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Tablets in the classroom will soon be the norm

Students still prefer laptops, but educators say the tide is about to shift.

(Photo: Maciej Frolow/Getty Images)

With the iPad Mini now on shelves, the tablet wars are heating up. As the technology gets better and cheaper and the competition between manufacturers even more fierce, tablets are going to start popping up everywhere.

A little while ago, a friend of mine who’s taking some night courses asked me if he should get a laptop or a tablet for taking notes. I instinctively recommended an Ultrabook, but he instead went with a tablet. He was convinced it served his course purposes and doubled as a nice entertainment device.

I’d never really considered the classroom as a place where tablets could replace traditional computers, so I talked to some educators and experts about it. With tablet fever gripping the general public, I wanted to know if this was a growing trend among students or if my friend was just crazy.

According to educators, students still prefer to use laptops for taking notes in class, but the tide will shift soon, possibly even this year.

“One can count on students bringing the device that they’re using for all their social networking into class and then take it home and have 24-7 ability to pursue their learning and external lives,” said David Vogt, director of digital learning projects for the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. “This BYOD [bring your own device] movement found in business is soon going to migrate to education.”

A recent survey conducted by the university’s information technology department found that about 13% to 15% of students currently have tablets. However, about 60% said they would be getting a tablet within the next year as lower-priced options like the iPad Mini become available.

So far, Apple has dominated tablets, capturing about two-thirds of the global market. But in recent months, competitors have found success with devices that sell for considerably less than the latest iPad, which starts at around $520. Google, for example, had trouble keeping up with demand for its Nexus 7 tablet, which sells for less than $250.

Educators are thus expecting a spike in uptake over the next few months and especially into the new year, since tablets are making for popular holiday gifts.

Rhonda Mcewen, a new media professor at the University of Toronto, says about a quarter of her students had tablets in January, up from just a few before the holidays.

While the devices aren’t ideal for taking notes because they require the connection of external keyboards, they do provide many benefits, she says. They’re smaller and lighter than laptops and they’re also versatile for personal uses outside of school, such as watching videos and playing games.

“It’s not for computing as much as it is for lifestyle computing,” she says. “For most users, that covers a good 80% of their needs in the classroom.”

Still, not all disciplines lend themselves to tablets, or even laptops for that matter. Engineers at Queen’s University, for example, still use pen and paper to take notes, since it’s difficult to write equations on a computer, says Sidneyeve Matrix, an associate professor in media and film.

Tablet manufacturers are also pushing the devices to students as e-book readers, which hold a world of promise. Not only can e-book textbooks be sold cheaper, they also remove the need to carry around a heavy bag full of actual books.

Some professors aren’t sure if that particular selling point will catch on. Matrix is finding that students hate e-books because they can’t be resold and, although it’s possible to highlight passages and take notes in them, it’s not as easy or elegant as with real books.

“It’s cheaper going in, but if it’s a hassle to use it, I’m probably not going to spend time with it,” she says. “There are too many disincentives there. There are wrinkles and complications.”

Vogt, however, believes the tipping point on electronic textbooks has finally come. While the capability to do much more with digital materials has been around for a generation, publishers’ entrenched business model has been difficult to shake. Now, though, both teachers and students have the ability to easily create and share e-textbooks, which means publishers are in for a shakeup.

“Their time of dominance is over.”

Hmm. It looks like my friend isn’t crazy after all.