I recently found an interesting collection of student literature review/position papers from Umeå University related to a range of CS and HCI issues, including mobile technology, ubiquitous computing, table-top displays, etc. Among them was a paper by Alan Larsson that examined the role that slate-like tablet computers can play in education. It examined requirements for such devices both from the instructor’s and from the students’ perspective, analyzed them on several dimensions, and then compared three devices — an iPad, a (perhaps soon to be released) Android tablet, and an older-generation tablet computer — for their fit to the various tasks.
The use case for teaching involve using it an interactive presentation device, essentially a replacement for the laptop. One issue that the paper raises is how to compare the effectiveness of such a device with more traditional white- or black-board based instruction. While a computer may be effective for presenting prepared materials, more improvisational styles of presentation may be more effective on larger boards.
For students, the paper identifies recording, note-taking, and multi-tasking as the key aspects; of these note-taking is the only tablet-specific criterion. Here the advantage of the tablet over a laptop seems to be the ability to make free-form marks (drawing, annotating, etc.) although for many such operations a stylus is essential.
The devise summary at the end doesn’t identify a clear winner (which is not hugely surprising given that one of the devices is not currently available). The iPad is dinged for not having easy projection capabilities, and for the app-centered interaction model that may require considerable switching during the course of a presentation. For student-to-student interaction, the iPad does not offer great file-sharing capabilities (other than shoving documents through e-mail).
Since the Adam device is currently still in the realm of myth, not much can be said about it specifically. On the other hand, since it is an Android platform, some of the characteristics are predictable. It will be interesting to see if its somewhat more open application architecture and simpler approval process will result in more education-related applications being developed.
The older tablet PC fared worst among the lot, mostly due to its weight and older networking capabilities. Of these weight is the more inherent limitation; newer tablets have all of the networking capabilities of modern computers. A more significant limitation at the moment is the lack of an appropriate application suite to take advantage of its form factor.
While this paper could have done a better job comparing the existing devices, it is still a useful data point and a helpful literature review. It’s particularly interesting to see that the Kindle and other similar devices, as their specialization for linear reading makes them inappropriate for educational applications.
Finally, it’s great to see these kinds of papers coming out of student conferences and class projects. This not only exposes students to the academic publishing and review process, but also exposes their ideas to people who would otherwise never get a chance to learn what’s happening in university programs. I enjoyed attending similar presentations at Stanford and UC Berkeley earlier this year, and encourage other programs to set up similar venues for reporting and discussing students’ work.