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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.



The Tablet PC has potential for transforming the laptop classroom, but what if not every student in class has a tablet? Although some schools (e.g., Villanova) limit students to one laptop model, many others see choice as an indispensable feature of their laptop mandate programs. As the laptop market diverges with its emphasis on either power or portability, it will become increasingly difficult to please everyone with just one model. Currently, WSU students and faculty can choose between two laptops: an MPC (Gateway) M285 convertible tablet or an Apple MacBook (more). Because tablet functionality has become aligned with portability, with most vendors not offering anything larger than a 12″ tablet, one of the possible outcomes of our 2008 Laptop RFP is the introduction of a second PC choice: a larger, more powerful, non-tablet model in addition to a thin-and-light or ultra-portable convertible tablet.

Such a decision would have an impact on our plans for supporting the use of tablets in the classroom. WSU is already a mixed laptop environment. Although the majority of our students currently opt for the tablet and Macs tend to be more popular with certain majors, WSU instructors can already expect any class roster to include a substantial number of Mac users. The addition of a traditional, desktop-replacement laptop as a third choice would further reduce the number of tablets in a given classroom. Tools like Microsoft OneNote retain their value as end-user applications in a mixed environment. However, the value of groupware applications like DyKnow Vision and Monitor would need to be revisited. Although the full power of DyKnow to transform a laptop classroom is unleashed when everyone is using a tablet, it still has considerable value if just the instructor and a group of students have tablets. 

  • Instructors can capture their own board work and monitor student screens. Instructors can still use all of the features of DyKnow Vision and Monitor themselves to display and capture their own work and monitor/control student laptop activity. Although instructors would be able to approximate this using a shared OneNote session, this would not allow students to take private notes and annotate the instructor’s work. They would also not be able to replay the instructor’s notes stroke-for-stroke, a feature of DyKnow with considerable educational value. Finally, OneNote does not have any capacity for student screen activity monitoring/control.
  • Group tablet-based activities are still possible. Although some collaborative work will no longer be possible, many group activities can still be conducted if at least one student in each group has a tablet. For example, a group can elect a scribe and work together on a problem. Although instructors will not be able to depend on this, the chances are good that enough students in any given class will have tablets. There are also other collaborative features of DyKnow that do not depend on digital ink (e.g., polling).  
  • Students can capture, annotate, and replay instructor notes. Students without tablets will still be able to use their keyboards and pointing devices to annotate the instructor’s work. They also will be able to save, replay, and annotate their notebooks at any time after class.

I think DyKnow Vision and Monitor will remain valuable tools for the laptop classroom, even in a mixed laptop environment. Using Boot Camp and running DyKnow in the Windows partition, WSU Mac users were able to participate in DyKnow class sessions quite easily last term. The same will be true for students who opt for a traditional PC if that choice is introduced. It will probably be essential for instructors interested in using DyKnow to opt for a tablet, but I think this can be communicated effectively through an informational campaign and training. Helping students determine which of the three models is best for them will be the big challenge.


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.