Monday, November 7, 2005

What is HP Thinking?

Imagine for a moment that you had a product that was innovative and unique in a market comprised largely of products that were all essentially timid me-too offerings. Imagine that your product had garnered a substantial share of the market because of its these qualities, and that it had a user base that bordered on the fanatic in their support and enthusiasm for your product. Would you throw that product away in favor of yet another me-too product line?

Most of us would laugh at the suggestion, yet it appears that this is precisely what HP is doing with the TC1100. While originally the word was that the TC1100 would cease production at the end of 2005, apparently production has already ceased and the channel is drying up. Their other offering, the TC4200 is a fine machine, no question. But it is also just another convertible notebook with a digitizer in the screen. Cheap? Sure. Nice keyboard? No doubt. (Though Thinkpads still rule this area.) Great screen? Yep. Flexible? Not very. Exciting? No way.

This is a move that I simply don't understand.

But not only is HP making this huge mistake, they have compounded it with poor communication. For a long time, there was no more than a rumor that this was going to happen. Now I admit that I am not very well connected at HP, but no one I could reach there would make a clear statement on the subject until recently. (I have been dogging this since mid-summer.) When I asked one HP representative whether the TC1100 was going to be discontinued, the only response I got was that "HP remains committed to the Tablet PC platform." A pretty non-committal non-answer. Which, I guess, was telling in itself if I had been willing to see it.

Since that time, HP has confirmed that the TC1100 is history. But in addition, my sources tell me that there is a new model coming out around the start of Q2 2006. It looks as if it will weigh about 3 pounds and have a 12" screen. There is no more information available than that. They can't even say if it is a slate, a convertible or, we can only hope, a hybrid. If so, I'll gladly wear egg on my face for this posting. (Well, part of it. They still screwed up in the way they handled it.)

I don't want this posting to become a rant or, worse, a whine so I won't go on with it. But Mr. Hurd, if you are listening, this is one decision that HP needs to reconsider. The TC1100 is not perfect, but it is terrific. Tweak it, don't kill it. I'll be glad to give you suggestions on what is needed. Better yet, ask in the Tablet PC Buzz HP forum, the most active forum on the most active Tablet PC site--all because of the TC1100.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Comments are back

Blogger has a means of thwarting the bots that post comment spam so I am re-enabling comments for this blog. I hope that I can get back on track and actually post some new content, too.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Comment Spam

Owing to the sudden appearance of lots of comment spam, I am disabling comments on my blogs for the time being. This saddens me as the few comments I have received have had good things to say and this could be a good medium for discussion. But, owing to the self-centeredness of a few, the many lose out. Again.

If Blogger.com can get it together to stop this kind of behavior, then I will reinstate comments. In the meantime, please feel free to send me comments at markp(at)together.net. I will post the comments (non-spam!) if appropriate.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Eggs and Baskets

I've long been a believer in the adage, generally attributed to Mark Twain's Puddin' Head Wilson, "Put all your eggs in one basket and -- WATCH THAT BASKET." For example, given limited technical resources and great technical demands, we opt for a single supported standard desktop OS and a single standard server OS. Sure Linux is a great OS, and I've run it on both servers and desktops (and even continue to financially support Mandriva ), but we just don't have the resources to adequately support and reliably secure two or more OSes on our machines. We can, and have, done that with a Windows-only system.

Now I am not interested in fueling the religious OS war, and the OS is not the point of this posting, but it is an example of how I have chosen to operate. For the most part, that mode of operation has been pretty successful. I have recently had to reconsider exactly what is meant by "WATCH THAT BASKET", however.

The last few months at Vermont Academy have been terribly grueling owing largely to the failure of two other companies on whom we have depended heavily to perform in what I consider a satisfactory fashion. In both cases, they were a partner on whom we have counted to work with us and for us but who failed to do so. We are still trying to recover from the impact of these failures. (This is also the explanation for the lengthy dry spell in postings here.)

The first situation that caused us problems was with the vendor on whom we depended for our wireless network. They helped us design the network and were a vital partner in ongoing security work and extensions of the network. Their work had always been first-rate and was consistently done in a timely fashion. Late in the spring we requested their assistance with a significant change in the security settings and policies of our wireless system, one which required a good deal of planning and the reconfiguration of much of our networking equipment and all of our Tablet PCs. We planned the work to begin in June and to be completed mid-summer to give us ample time to work out any bugs in the system before the start of school.

At about this time, the company with whom we worked was acquired by a larger regionally well-known company with a good reputation. While some things about this acquisition and the policy changes that we saw implemented gave us concern, by and large we felt (and were assured) that business would generally continue as usual.

However, when June rolled around, we found that our project was to be somewhat delayed. Here is where I made my first mistake in not watching this basket carefully enough. I accepted this delay and didn't begin to think about finding an alternate vendor for this project. After all, I had worked with some members of this company for nearly 20 years and had never been let down. Plus we had ample time still to complete the project. So I waited for them.

By the time July came, we still had not seen any progress and were in fact not even receiving timely returns of phone calls. I did begin to be concerned at this time and we began to do some of the work on this project ourselves, spending precious time doing research and planning that we had expected to be doing in concert with the more knowledgeable folks from our vendor. We did in fact come up with a good plan for the project and one of my staff was doing good research on what would be required to make it happen.

Still, I would have been wiser to find another vendor to come in and work with us. The thought of paying someone to come in and learn our existing system and network before they would be able to help us deterred me and I still held out hope that this vendor would come through in the end.

They did not.

We ended up doing the lion's share of the work ourselves--at great cost of attention to other important jobs. In addition, the work, while completed, was completed too late to analyze all of the points of impact that were unforeseen. We spent the latter part of August finalizing the implementation and the first two weeks of September (after students had arrived) eliminating most of the bugs. We are still dealing with a few of them. We have had more than a few dissatisfied students and faculty when they had the inevitable connection difficulties.

