Tablet PCs for Classroom Use: Technology and Application

Tony Hursh
Department of Educational Psychology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Description of Technology
Implications for the Classroom
Technology Details
Future of the Technology
Example of Classroom Use
Suggestions for Further Study


    The Tablet PC is an intriguing new development in portable computing technology. This article describes the Tablet PC, gives some technical details, compares the Tablet PC to other forms of computer, provides an example of actual classroom use at the University of Illinois, and suggests further research on, and potential applications of, this technology in classroom instruction.
Description of the Tablet PC

    A Tablet PC is a portable computing device which looks much like a detached screen from a conventional notebook computer, or perhaps a hand-held computer that's been scaled up.

   As a quasi-hybrid of laptop and palmtop computers, the Tablet PC owes much to those earlier technologies. However, one of the key advances that made the Tablet PC possible is the development of ultra-low power microprocessor chips by companies such as Transmeta and Intel. Another standard feature of the Tablet PC, handwriting recognition, first made its appearance in the Apple Newton palmtop computer.

    Unlike a notebook (but like a palmtop) the normal way of entering data in a Tablet PC is with a stylus rather than a keyboard. While most models do offer keyboards (integrated in the so-called "convertible" models and separate in the so-called "slate" models), the Tablet PC is designed to use the stylus for most routine tasks. The Tablet PC generally offers some kind of handwriting recognition, and uses modified versions of popular applications that are designed for stylus input. The user interacts with the computer by drawing directly on the screen with the stylus.

    Unlike a palmtop (but like a notebook), the Tablet PC features a full-sized color screen, an internal hard drive, and other features associated with a standard computer. This greatly enhances the use of a Tablet for public presentations. The moderately high resolution color screen is suited for use with a video projector, and the large amount of on-board storage (20-60 GB or more) means that even a complicated multimedia presentation can be loaded into a Tablet without the risk of running out of space.

    Tablet PCs mostly work with graphical images ("ink" in Tablet jargon) rather than ASCII text. This is very convenient for creating with a stylus, but could pose problems if (e.g.) an "ink" document were emailed to someone on a slow dialup connection.

    Almost all Tablet PCs either come with wireless networking built in, or can be upgraded to have that capability.  Standard ports, such as USB and/or Firewire, are available on most models.
    Tablet PCs are priced similarly to high-end notebook computers. The machines are typically in the $2,000 to $3,000 price range, although there are a few low-end models around $1000.

    One Tablet PC manufacturer, RM, has announced models aimed specifically at the academic market. An interesting feature of RM's "instructor" model is built-in fingerprint identification. This might be useful for an instructor who needs to carry confidental information (grades, exams, research data, etc.) on the Tablet. RM also offers a "student" model.

Implications for the Classroom

    The Tablet PC offers most of the advantages of the notebook PCs commonly used in the classroom (nearly all of them, if used in conjunction with a keyboard and mouse) and also adds some new capabilities:

There are also some drawbacks:

Technology Details

    Many Tablet PCs use the Transmeta Crusoe chip. This processor, while not as fast as those in a high-end desktop machine, offers the advantage of greatly extended battery life. A Crusoe chip uses only 1 to 2 watts of power maximum, compared to 75 watts or more for a desktop CPU, and around 10 watts for a notebook CPU.  Intel has also produced a line of low power consumption chips, the Mobile Pentium series. These are used in several Tablet PCs. Direct comparison of power consumption between the Transmeta and Intel offerings is difficult, since Intel quotes average power consumption figures, while the Transmeta figures are for peak consumption.

     Some advantages of a longer battery life are obvious. A less-obvious factor is that batteries are both heavy and expensive. By making it possible to use a smaller battery for the same working time, the Transmeta-style chips help lower both the weight and the cost of the Tablet PC.

