I have used all sorts of "smart" classroom tools and devices. Electronic whiteboards, clickers, projection systems, video capture systems and classroom control systems are just some of the devices that have entered my classrooms and my IT repair benches over the years.
As a CIO in higher education, my budgets have felt the strain of some of these devices. Some were good and some were bad and, all too often, the ROI was hard to show. But now, finally, classroom devices are becoming smarter with the advent of tablet computing.
[ Read how iPad has spurred a whole new class of results for Apple: Apple's Education Phenomenon: iPad. ]
In 1983, when Steve Jobs said that one day we would be carrying a small, fully functional and networked computer device around anywhere, I was both excited and skeptical. For many years, I've longed for a way to easily do research and develop teaching materials at home, in the office, on the airplane and in the classroom. In the 1990s, I was sure that notebook computers were the answer, only to be disappointed by their cost, their lag in processor speed, their longevity and their sometimes ridiculous weight. When netbooks were introduced, I was at first excited but later appalled by their lack of functionality.
Now we have a device that can do much of what's needed for classroom teaching and is as compact as a folder or small notebook (the paper kind). I was an early tablet adopter in the hope that my dreams had come true. For the most part, they have, with some caveats.
Tablets To The Rescue.
In the 1990s, classroom devices were a nightmare for a small college’s bean counters, IT support staff and, especially, the teacher and students. Inconsistent performance, costly supplies and persnickety control systems were not only difficult for support staff but a drag on class time.
Sharing files between one office computer and a classroom computer was time consuming and cumbersome. Projectors and smart boards were unreliable and easy to get out of calibration. Through the 2000s, they got much better, but anyone doing an ROI calculation was appalled by their lack of efficiency and the class time these devices consumed as teachers tried to get them to work in concert to actually teach students! Tablet computing opens a whole new world to faculty and students, a world that's within financial reach. Faculty members are now able to walk around with their work desks literally at their sides. Music, books, documents of all kinds, Internet access and much more are at the touch of a button.
Faculty can take that tablet and connect it to a video projector, digital monitor/TV or Internet broadcast stream to draw, highlight and interact with whatever is on their screens without the aid of a smart board. With conferencing services and the newest wireless video systems, tablet users can share their screens with the instructor and the entire class in real time.
This is finally the "smart" classroom we all envisioned for higher education so many years ago. Now it's possible for our students to access electronic textbooks and other literature, library systems, Internet resources, LMS systems and so much more and use them in a real-time discussion inside the classroom. I foresee the transition of IT funding from in-class PCs, smart boards and control systems (and the support involved) to tablets.
The ROI will be evident as we spend less time on problems with PCs, "smart" devices (and their moving parts) and control systems and more on teaching our students
Not Nirvana -- Yet
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.