One lesson I learned from this is that watching the basket may actually mean having a second basket handy in case the first one breaks. Or maybe this is a case where putting all the eggs in one basket doesn't work. Going forward, I hope to have at least two vendors on whom I can depend for such critical parts of our business. I don't know yet how I can do this, or who those vendors will be. (One disadvantage of being so rural is that our choices are limited.) I hope to find vendors any of whom could do all of what we need, but to use them in a more limited fashion so that we don't rely exclusively on any one of them for everything. Then if one lets us down, we will have another to whom we can turn on short notice.

The other major situation is a bit more problematic to resolve. We have a vendor to whom we don't have a realistic alternative--Microsoft.

Our plan for the start of the school year was to create a master image of our Tablet PCs and ghost that image onto both new and returning Tablets. We did this last year and the process worked flawlessly.

We usually go through a couple of iterations of the master image, to give us time to build it and test the process and to test the image itself and see what refinements we need to make. We started this process at the beginning of August, which left ample time for the iterative process to work and for us to then put that image on all of the new machines. Immediately after the first image was built we hit a wall.

As best I can determine, back in February of this year Microsoft made a change to the Windows Product Activation process that made it so that images made from OEM CDs could not be activated over the Internet. Since we built the image from the HP CDs that came with the Tablets, we ran into this problem.

Activating by phone was an option left open to us, but that is a time-intensive operation and we had in the vicinity of 150 machines that we would need to reimage and then activate by phone.

I spent much of my time over a two week period trying to find an adequate resolution to this. I suppose if we had been a bigger company, or perhaps a more prestigious school, we could have had more assistance from Microsoft, but we got precious little. The information offered online is sketchy at best and difficult to find. The best assistance we got was from the man at HP who has been so helpful with our hardware problems. He went above and beyond the call of his responsibility to us to help with the resolution of this problem.

From what I have been able to find out so far, MS appears to expect those in this situation to purchase a volume license for the machines and use the VL media to create the image. Images made in this fashion are exempt from the WPA process. Since we have already purchased a license for Windows for these machines, this is a less-than-satisfactory answer.

Without going into great detail, we did manage to resolve the problem and got the machines reimaged. We paid a price, however, in that we didn't have the time to test and refine the image as much as we would have liked and have seen the consequences of that omission. (The fact that this all occurred at the same time as the previous problem made matters worse still.)

I don't know what the long term answer to this one is. We can't drop Microsoft for someone else. There is no one else. Besides, their product is the one we want. The Tablet PC OS is one of the best operating systems around and does exactly what we want.

The real solution, I think, is for Microsoft to trust their customers and eliminate product activation from their whole product line. The only ones affected by it are those of us who try to do things legitimately. If I had been a bootlegger, this would have been an easy problem to resolve. But I'm not, and it wasn't, and we and our students are paying for it.

I'll continue to watch this basket as best I can and keep looking for a better solution for next year. I wish Puddin' Head Wilson had some counsel on this one.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Importance of Partners

No matter how good your technical staff might be, supportive partners are critical to the success of a Tablet PC program. I have long thought that "partner" is an overused term as every salesman or manufacturer wants to "partner" with you, when too often all they really want to do is sell you stuff and then forget about you until your next order. What I mean by partner is someone who goes out of their way to make sure that you have what you need, that it works as expected, and is proactive in getting it made right when it doesn't work as expected. Sometimes these people will even go so far as to tell you that what they have isn't what you need.

I prefer to do business with people like this. I will even pay a somewhat higher price for products if it means I can work with someone I know I can count on to work for me and with whom I can develop a trusting relationship. (I understand that we deal with organizations, but it is the individuals that make or break the working relationship, though I do think institutional policies are critical in consistently getting the right people.)

In our Tablet program, we have several organizations that have worked with us to make this program a success. Two outstanding examples are The Top Floor, the vendor through whom we are buying our Tablets, and HP itself, the manufacturer of the Vermont Slate, better known as the TC1100.

Marcus, our rep at The Top Floor, has been the main force behind the exceptional pricing we've been able to get for our students, as well as the one who bird dogs our orders and shipments for us. He has gotten us demos even when he was aware up front that we likely might not end up purchasing the products we demo and even when the product was a hot commodity and hard to get.

HP has been outstanding in all of our dealings with them, as well. Their delivery times have been prompt (though they could be a bit more informative about ETAs). Their warranty support (handled locally by PC Connection, another important partner in this project) has been excellent with no hassles. Driver updates are appropriately frequent. Online support is decent-- as long as you know where to look.

We recently had an incident that tested these two companies and proved their value to us as business partners, reaffirming to me that we made good choices in choosing to work with them.

During the last year, we ordered several batches of TC1100s. Some earlier models of this computer were plagued with a fairly serious problem that would crop up from time to time. A large percentage of our systems had this problem and it was one for which we sent out a number of machines for repair, as it was not serviceable by end users. After tracking this, we realized that close to 40% of certain batches exhibited this problem.

I took my concerns about this problem first to Marcus. We had a spreadsheet showing the warranty repairs (as opposed to all repairs, which included the accidental damage covered work) which showed pretty clearly the prevalence of this one problem. Marcus took it from there, communicating with HP, setting up conference calls, and once again dogging this problem admirably. He sacrificed a lot of time on this issue, with no direct remuneration.

HP, while understandably initially reluctant to agree to my initial request (demand might be a better term) for satisfaction, kept a healthy dialogue going on it until we reached an agreeable solution. My request was that they come on site and replace all of the potentially defective parts on all of our machines, whether they had exhibited this problem or not. I knew that the program could not brook such a high failure rate and I was unwilling to risk another year with it. Especially not at this point, as we are now putting machines in the hands of all faculty, many of whom are much more tentative about this whole Tablet PC business than the students are.

I say that HP's initial reaction is understandable, because this is costing them a lot of money. So far, in any given day, a tech has been able to deal with about 7 machines. We have around 80. This is 11 days of a technician, sitting at our site doing nothing else. Each machine has expensive components to be replaced. HP is eating all of these costs. Not many companies would willingly bear all these costs, especially since we aren't ever going to be buying thousands of computers. At peak, we'll probably have slightly more than 300 at any given time.