   The Intel chips are essentially low-powered versions of their standard CPUs.  The Transmeta Crusoe chip offers several technological advantages, some of which may play an important role in future Tablet PC software. Though most current Tablet PCs run a  variant of the Microsoft Windows operating system (written for Intel 80x86-compatible microprocessors) the Crusoe is not an 80x86 chip at all. The Crusoe uses a technology called Code Morphing to translate the 80x86 instructions into its own instruction set. Emulators, as such, have been around for  a long time (most Mac users are familiar with Virtual PC, a software package that allows them to run Windows on the Macintosh) but the Crusoe takes this idea one step further. Rather than translating each 80x86 instruction every time it is encountered, as in a conventional emulator, the Code Morphing technology can take entire groups of instructions and translate them into Crusoe native instructions the first time they're encountered, then save the result. The next time that section of code is run it executes at the full native speed of the Crusoe processor without needing to be translated a second time.

    Code Morphing means that though a Tablet PC might run 80x86-compatible software (such as Windows) today, it could be running software for a completely different architecture (either a "real" chip, or one that exists only as a virtual specification) tomorrow. The implications of this for instruction in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are clear.

    While these features (other than low-power consumption) don't have a direct effect on classroom use at the present time, it seems likely that they'll be used to create innovative applications in the near future.  

    Windows software development for Tablet PCs is relatively straightforward. Microsoft has produced a free Tablet Software Development Kit that can be used to add "ink" capability to existing software as well as creating new Tablet-specific applications, and there appears to be an active Tablet developer's community. In addition, there is a significant amount of work aimed at porting the Linux operating system to the Tablet PC. It is suggestive that Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, is now employed by Transmeta.

Future Technology

    It's reasonable to assume that Tablet PCs will become lighter, more powerful, and less expensive as time goes on. It may be, however, that the real usability gains come through integration. The integrated features that are now available in cell phones (such as digital cameras) would seem to be ideal for adding into the Tablet PC, since they operate under similar constraints of size and power consumption.  Perhaps the cell phone itself could be integrated.  

    Though Tablet PCs are much more compact than a desktop machine, or even a laptop, the constraint of screen size would seem to pose a limit on miniaturization. However, several research groups (both academic and corporate)  are working on flexible, "roll-up" displays.  If these become available, the Tablet PC could become as convenient to carry as a paperback book.


Example of classroom use

    Professor Larry DeBrock at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign used a Tablet PC in his Microeconomic Principles class in the Spring 2002 semester. The information in this section is derived from personal communication and presentations made by Professor DeBrock.  The reader should note that Professor DeBrock has not yet reviewed this document. Any errors that may be in the following material are those of the current author (Hursh), not Professor DeBrock himself.

    Microeconomic Principles (ECON 102) is a large lecture format course normally taken by freshmen. There are two lecture sections with enrollments of 660 and 750 students. There are also quiz sections which are handled by teaching assistants.

    Professor DeBrock dislikes standard PowerPoint presentations, believing that this format often leads the instructor to move too quickly, and to put too much material on each slide.  He also found annotating and drawing on PowerPoint slides using a mouse unsatisfactory.

    His  teaching technique has evolved from overhead slides created with word processing software (which also made it possible for the lecturer to move too quickly) to the technique he's been using in recent semesters: blank or nearly-blank overhead slides which he filled in as the class progressed. Though the overheads allowed him to make annotations and draw, and the manual drawing process helped with pacing, they still suffered from several shortcomings. The overheads were ephemeral. The instructor disposed of them after each class, forcing the students to make their own drawings if they wanted to keep a copy (some instructors make copies of overheads available at local copy shops, but this has its own set of problems, discussed below).  

    DeBrock thought that the Tablet PC might allow him to work in his preferred style, while also allowing students to retain permanent access to the slides without the trouble of making their own hand copies.

    DeBrock first used the bundled Microsoft Journal Software. This worked well in the classroom itself, but proved to be less than  convenient for archiving.  Annotating the slides for web use produced an unesthetic result. Also, the software only allowed saving the slides in one of two proprietary formats, .JNL or .MHTML. The .JNL format would have required the students to download and install the Microsoft Journal Viewer Software (available only for Windows), while the .MHTML format was only viewable on Microsoft Internet Explorer. Neither was a satisfactory option for such a large and diverse student population.

