finally, both of these implications suggest that using Facebook for enterprise collaboration purposes is probably not such a great idea. I am guessing that this is not even an issue in the corporate world, but it is in higher education as faculty and administrators take their first steps into the great Facebook abyss. Fortunately for our students, this sort of thing usually happens long after they have left and moved on to something else. In fact, I sometimes think that faculty using tools like Facebook to support exam review sessions signals to the last remaining students that the tool is officially lame. I think there is a lesson here for any organization. As important as social networking and communities of practice are within an organization, people are venturing out into the blogosphere for good reason – reasons that will benefit them and your company. Don’t follow them and don’t let the worlds collide.