But this has served to affirm for me that they stand behind their products and that they are committed to the Tablet PC. (In fact, I have enough confidence in them as a company that we are going to replace our Dell servers with HP.)

These are the kind of partners that I want to do business with. They work with and for me, even when they don't always stand to profit in a given instance. By these actions, they will be contributing to the success of our program in real, tangible ways.

As a last aside, some might argue that a problem affecting so many machines should make us look elsewhere, but I don't agree. The TC1100 is a bold and innovative design, unique among Tablet PCs. As if manufacturing problems didn't happen often enough anyway, this model had some new issues to worry about because of its unique design. The machines have been rock-solid otherwise. This particular problem has been fixed in newer systems and I am confident that we won't see issues like that again this year.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

The Trouble with Two-Finger Typists

I've been doing some more thinking about the obstacles Tablet users face when confronted with the pen. I touched on this idea in Training I - Do your users think in ink? In that post, I suggested that a lot of folks had difficulty learning a set of skills different from, yet similar to, skills they already had mastered. Like a skier learning to snowboard, they found it frustrating to change gears with the new skills.

While it may appear to be splitting hairs, I think there is another similar, but distinct, phenomenon at work here, too.

I recently met with a group of student Tablet users and discussed with them how they were using the Tablets. This was a group identified by various faculty members as "good users" of the technology. I was very surprised to find that most of them claimed to not use the pen very much at all, even when taking notes in class. By their own estimates, they used the keyboard far more often than they used the pen, though they used the pen as a mouse even when in keyboard mode.

I suspect there are many reasons for this:

  • Many programs are simply not readily usable with, let alone optimized for, the pen. They are keyboard-centric.
  • Document composition, a big part of school life, is definitely a keyboard activity.
  • With the Tablet in keyboard mode, the teacher can't see what they are actually doing, and most students spend a fair bit of time in IM even in class--if they can get away with it.

But aside from these reasons, I think there is something else going on.

When the students told me that they tended to use the keyboard even for notes in class, I asked how many of them were touch typists. Much to my surprise, none were. All used some variation of hunting and pecking, although they were practiced enough with this mode of working that there was more pecking than hunting.

As we discussed this, they acknowledged that they knew they could type faster by learning to type by "proper" methods. However, they weren't really much interested in doing so. They could type well enough to get by and weren't interested in trading what they already had to learn something that even they acknowledged is better. There was not enough motivation or perceived need to justify the hassle even with the expected gain in efficiency.

When I learned to type in high school, the method used was pretty stodgy, relying almost exclusively on drills to train my fingers where the keys were. It was drudgery of the highest order, especially for someone who has a hard time sitting still even when the subject is interesting. I had strong motivation to learn to type, though, so I suffered through it. (The fact that the teacher was a young, pretty, pleasant, charming woman helped, too. If I had had an old battleaxe of a drillmaster, I might not have stuck it out motivation or no.)

These days, there is Mavis Beacon and a legion of copycats that provide games and ease the pain of learning to type. (At least it appears so. Maybe not and that is why the students weren't interested.) The process of learning to type, front and center when I took my class, is now somewhat hidden behind the fa├žade of play.

I wonder how much this same phenomenon is at work in the students' reluctance to learn to use the pen efficiently. And I do think that for note-taking, it is generally a much more efficient tool than the keyboard. Even though an accomplished typist, my notes are more meaningful when I write as opposed to type them. I usually don't capture more words, but I can demonstrate relationships between concepts more easily, I can draw arrows and pictures and diagrams, I can emphasize something quickly with a pen. While I could do all this with the pen and the keyboard together, the efficiency is greatest with the pen alone. But one needs to be willing to climb that learning curve to get to that point.

When I think about this situation from a training perspective, a couple of things come to mind. First, maybe we need some sort of Mavis Beacon for the pen. Certainly when I first began training people to use Microsoft Windows 2.0 I relied heavily on Solitaire to help them get comfortable with the mouse. Play can be a strong motivator, though obviously from the students' comments, not necessarily strong enough by itself.

Second, it may be that one reason I find the pen more efficient for taking notes is that I do know how to take good notes. I don't think a lot of students do, as I've indicated before. An approach I hope to pursue is to do the training in note-taking skills--but have the students do it all with the pen. They will be learning pen skills and (I hope) developing pen habits but in context of note-taking skills. This has something of the Mavis Beacon approach to it as well, as this particular skill set is rather hidden in a larger context.

One last aside: I asked one of the students if I could look at his class notes to see what I could see in them. To my surprise, most of them actually were hand-written and not typed. He did have one set of notes that were typed and were beautifully organized. It turns out, though, these were copied verbatim from the instructor's notes on the board. I'm not sure what this means, or whether it means anything at all, but it was an interesting surprise.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Important Tangents - II

Last time, I wrote about several important skills that need to be taught to our Tablet users, both students and faculty. Those skills mainly dealt with safety, either personal or of the system. All computer users need these skills, of course, but it becomes even more critical when the computer is ultra-portable and always connected as the Tablets are on our campus, and especially so in that they can connect freely off-site and away from any kind of protection.

This time I want to talk about a second set of skills that are important in a different way. These skills get short shrift in most cases in my experience. By giving students Tablets, we are giving them tools to help with their education. We also need to help them to learn the skills to make good use of those tools.

One skill that I don't see taught anywhere, except perhaps in a journalism class and our learning skills group, is how to take good notes. I once asked a returning alumnus (who was class valeditorian) what he wished we had taught him that he hadn't learned here. The thing at the top of his list was good note-taking techniques. He said he struggled in college lectures to get the right information down quickly, concisely, and completely.

Since note-taking is such a natural use of the Tablet, this ties in very nicely with training on Tablet use. My leaning at the moment, in fact, is to focus on this and subsume the Tablet usage specifics under this training at least as far as basic pen use goes. More on this in another post.

There are many techniques for note-taking and many resources on the Internet. Here are a few for starters:

Recovering the Lost Art of Note-Taking.

CalPoly article on notetaking systems.

Notetaking and summarizing skills grid from the University of Leeds.

Information from Dyslexia College-useful for everyone.

Notetaking page from York University.