    The professor then hit on a novel solution: use PowerPoint, but start with blank slides. The stylus made it easy to "draw" on the blank PowerPoint slides, just as he'd always done with overheads, and PowerPoint made it possible to save the slides in a format (HTML) that was viewable by most students.

    DeBrock's current procedure is this:
  1. Teach the first lecture of the day, creating each slide in real time.
  2. Save the slides on the Tablet PC and return to his office.
  3. Use the wireless network feature to move the slides onto his desktop PC for printing.
  4. Print a copy of the slides on his color printer to use in the second lecture (he recreates the slides in real time for the second lecture, but having the first lecture as a reference helps maintain consistency).
  5. Teach the second lecture.
  6. In his office (or elsewhere), review the slides, add additional annotations as  needed, save the slides as HTML, and post them on the Web.

    DeBrock has identified the following major attractions of using the Tablet PC:
    He also identified some shortcomings:

    Tablet PCs offer some unique abilities for instructional use. The portability, pen-based input, low power consumption, and optional portrait screen format may make it possible to present material in new ways. As always, these new capabilities come at a price: the Tablets are expensive.

Suggestions for further study

        While DeBrock has not traditionally made his overhead slides available to students, some instructors do. This usually involves taking the slides to a copy shop, which duplicates them  and sells them to the students. This is less than ideal for a number of reasons. First, it is expensive. Second, many instructors use color for emphasis, and this is lost in the duplication process. The author has seen beautifully-drawn color overheads reduced to illegibility by being printed in black and white (this is especially bad when the instructor uses overlay slides). Third, there is a necessary delay involved in the printing process. If the student is going  to get maximum benefit from the slides, it would seem that having them available while the lecture was still fresh in the student's mind would be the best policy. It would be interesting to see how an instructor who currently uses the copy shop route would make use of a Tablet.

    A colleague, Hee Jun Choi, has suggested that Tablet PCs might find applications in the fine arts or architecture. The accuracy of the Tablet PC's stylus, while not perfect, is much better than in previous stylus input computing devices. It might prove fruitful to see if the resolution is high enough to satisfy an artist.
    Another colleague, Doe-Hyung Kim, has suggested using the Tablet PC as a "pass-around" device for active learning. Its light weight and freedom from wired connections might make it useful for active learning activities.

    The Tablet PC could be used for remote data collection for later classroom presentation. This might be especially valuable for courses that are based on data from fieldwork.  Though Tablet PCs don't (yet) have digital cameras built-in, a small camera  could easily be connected to the Tablet through one of the USB or Firewire ports. This could produce a powerful data collection and annotation tool for disciplines such as architecture or the field-based biological sciences. Similarly, a USB microphone could be attached for collecting audio data. Recording directly to the Tablet's hard drive would eliminate a time-consuming data transfer step.
    Though the Tablet has wireless networking, and runs on batteries, it's still tethered to the video projector when one needs to give a presentation to a large group. Use of Virtual Network Computing software (VNC), a technology that allows remote display and control of computers over the network, could make the Tablet even more portable, allowing the instructor to roam the classroom (or even a remote location) at will, while still presenting the material to the students in  real time (this would require a good wireless network connection, but these are beginning to become widely available).

    Recent developments in ad hoc networking (such as the Zeroconf project, one implemention of which is Apple's Rendezvous) could make it possible to create Tablet-based formal or informal collaborative groups in a classroom or laboratory setting, in the field, or even between geographically separated individuals. By minimizing the effort needed to create a private network, Zeroconf/Rendezvous, in conjunction with Tablet PCs, could allow creation of work groups on the fly.


Professor Debrock's ECON 102 web site (lecture notes made with the Tablet PC are viewable here)

Microsoft's Tablet PC site

HP/Compaq Tablet PC

PaceBook Tablet PC

SlateVision Tablet PC

Fujitsu Tablet PCs

Toshiba Tablet PC

RM Tablet Computers

Transmeta Crusoe Processor

Tablet PC Developer Information
Linux on Tablet PCs


Virtual Network Computing (VNC)

Hydra, a collaborative text editor using Zeroconf/Rendezvous technology