Tablets score high marks at private school

When the students at Bishop’s College School resume their studies next fall, they will set a technological milestone in Canada by trading in their traditional notepads and pens for tablet computers.

Their Lennoxville, Que. school is reportedly the first in the nation to fully embrace a “”paperless

campus”” by introducing a campus-wide network that all 260 students and their teachers can access with their own tablet PC.

Bishop’s announced the purchase of 300 Toshiba tablets last April, and Kathy Rae, the school’s computer instructor, says the initiative will eventually make Bishop’s a paperless institution because students can write all notes, exams and essays on the screen of their tablets using a stylus.

Using Microsoft Windows XP, the tablet will recognize users’ handwriting and automatically translate it into a digital rendering so students can submit their work to teachers electronically.

By the fall, students will have their own work folders within the school’s secure network, says Rae, adding teachers will access each student folder when it’s time for grading and correcting.

“”Instead of having six notebooks in their bag, (students will) save everything on their tablet and save to the network as a backup,”” Rae explains. “”Teachers can do editing right on the digital document and students can make the changes accordingly, leading to a paperless environment.””

Currently, the majority of classrooms have one plug-in Internet connection. A wireless hub will be added so students can have remote access to the Web from their tablets, she adds. Students will continue to have wired Internet access in their dorm rooms and at the school’s computer science lab where there are 20 desktops.

Introducing tablets to Bishop’s was an idea that had been mulled over for a while by Rae and the school’s systems administrator, Guy Dallaire. But there were several challenges, namely the low number (roughly 30 per cent) of Bishop’s students who were receiving technology training in any given year.

The students’ packed timetables won’t allow for mandatory computer courses, say Rae. “”So we needed to look at another option.””

Dallaire and Rae agreed that laptops were not the answer since they can’t be used in chemistry, math or physics classes where complicated drawings, diagrams and graphs accompany written work. In a calculus class, for example, it’s impossible for a student to use a laptop to draw mathematical curves, says Rae.

“”The expense of getting a laptop program that works in only half the classes didn’t make any sense at all.””

Neither was it realistic to expect that the 20 desktops in the school’s lone computer lab could tackle the problem exclusively, she says.

So it became a waiting game for Rae and Dallaire. They waited for the price of tablets to come down, and for the relatively new technology to be validated by consumers.

When the school eventually bought the tablets in April, each machine retailed for $3,099. But there was a discount since the school was a volume customer, says Brad Ballance, vice-president of sales at Toshiba Canada.

For Rae, the purchase is well worth it. She says tablets are a future tool of choice for schools, and that Bishop’s got a head start in purchasing them. This will become especially apparent, she says, as more schools jump on board.

“”We didn’t want to wait until the following year, just in case (prices go up),”” she says, adding the advantage to being first was a discounted price. But whether or not other schools are showing great interest in tablets remains to be seen, says Ballance.

“”The goal is a paperless classroom, but how quickly we get there… I think the teachers are a better judge of that,”” he says. “”What I know is the technology is there to use… it will be up to teachers to fit that into their curriculum.””

Significantly, the wireless aspect of the Bishop’s initiative has already been instituted by other academic institutions, including the University of Guelph. Late last year, the Ontario school purchased 100 HP Compaq Evo N1000c notebooks. Students can sign the laptops out for two-hour intervals and are free to roam anywhere throughout the building thanks to some 24 strategically placed WiFi antennas.

Whether or not other schools adopt tablet technology is probably not top of mind for students at Bishop’s. Of higher priority is the tablet PC’s functionality. After trying out one of the tablets recently, Rae says a Grade 11 student reported it is easy to use and allows her to take notes in almost the same way she does on paper.

The challenge, Rae says, won’t be student buy-in or training. Rather, it will be convincing some faculty of the system’s usefulness and usability, while getting them comfortable with the new technology, says Rae.

“”There are mixed feelings (among staff members). Some are excited, others wish this wasn’t happening. Some aren’t technologically comfortable with (the tablets)… and are quite terrified of the (technology),”” says the computer instructor, whose additional job will be to train her colleagues on how to use the tablet and the campus-wide network.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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