Allen and Unwin eStudy Centre on notetaking-with some other good information, too.

Another useful skill, that the Tablet can support well with software like GoBinder or PlanPlus, is time and assignment management. Again, outside of learning skills, I don't think high schools do much to focus on this necessary skill. (This is another one I've heard from alums that they wished they had learned here.) Like note-taking, it can be a focus of training that incorporates the Tablet specifically in the skills being taught.

One skill that I think is very important, but might be non-intuitive, is good typing skills. I see so many students pecking out papers with two fingers. Writing papers is a critical component of high school and even more so of college. Even thought Tablets shine with the pen, they also are tools for typing and I think we do our students a disservice by not requiring them to develop this skill to at least a moderate level. I would like to advocate a minimum typing speed, say 30 wpm, as a prerequisite for graduation, or even better as a prerequisite for advancement beyond the freshman year.

Many students these days don't want to crack a book when doing research. While I think this is a sad trend, I do think it is a trend we will have to prepare students for. When all the books you use for a paper are recommended by a teacher or librarian, there is a certain amount of inherent vetting of the material that occurs. When your "librarian" is Google, there is none. We need to teach the skills of analyzing the likely validity of web sites that students consider for sources. A good starting point for thinking about this issue and developing a curriculum is this article by Technology & Learning.

Lastly, given the ease with which a "paper" can be created by cutting and pasting content from the Internet, we need to teach very carefully the skill and habit of proper source citation. Legitimate plagiarism is a big enough problem. We certainly don't want students to become accidental plagiarists.

Where this training happens is a good question. Some of it should be occuring in existing classes. Some of it should be specific to Tablet PC training and might, in fact, be the apparent focus of the training with the Tablet skills being learned as just part of the whole skill set. This is a question that deserves further discussion and thinking. I hope to address it soon for our own purposes and would be interested in hearing what others have to say.

Friday, May 6, 2005

Important Tangents - I

Along the lines of the topic of a previous post, Are We Empowering or Just Enabling?, there are a number of issues that will affect the success of a Tablet PC program that are not technical in nature and require education of our students and faculty to properly address. That article addressed the need for students to learn to deal with the ready distraction the Tablet provides them. Learning how, and at least as important, when to tune out or turn off the distractions is a key skill that all members of an always on, always connected society will need. But there are many other skills, several of which seem to me to get short shrift (if they are addressed at all) these days. I believe that these skills, properly addressed, will do much to support a successful program. Left unaddressed, they might well serve to undermine it.

First, I'd like to address some issues that do get discussed, but that become even more important in an environment of always (or usually) available networked computing where much of what happens does so away from any watchful eyes. In the same way that we don't let our children drive alone until they at least seem to have mastered the requisite skills, we ought to ground them in these skills for their own safety before we send them out to solo with the computer.

One of the most important of these is personal safety. We all know that the Internet is a dangerous place and one never really knows who is out there, just as the famous old cartoon says. It's not humorous, though, when the person on the other end of a connection is a pedophile or other person with criminal intent. We can have all the technical safeguards in the world in place--web filters, internet access logging, forced logoff times, whatever--but every single one of these measures is flawed and easy to circumvent. We need to consider that no matter how good a job we do with the technology, sooner or later our students will end up somewhere where they are likely to put themselves at risk. We need to prepare our students to face these risks wisely and to learn ways to minimize them. This kind of instruction, repeated often and in a variety of ways, needs to be an integral part of the Tablet PC curriculum. By the way, given the creativity of some of the phishers and other con artists out there, faculty need this training, too.

An issue that we techies are likely to have given more thought to is the safety of the computer itself--anti-virus, anti-spam, and anti-hacker measures. Even so, we need to think this through very clearly and look at all the variables. I thought we had a good handle on at least one aspect of this, applying security updates automatically, until I was working with a faculty member's Tablet last week. It was five months out of date with patches. All unapplied patches are supposed to be applied every week without fail so this machine had had over twenty chances to get some of these updates, but none of them had been installed. Since this faculty member lives off campus and he is always gone at the scheduled update time, his machine never got the message. Our model for this process was based on hardwired systems and failed when wireless, ultra-portable systems joined the mix. It was a mistake to assume that what worked in the past would continue to work with this new paradigm.

In the same way, we (okay, I) need to get over the rather smug feeling of security we have owing to our history of success in preventing and fighting viruses. We more or less have been able to quarantine our computers in the past. They were only on our network, we controlled the anti-virus software and what got installed. We supplied and controlled the Internet connection. These days, we refer to the Tablets as promiscuous computers because we never know where they've been connected. Once the students have full admin privileges, assuming they do, it will be even worse as we won't know what has been installed with high-level security privileges. I shudder to think how many students will take to doing everything as the administrator because certain games work only under that account. (Microsoft still has a lot of work to do getting vendors to ensure that their applications don't require administrator privileges.) Again, I expect that regular, consistent education will be the best thing we can do and it needs to be part of the Tablet program. In addition, we'll need to look much more seriously at various network monitoring systems, intrusion detection systems, etc.

Of course we will continue to work with centrally managed anti-virus, anti-spam, and machine firewall software, though we are still waiting for usable enterprise class systems to be ready--and economical. Currently, we use an antivirus system whose central management system we don't like, so each machine is manually configured. We don't really have a way of knowing when one is misconfigured or when the AV stops working. I know of only one enterprise class AS solution, and we will be evaluating it in a few weeks when a new beta version is ready. Windows firewall isn't a complete solution but the price is right and we can manage it from our Active Directory.

Another area we still need to address is general computer care. We have some students who have had their Tablets since the start of school and have never had a single problem. We have had others who have constant battles with scratched screens, breaking keyboard clips, and other minor annoyances that generally are caused by carelessness. Tablets are designed to be carried around and, of course, that is what the students do--often without any kind of protection at all. We can do some things, such as sourcing and offering more protective cases for the systems, but short of issuing ruggedized systems, we can only do so much. Ultimately, the care and feeding of the computer is up to the owner. Again, education will be key. That and the accidental damage policy we encourage everyone to buy.

