The scrawled notes of math teacher Jeff Gallup, with his cramped but legible handwriting, filled the overhead-projection screen. On this mild November morning, his 7th grade students at Ocoee Middle School here watched as he highlighted the word “integers” in yellow and drew a lopsided circle around it.
The students at the suburban Orlando school picked up thick black pens to copy his notes and started writing— not in traditional paper notebooks, but on their computer monitors, which rested on their laps or lay flat on their desks. With digital, touch-sensitive pens, the students wrote and highlighted words in blue, yellow, and pink, drew graphs and numbers, and even sketched smiley faces—all possible because they were using new technology tools called tablet personal computers.
Mr. Gallup’s students are among the 150 7th graders at the 1,500-student Ocoee Middle School who are pilot-testing the tablet PCs in their core academic classes. For many students, the new devices have made ballpoint pens, paper, and even traditional hardbound textbooks things of the past.
Scott Bartnick, for one, said the tablet PC has helped keep him organized and has made his work more readable.
“I used to lose my class assignments, or they’d get all crumpled up,” said Scott, 13. “My teachers couldn’t read my handwriting, too.” Now, he explained, he can use the tablet PC to convert his handwriting into typed text.
Scott and other students use the lightweight Internet- and e- mail- capable devices, which they carry between school and home for 24-hour access, to save class notes and sketches in their original handwriting or in typed text. The tablet devices are also equipped with digital textbooks, dictionaries, thesauruses, and other features that are attractive to educators and parents.
The use of tablet computing is still a relatively new development in K-12 schools. While many districts have purchased the devices, it’s too soon to call it a new computing trend in schools, according to industry officials.
Still, a number of high-tech companies are marketing tablet computers to schools. The Hewlett-Packard Co., based in Palo Alto, Calif., developed the Compaq “TC 1000" tablet computer that Ocoee students use, and other technology companies, such as Gateway, Toshiba, and Acer, have rolled out their own versions of tablet PCs.
On this recent day, Mr. Gallup pressed a button on his Macintosh iPod digital music player, and the Beach Boys’ classic “California Girls” blared over the classroom speakers, a sign that students had a few minutes of “thinking time” to work on math problems. One boy scrawled a few numbers on his tablet computer, then, thinking the better of it, he tapped his pen on a pink eraser icon at the top of his monitor. He swept his pen over the numbers, erasing them, and started over.
Another student tapped her pen twice on her computer, which switched to another screen, giving her a virtual computer keyboard and lined notepad. (Students can also connect a hard keyboard into the tablet computer if they wish.)
Yet another student clicked her pen on the green, black, and blue icons on the monitor, giving her work a colorful, almost psychedelic look.
Compared with traditional computers, the tablet PCs allow students to show more of their personal work styles, teachers at Ocoee say. But more importantly, the tablet computers—with their digital textbooks and grading software—make assigning and grading work more efficient for teachers.
“I don’t grade papers anymore,” Mr. Gallup said during a break as the ‘60s hit “Build Me Up Buttercup” reverberated around his classroom. “Now I spend more time planning and creating [lessons]. And I get to spend more one-on-one time with students.”
A software program, for instance, automatically grades their math homework. Beyond that benefit, Mr. Gallup can also check when his students turned in their work, as the tablet devices automatically log the time the students send their assignments electronically.
Plus, a software program on the tablet computers allows students to critique one another’s work by writing in the margins of their virtual pages, much as one would on a piece of paper, said Ocoee language arts teacher Airie H.D. Barnett. “Anything I can do without tablets,” she said, “I can do with tablets.”
Victoria Hembrooke, 12, said it’s now almost impossible for her to lose her textbooks, because they’re online. There are other benefits, too, she said.
“You can highlight in your [digital] textbook and dictionary, you can put in flags or stickies, and you can insert a blank page in between textbook pages if you want more room for your notes,” she pointed out.
She nodded vigorously when asked if the tablet computer had made school more engaging. “It’s not boring anymore,” Victoria said.
Chris Stenger, Ocoee Middle School’s 7th grade counselor and a parent of an Ocoee 7th grader, said her son no longer has the television blaring when he does his homework. “The [tablet] computer captures all of his attention,” she said. “Books and paper don’t do that.”
‘Good Things, Bad Things’
Ocoee Middle School seems like a natural choice to pilot-test a new computing device. It’s a state “demonstration” school for technology, a place where teachers wear wireless microphones to conduct classes and use ceiling-mounted LCD projectors to display their lesson plans.
Students and teachers also carry “smart” electronic identification cards, which they use to enter and leave buildings, check out library books, and buy cafeteria food.
But even in this technology-savvy school, students and teachers are still learning, through trial and error, how to navigate the various intricacies of using the tablet computers.
“Sometimes, when you’re on the cutting edge, you’re on the bleeding edge,” said Katherine C. Clark, the school’s principal.
At first, students didn’t know they not only had to save their work by clicking on the “save” button in their software programs, but also by synchronizing the information on their tablet computers with the school’s main computer network server. Some students were dismayed when they realized their work was lost.
Like other technology tools, the tablet computers also encounter glitches, such as lost Internet connections, almost daily, according to some students and teachers. At times, these shortcomings are frustrating.
In one of Mr. Gallup’s morning classes, one glum student scratched out math problems with a pencil and a piece of lined notebook paper because his tablet computer wasn’t working.
And that’s not an isolated incident, Mr. Gallup said. “I have to restart 10 to 15 [tablet] computers a day,” he said.
Seventh grader James Taylor said that he’s no stranger to rebooting his computer. "[Tablets] are pretty fun, but they’re also kind of frustrating,” he said. “With all the good things also come bad things.”
One of his classmates, Lee Doan, pointed out that the digital pen also has a few kinks. Sometimes the computer gets stuck, he said, and the pen keeps writing on the monitor even though he’d turned the writing function off.
Lee solves that problem a low-tech way. “I pull the tip [of the pen] out,” he said.
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.