Students put tablet PCs to the test

Once upon a time, teachers used two tools: a blackboard and a piece of chalk. That has changed dramatically, and nobody knows it better than Charles Grisham, a biochemistry professor at the University of Virginia who is part of an experiment that provides Hewlett-Packard tablet PCs to the 100 students in his class.

Instead of writing notes with a pencil and paper, students are using state-of-the-art technology to learn about biochemistry. And initial evidence shows that they are learning the subject better and more quickly with the technology, Grisham said. So far, students' test scores this year are about 10 points higher than last year, he said.

The concept is simple: Providing the students with tablet PCs enables them to see Microsoft PowerPoint slides at their desks and type or handwrite notes that are saved electronically. An additional bonus: Grisham's lectures are recorded, and students can view them on their tablets at any time.

The idea is a partnership among the university; Microsoft; Thomson Learning, producers of learning materials; and HP.

Wireless technology is expanding rapidly into classrooms, said Jim Weynand vice president and general manager of HP's public-sector division.

Students attending New York City schools are starting to use such technology, and officials at Grove City College, a small liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania, are requiring every freshman to have a notebook computer.

But none is moving as rapidly as the University of Virginia, where the idea is being tested in Grisham's biochemistry class, a psychology course and a statistics course. About 600 students are participating in the experiment, which will cost the companies about $1 million this year.

With the expansion of wireless capabilities on college campuses and the decreasing cost of wireless networks, the pilot program was easy to launch. It may even replace the downloadable biochemistry textbook.

The project has many advantages, Grisham said. "When I go into class now, my eyes sweep the room," he said. "Three out of four students are ready to go. Within the first week, students are coming up and asking, 'Can I keep this?'"

Such computers are active learning tools, Grisham said. "These tablet devices are the first computer innovation that we've ever had that can encourage students to actively learn," he said.

The initiative gets mixed grades from students such as John Huang, 20, of Herndon, Va. "They are pretty fun to use; it's an interesting tool," Huang said. "They are pretty versatile."

But he said he is not sure the tablets will replace other types of PCs or pen and paper. "It all depends on what your learning style is."

Huang faced a problem when his PC malfunctioned, leaving him without a tablet for two weeks while HP technicians were unavailable to fix it.

Nevertheless, company officials say the potential for the technology is tremendous because students are demanding modern tools for learning.

"There are campuses around the country moving to tablet technology," said Mike Humke, HP's director of higher education. "If you look at what the kids want, they want mobility. They don't want to lug around 65 books. They want it all online. Kids are asking for a different way to learn, to study, to collaborate."

"This technology allows students and the professor to interact," Weynand said. "It's been the Holy Grail we've been talking about in education as long as there have been computers

Loaded with goodies

About 600 students at the University of Virginia are being given Hewlett-Packard tablet PCs to help them learn about a variety of subjects. They can view Microsoft PowerPoint slides at their desks and jot notes that are saved electronically. The HP Compaq Tablet PC tc1100 is loaded with features for mobile users. Here is a sampling:

* Lightweight portable design.

* Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system.

* High-performance Intel Pentium M and Celeron processors.

* Battery-free digital pen.

* Integrated Intel wireless local-area network capabilities.

* Handwriting- and voice-recognition functions.

* Mobile keyboard that attaches or detaches depending on need.

Source: Hewlett-Packard

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