All of these issues need to be addressed as part of our program. Failure to do so probably wouldn't doom the program, but in each case the nature of the program exacerbates an existing problem, so it is expedient to make the solution a part of the program, too. I'll continue this theme next time by looking at similar topics which are of a more academic orientation. I hope that, as we discover good ways of handling these issues, to share our experiences and solutions, too.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

How Much Is Too Much?

I sometimes get a sense from faculty members that they are overwhelmed.

Generally, this is owing to them teaching several classes, having advisees, coaching, living in a dorm, regularly having comments and grades to do for all of the above, plus all the other responsibilities that go along with working at a boarding school. I suppose it is understandable...

But I'm afraid I might be contributing to this problem.

We currently use what seems to me just a handful of applications. However as I look at them the list really does get fairly large. In "productivity" apps alone, we have Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook (or Outlook Web Access), OneNote, and GoBinder that are on everyone's Tablet. Then we have the school portal and the school web site (for internal and external use, respectively). We have limited focus apps, such as MS Reader and Adobe Acrobat (that do much the same thing). Some people use Project, Publisher, PageMaker, and there are department specific apps such as Geometer Sketchpad and Fathom and the four programs that our language department just purchased. Then there is the multitude of utilities such as the wireless projector software, VPN client, spyware checkers, etc. Individuals also use apps that we don't support in any significant way. I don't even know how many.

On top of this, we are trying to get folks to use Blackboard in their classes and we are introducing DyKnow to selected teachers.

Hmm. Maybe I have already contributed to the problem…

For me, at least, this is a real risk. I am one of those people who are like machines when there is new stuff to learn. I have too often stayed up through the night and neglected my family to work with a new programming language and have missed workouts or meals to play around with a new piece of software. I generally can't get enough of it when there is something new to learn and I forget that others can easily get too much of it. I have to fight the urge to throw every cool new piece of software into the mix and I wonder if I haven't lost that fight a few too many times.

Still, every single one of the packages that we use has its place and is very worthwhile. But how do we introduce new ones most strategically? And how do we do so in such a way that folks don't get swamped. And how do we simultaneously improve skills in the existing apps. And how do we do all of this when everyone is already so busy? (See the second paragraph.)

Particularly tricky is the question of helping folks to choose between applications when their functions overlap, or at least appear to. One example of this is the OneNote/GoBinder combination. Both are note-taking applications and do a credible job of that function. Beyond that, however, they offer different features. GoBinder has the task management function (which, by the way, Outlook does as well) and the Syllabus page for managing assignments. OneNote, on the other hand, has shared sessions (a similar function is also offered by DyKnow) and audio and video recording capabilities.

An argument could be readily made for simply selecting between these overlapping applications and offering a more limited selection of software and capabilities. And there is merit to this argument. Folks would have fewer applications to learn and it would probably be simpler to develop a higher skill set sooner. It would simply be that some software capabilities wouldn't be available.

On the other hand, all of these applications (the Tablet-oriented ones at least) are early in their development lives and features are being added regularly. The future is bright for them, but the future may well look very different from the present. Limiting our selection of applications now would ease the learning curve, but it would also close the door on both present and future capabilities that may well be crucial to someone. It could, of course, be opened again, but we would be much further behind the learning curve.

I guess the direction we are going with this (if I don't sound really positive that this is the best way to go it is because I am not--but I think it is) is toward a broader selection of applications, which we in IT need to know pretty well. We will work with faculty to identify the features most useful to them and help them to select and learn those apps that they need for themselves and their classes. This, of course, puts students in the position of needing to learn all of them to at least some level. From what I have seen, though, this is among the least of our problems. In this way, we can adopt a Darwinist attitude toward the applications and let the most fit and most adaptable survive.

Our current battles to find training time in the schedule is going to make this hard and I hope that next year we will factor this into our scheduling decisions up front. I do think the miasma of applications will clear in the minds of faculty members as they begin to work with the Tablets more and see what works for them and what doesn't. Time to practice, time to think, time to discuss make a huge difference in this process.

That seems to have been the case so far with those who already have Tablets. Applications they don't use recede into the background and the confusion lessens--at least until the next new application is introduced.

Now what do I do about all the apps I haven't even had a chance to explore yet?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A Conference in a Million

When I took my current position at Vermont Academy, one of the unintended consequences was inheriting a role of involvement with a conference called edAccess. edAccess (originally called just Access) stands for Administrative and Campus Computing Environments at Small Schools. The conference is unlike any I have ever attended elsewhere and one I would heartily recommend to any small college or secondary school, esepcially those considering Tablet PCs. (Full disclosure: my involvement is as a member of the steering committee the only perks of which are a really fabulous dinner the night before the conference and the really fabulous discussion that takes place at those dinners.)

edAccess is not focused on Tablet PCs, but they have been a topic of discussion there for the last two years. Discussion is really what edAccess is all about and the topics covered are always incredibly varied. It is not a place where participation is limited to warming a seat and hearing the "experts" pontificate. It is a place where it is recognized that those of us who are in the trenches are the experts and we share our knowledge with each other in a mutually beneficial give-and-take. Most of the conference consists of small forum discussions around topics of common interest. I can't even tell you what those will be this year, as the topics are selected by the attendees at the conference. I would love to see a number of folks who are involved in Tablet PC programs or interested in them at the conference so that we could share our experiences and help each other to make these programs the best they can be.

The conference this year is June 22-24 at the beautiful campus of Groton School in Groton, MA. More information is available at the web site, http://www.edaccess.org. It is a highlight of my year and I trust would be one for any of you who can make it, too. I hope to see you there.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Rethinking The Interface

In an earlier post (Training I - do your users think in ink?) I talked about the need for users to learn new skills that seemed disarmingly like skills they had already acquired--but which were decidedly different. This unexpected difference makes for a longer learning curve and can result in a higher frustration level, and potentially even with rejection of the Tablet by users. The proverb of old wine in new wineskins comes to mind.

