Appleby College standardizes on tablets

An independent school in Oakville, Ont., Monday said it has signed a two-year agreement with Lenovo Canada to supply students, administrators and faculty with tablet PCs.

The $2-million deal will provide 880 Lenovo ThinkPad X41 tablets to Appleby College, which offers schooling for Grade 7 through 12.

After about eight years of using laptops, Appleby College wanted to maximize its use of portable technology and move to a more efficient form factor, said Mike Hourahine, executive director of IT for the school.

The school’s classrooms are all geared with multimedia technology, allowing for interactive presentations with the students, said Hourahine, but there were limitations with using laptops. There are still handwritten aspects of teaching and learning, like drawing diagrams or noting mathematical equations, that the school wanted to integrate into the technology. Tablet PCs, through a digital ink capability, allow for note-taking and freehand drawing.

The school had been using IBM laptops for almost a decade, said Hourahine, but decided it was time to re-examine its options. A year ago, Appleby issued an RFP (request for proposals) to seek alternatives. After assessing several of the competitors’ products, it opted again for IBM-based technology, only this time through Lenovo. IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo two years ago, including its laptop and tablet business.

The school embarked on a pilot program with 10 of the Lenovo ThinkPads last year, allowing teachers across various disciplines to test the technology and report back.

“Out of that pilot, unanimously the teachers decided they could find uses in almost every subject,” said Hourahine. For example, the director of physical education found the tablet useful for drawing out sports plays for students. “We found benefits like that throughout the disciplines, as well as the obvious benefits of taking notes in class.”

The tablets are also smaller and lighter than laptops, which can be beneficial when they have to be carried from class to class. Hourahine said the school evaluated some bulkier versions of the tablet PC, but opted for a small form factor, partly for this reason.

“Kids are moving around all the time. They have backpacks and text books and stuff. Smaller is better from their point of view,” he said.

There are some shortcomings of moving to a smaller product, however. The biggest challenge ahead of Hourahine is the lack of a CD drive on the X41 tablets. Previously, information could be handed out to the students on CD, who could easily load the data on to a laptop. The school will need to get away from that model and move to one where information is disseminated purely over the network.

Students will have to adjust according, said Hourahine, but “our thinking is that it’s a very connected world now. (Students) are well used to transferring files over the network.”

They also have the option of buying an external CD drive, said Hourahine, or using a docking station in order to add data to the machine.

Limitations like the lack of a built-in drive became apparent during the year-long evaluation phase, he said, adding that tablets in general have not always been embraced as mainstream products.

“In my day to day dealings, I can’t say it’s revolutionized my life,” he said. “Sometimes it’s nice to be able to hold a pen rather than a mouse. But for education, as far as we can tell, it’s perfect.”

David Stephens, strategy manager at Lenovo Canada acknowledged that tablets meet the needs of a select audience, but have “come a long way in the last several years.

“The tablet PC is very niche product in any case, but it has been received very well,” he said, particularly for education, insurance and the pharmaceuticals market.

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