Perfection is still a ways off, though. The industry must still develop a long list of tablet and cloud computing features for the higher education community. First, we need cloud services for applications that require a lot of processing power. Higher-level statistical software, high-end audio/video editing and graphic design applications are just a few services that come to mind. We need extensible apps that support multiple tablet operating systems, or adoption will not be possible in many academic disciplines. Costs must be reasonable for small and large institutions alike. Educators are nothing if not loyal to a vendor that understands that our budgets are shrinking.
Mobility also comes at another price: size. If touch tablets are to accommodate everyday office applications, the industry must develop larger companion, touch-based monitor attachments. Like the laptop docks of today, the tablet attachments will have to accommodate those, like me, with failing eyesight.
Another issue that must be addressed is standardization of wireless video connectivity for tablets. Apple and Microsoft just love open interoperability standards (wink, wink). What we need -- if not a device that supports multiple wireless video standards for the major tablet OSes -- is a Web conferencing service for classrooms using multiple types of tablet computers. We use FuzeBox.com for some of these needs, and it works, but more work should be put into developing a true application that will address the needs of the traditional classroom as well as distance education.
The final issue isn't an easy one to solve: file systems. One of the most frequent questions I get from new tablet users is: Where are my files stored? My answer is usually: Heck if I know! As many tablet users know, user documents could be stored locally in any number of places depending on the app being used. There's typically no single file system. This setup tends to confuse new tablet users who wish to edit documents in multiple apps. Dropbox, Box.com, iCloud, Skydrive and Google Drive are just a few of the cloud storage services out there, but choosing among them is difficult and sometimes costly based on which apps people prefer to use.
This is obviously one of those pesky training issues that will linger for a while, but it has significant institutional implications. Storing FERPA and/or HIPPA information offsite on storage services that could be hacked is a big problem in higher education. As a CIO, this is one of my biggest concerns of this new era. If tablet computing is to take off in our colleges and universities, we must address cloud-based storage security first and foremost.
Making The Leap
Are we ready for this transition? Are we prepared for courses where 40, 50, 100 or 400 people need to connect simultaneously to our wireless networks and stream video? Are we prepared to provide that level of bandwidth to the commodity Internet? What will we do with all of those "smart" boards that we purchased over the years? Are we prepared to purchase, set up, distribute, support and repair tablet devices that will be everywhere, from boardrooms to bathrooms? I'll stop here. I’m beginning to hyperventilate.
The fact is that many of us aren't prepared for such a shift in campus computing. Then again, it's a momentous time in the history of computing, and as Virgil said: "Fortune favors the brave." Budget-wise, I think the shift will be a good one for all of our institutions in the long run. I'm optimistic that tablets will offer immeasurable benefits, both to bean counters' ROI and our faculty and students. We just have to take the plunge.