Another area where I see this proverb as applicable is in application interfaces. There are a lot of obvious ways that applications need to change to work really well on Tablet PCs, most notably the appropriate support of ink. There are lots of other fairly obvious issues that application designers need to consider: the potential for portrait mode orientation, the difficulty of hitting small screen widgets (scroll bar buttons, title bar buttons, etc.) with a pen, graceful recovery from stand-by mode, etc., etc., etc. I am pretty opinionated on this subject and as I am in the process of reworking an internal application to work well with the Tablets I am dealing with this regularly and probably will have more to say in the future.

For now, though, I want to focus exclusively on the problem of reading on a Tablet, apparently one of the less obvious issues judging by past efforts, and give kudos to a group that I think is getting it right.

Reading on a computer has never been a particularly pleasant prospect for me until I had my Tablet. The application that finally made it work is Microsoft Reader. (This isn't the group I mentioned, but Reader is an appropriate segue to talking about them.) In a nutshell, Reader has very successfully replicated for me the feel of reading a book on my Tablet. Some of this is due to the slate mode of the Tablet, as keyboards are in the way when reading. But Microsoft also made some very sound design decisions that, and this is key, went against conventional wisdom and Windows application design standards. They didn't let the current interface paradigm dictate how they approached the reading problem and as a result found an elegant solution to it. I talk about this in quite a bit more detail in a posting on my other blog, The Pew Tablet. While that blog's focus is on how Christians can use Tablet PCs, this particular article might be worth reading regardless of your beliefs if you are interested in this subject.

I mention in that article that while MS Reader (and to some extent Adobe Acrobat Reader) has greatly improved reading books on PCs, reading magazines on Tablets still doesn't cut it. One of the first things I did when I got my latest Tablet was to remove Zinio, a magazine reading application that came preinstalled. Like all efforts I had seen before, the magazines that were published in Zinio looked like the publisher had tried to shoehorn pages from their print editions onto the Tablet screen. A paradigm that works well (in most cases) in print just doesn't cut it at all for me on the Tablet. Nor for that matter do web-based magazines in many cases. In the former, the strengths of the old paradigm mostly don't translate well and in the latter too many of those strengths are thrown out completely. As a result, I simply haven't found reading newspapers or magazines on a computer worthwhile. The Web is great for getting a single article, but that isn't reading a magazine and that is the experience that I have been missing.

However the Missouri School of Journalism and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute have been collaborating on an experiment with a bi-weekly electronic edition (called EmPRINT, for Electronic Media Print) of their newspaper, The Missourian. Their experiment seems to me to be very successful so far. Once again, they appear to have thought outside the existing paradigms and come up with a new one that preserves the linearity and perusal capabilities of paper but doesn't tie you into flipping virtual pages or throw you into hyperlink purgatory where you have to use the back button to retrace your steps when you inevitably get lost.

When one loads an EmPRINT edition of The Missourian, a very newspaper-like page appears, but with only a few stories and pictures under the banner. Different sections of the paper are displayed as tabs on the right side of the page so one can quickly jump to a section of interest, but there is also the ability to browse through the edition page by page. An index brings up a detailed listing of the contents, something print papers don't do, but which is very useful. Stories are usually continued on later pages, but the links to go there are attractive and contribute to the newspaper-like feel rather than detract from it. It is a wonderful, wonderful way to read a newspaper on a Tablet and I hope it is a harbinger of more to come from other print media.

My description doesn't really do this justice, so I recommend that you go to the EmPRINT site and get a copy for yourself. You have to register to download the editions, and part of registering is agreeing to supply feedback to them. I have gotten one survey per edition and there is usually only one question per survey, so this isn't an onerous requirement. But their experiment ends on May 8, so you should hurry if you want to see this in action. Here is the registration page. They do promise that if the results of this field test are favorable, they will continue to publish the EmPRINT edition. I certainly hope they do.

I also hope this way of rethinking the interface represents only an opening salvo. Those of us in education really need e-books and e-magazines and e-texts that are something more than just web or Acrobat copies of the paper book. Publishing houses, are you listening?

Monday, April 4, 2005

Do You See What I See?

When I think about the benefits that the Tablet can bring to a school, I tend to view them in three categories: benefits to the student, benefits to the teacher, and benefits to the class (and other collaborative groups) as a whole. While each category brings strong arguments in favor of Tablets over notebooks, for now I want to begin looking at some of the benefits in class.

Vermont Academy has never been particularly flush with classroom technology. Each of our classrooms has a computer on the faculty desk, and we have always had one or two portable projectors that could float between classrooms and attach to these computers or to a notebook. In addition, we have a computer lab with a permanently mounted projector and screen.

Although the number has fluctuated over time, there have always been some teachers who made regular use of these projectors to present material. It has generally come at the cost, though, of a poor strategic placement of the teacher. Usually the teacher has to sit behind the students during this presentation because the computer needs to be close to the projector which needs to be relatively far from the screen. We've tried some things to get around this, such as a USB wireless remote to advance PowerPoint slides, but these have always felt like workarounds at best.

We are now working with two technologies that show strong promise for not only addressing all of the shortcomings of our wired projectors but potentially bringing additional gains to the classroom as well.

As part of our Tablet PC pilot, we have purchased several Epson wireless projectors. The current model is the 745c though we also have the older 735c. Both come with a wireless network card, 802.11b in the 735C and 802.11b/g in the 745c, and software that allows our Tablets to send the screen image to the projector via wireless. We have added the projectors as devices on our network, but they can work in peer-to-peer mode as well.

With the wireless units, the only constraint on placement of the projector itself is the availability of power and a projection surface. Since our classrooms are generally small, we don't need a lot of wall space as long as it is free from windows, pictures, etc. The real freedom, though, is given to the teacher who can now sit or stand anywhere in the classroom (or technically, I guess, anywhere on campus) and display the Tablet screen for the class. This arrangement allows for face-to-face communication during the presentation--much better than talking to the back of a bunch of heads. While this could also be done with a notebook, the Tablet removes the social barrier of the computer screen standing between teacher and class. The teacher is free to walk around during the presentation and even give the Tablet to a student for her to interact with the materials. Eventually, when all students have Tablets, the instructor can even allow a student to take control of the projector from his Tablet.

Another technology we are exploring is collaborative software. We cut our teeth on this with OneNote shared sessions but are also exploring other tools.

OneNote allows a user to start a shared session, essentially opening up his current page for others to see and work on. The page can be shared read-only or read-write, depending on the need. Other users connect to the machine by IP address and port number. This is a rather cumbersome means of connecting, but it is helped somewhat by OneNote's display of the required connection information on the sharing machine. Outlook users can also send an invitation which makes connecting as simple as a pen tap or mouse click. Users work together, each seeing everyone else's ink or text if the session is read-write or just the host's if read-only. The finished page is left on each individual machine when the session is ended, so everyone walks away with a copy.

We have just recently begun a pilot using DyKnow. DyKnow, which requires a server to operate, likewise allows for shared workspaces, but the control of the space is more granular than what OneNote offers. An administrator sets up classes, with users designated as faculty or students. The faculty member will start the session and students will join in, selecting the class from a pick list of accessible classes.

Sessions are seen as a series of pages, much like slides in PowerPoint. These pages can contain text, drawings, written notes, images, web pages (live), media, etc. To some extent the teacher will control the access to the pages, though students can pause on a screen or scroll backward at will. Students can write notes on the pages as they are displayed, but unless the instructor shares control others generally do not see these notes. There is also a separate space for private typed or written notes associated with each slide. This is particularly useful as pages can be submitted to the instructor or collected by the instructor. Any notes on the pages themselves go to the instructor, but private notes do not. The presentation can be prepared ahead of time or created or modified on the fly. There is more to DyKnow than this, and if it proves out I'll talk more about it later on. For now, it looks like a good way to eliminate projectors altogether plus giving some good classroom collaboration tools.

There is other software that seems to offer some at least of what DyKnow offers. Groove is one. It will be especially interesting to watch Groove now that Microsoft has bought the company. Another package that might be of interest is Classroom Presenter, being developed at the University of Washington. It bills itself as a "distributed presentation system" and uses PowerPoint slides and real-time ink for presentation. The price is certainly right (free), whereas both Groove and DyKnow charge per seat.

This is an area where I expect to see a lot of developments in the near future. It is a natural use of the Tablet in a classroom setting and in other types of collaborative groups. It will be exciting to work with this technology and to see the developments that will be forthcoming. Let me know if you have found something useful in this area.

Friday, April 1, 2005

Are We Empowering or Just Enabling?

I was talking with one of the teachers in our pilot program a few days ago. While he has come to appreciate the usefulness of the Tablet PC himself, he had some concerns about using Tablets in the classroom. Now this wasn't really something I wanted to hear from someone I am looking to as a leader going forward in our project. Fortunately, as we talked further about what has been going on the issue that came to light wasn't with the Tablets per se.

His concern wasn't that the Tablet PC was not useful academically (Phew!), but rather that students were using them to goof off in class. They would browse the Internet, play games or just doodle. Not many students, but a couple. A couple of others were distracted by those beside them, so the negative effect was compounded. In a small class, such as we have at Vermont Academy, this could mean a third or more of the class wasn't paying attention. That's a big problem. It is actually several related problems, but I'll address the Internet access piece specifically.

In-class Internet isn't only a problem at the high school level, either. Stories abound of higher-ed classrooms where the teaching faculty will not allow notebook computers in their classes because of the same issues this teacher was describing. In articles I have read, students own up freely to shopping, browsing, playing games, IMing, even blogging about their class while in class. Here is one such.

So how do we address what is essentially a non-technical problem? Is it really even a problem? Can't some students listen and comprehend better while their hands are engaged? (Being a chronic fidgeter myself, I can appreciate this argument.) Aren't students these days used to multi-tasking and are we just being old-fashioned in trying to squelch this behavior?

Some folks have argued that we shouldn't have computers, or at least wireless Internet, in class because this distraction is too big a hindrance to the learning process. Even though they might have to deal with this in college, that is not our problem nor is it our responsibility. The analogy was made that we don't teach our students to drink alcohol, but they will face that temptation in college. Isn't this just the same? While I do not advocate underage drinking, I would counter that the significant problem of binge drinking on college campuses indicates that maybe there is a problem with that line of reasoning.

My own thinking on this behavior has led me to the conclusion that the only real control of this activity is self-control. Teaching students this self-control is a mandatory part of the college prep process these days. With over 55% of higher ed campuses reporting strategic plans for wireless networks as of the fall of 2004, most of our students will have to deal with this distraction in college. By the time our freshmen graduate, I expect that this number will be significantly higher. (Source: The Campus Computing Project. View their 2004 summary report at this link.) To prepare students for college means more than just giving them an academic base--they need to master many skills if they are to succeed, and learning when to turn off the internet for themselves is going be a key skill.

So how do we teach this skill? More importantly, how do we do it in a way that not only helps the students to learn, but minimizes the negative impact on the classes while the students are learning and failing in their efforts?

My colleague and I agreed that there needs to be a means of control, in the hands of the teachers, that will allow for the shutting off of Internet access during a class when necessary. Some, to be sure, will probably use this religiously so that there is no problem in class. It is their class, and they are entitled to do so. Others may never use this capability, or only at specific times such as when giving a test.

On the other hand, if this is the only means of control that we have--on or off, whether by service (IM, HTTP, content filter, etc.) or completely--the opportunity to learn is severely diminished. We are teaching only control, not self-control.

We also agreed that there is a need for students to be able to fail so as to learn from their mistakes. But we don't want to create a situation where they can fail so completely that their academic standing is threatened. We are an environment that has a lot of supports and they need to be brought to bear in this case. Let the students fail enough so that they feel the consequences, but not so much that they can't recover. This is the major area where we differ from higher ed generally. By and large, a student at university is expected to stand or fall on his own. No one is there to hold his hand or pick her up when she falls. At least not in the same way.

We have to find a strategy that will allow us fairly granular control by student of various access privileges. Then we have to put together a plan whereby the student can rise (or drop) to his or her current best level, balancing control and self-control as appropriate, and the means to help them learn to rise. Ideally, by the time a senior graduates, he or she will have unfettered internet access throughout the day but will have the maturity and self-control to choose wisely when and when not to use it.

At this point, all I can say is that we are working on it. But the fact that we are working on finding the right solution is a Very Good Thing. Some day I hope I can write that we've found the holy grail on this issue. Until then, comments, discussion, disagreements and suggestions are always welcome.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Why can't I buy a ...?

I don't know exactly the number of students and parents who asked me if they could buy a different Tablet PC and join our program with it, but it probably numbers in the dozens. I want to talk about why I said "no" in these cases and why, at this time at least, we are sticking with a single standard model, purchased through the school.

I am convinced that for a program such as ours to succeed, it needs to be very much broader than just getting Tablets into the hands of students and faculty. There are the obvious considerations, such as training, software, wireless infrastructure, etc. There are also a lot of other considerations any one of which could have a strong negative effect on the outcome of our efforts. It is some of these latter issues that I want to address now.

When I first had meetings with various groups, back in March and April of 2003, the student group I met with had some really good insights. They, more so than anyone else, were convinced that Tablets were a good idea but that to succeed, they needed to become ubiquitous within our school. Though they didn't say as much, I think they recognized that the more the Tablets were used, the more useful they would become.

This is something of a catch-22, because of course they would need to be useful before they would be widely used. Training, brainstorming, getting a few early adopters to show their stuff, and other things will address this over time.

For this usefulness to develop, though, we must make sure that the Tablets are always available whenever they are needed. Any time the situation were to arise that someone was depending on a Tablet and that Tablet was unavailable would be a blow to the program and a setback for our efforts. We chose to handle this by defining one single model as our standard platform. The only significant variation we allow is how much memory is installed. This has helped us address this issue in a few ways without the need for a big jump in IT resources, either human or monetary.

To start with, We could get the machines more quickly by ordering in bulk quantities. At the time we were placing orders, HP was allocating machines and ordering several bumped us up the list so that we got our machines very promptly. Later orders for only one or two machines have taken much longer to arrive. We could also keep an extra machine or two on hand, budget allowing, for later student orders. Using disk imaging software, we can use a single installation image to set these machines up quickly, efficiently, and correctly. As the HP line changes, we may lose this last advantage. We'll see.

Also, and this has proven critical, we are able to keep a small number of machines on hand for loaners. When a problem arises that we can't quickly resolve, we swap the student's hard drive into a new chassis and he goes on his way. Total elapsed time: under 5 minutes. If we had even two somewhat different models, we would need to have several more machines at our disposal to make this work. If we allowed other makes or models of machines, we couldn't do it at all. Oh, to be sure, we could keep loaner Tablets, but swapping hard disks between different models would probably be out of the question. The time involved for IT and the time cost to the student would be greatly increased, even if she did have her data backed up for restoration to the new machine.

We have only one warranty program to deal with and have learned the ins and outs of navigating it pretty well and pretty quickly. Having a good HP authorized warranty repair center close by (very fortunate given our rural setting) enables us to consistently get prompt service.

As we are committed to distributing service packs and patches as quickly as possible, having only a single platform to test allows us to get on with this critical task promptly. Likewise, we have far fewer worries about driver problems with only one set to support and update.

All of these things on the technical support side have contributed to the success we've achieved. Failure on these things would have been a contribution to failure of the program.

As they say on the games shows, "But wait! There's more."

Having only one model to support allows us to provide additional types of support to students and faculty as well. Since all machines are HP TC1100s, we can put docking stations, with keyboards, mice, and external screens, at various locations around campus for users to drop their machines into when they need to charge up or want an extended desktop or perhaps a higher screen resolution or bigger viewing area.

A spare parts inventory (pens, power blocks, peripherals) is feasible. This also contributes to the "always-availableness" of the machines as a student who lost his pen or power cord can get a replacement immediately. We are able to keep charged batteries for emergencies, too.

A less tangible factor is the elimination of "Tablet envy", at least among the Tablet using population. I don't really know how big a deal this would be, but these are adolescents and I suspect there would be some issues in this regard.

And last, we are able to provide these machines at a cost that is lower than anywhere else. We had two students whose parents worked for HP resellers ask if they could get the machine elsewhere, only to find that our price was lower anyway.

I wonder if someday we won't allow any brand and model of Tablet to be purchased and used. There are good arguments for this kind of program, too. But for now we don't, and I think this has proven to be the right decision.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Vermont Slate!

We looked at a number of factors when the decision was made to adopt the "Vermont Slate", i.e., the HP TC1100, as our standard for hardware. There are a lot of fine machines out there, and different schools will place emphasis elsewhere than we did. I doubt that there is a wrong and right in this decision, but for us the "correct" answer seemed pretty clear-cut.

One reason we opted for the TC1100 was precisely because of the hybrid capability I discussed in the last post. I believed, and still do, that a permanently attached keyboard would tend to delay the development of Tablet PC skills in the users. Some Tablet things do take getting used to and some effort must be expended to learn the new skill set. For many users, the keyboard would be a crutch. (I touch on this a bit more in Training I - Do your users think in ink.)

At the same time, sometimes a user really does need a keyboard, and a pure slate model would have required carrying a separate keyboard for those times. Our students do have papers to write, after all, and I don't think anyone wants to write a term paper with pen input when they could type it. Much as I love the pen, I know I wouldn't want to. Having the keyboard attached, but detachable seemed the best compromise. (I'm composing this on a keyboard, in fact, though on a docking station.)

In the first year of our project, we've found that a few of our kids still use the keyboard almost exclusively and haven't bothered to learn how to use the pen as anything but a mouse. (They also are generally the same ones who skipped the training sessions.) A lot of others seem never to have the keyboard out but do have it attached. I don't know how many rarely carry it, but there are some. I certainly have it detached far more than I have it on the machine. What I gather from this serves to confirm my beliefs that making it easy to not use the keyboard is good, and training is absolutely necessary.

Another big factor in our decision was portability. This translated into size and weight and, to a slightly lesser extent, battery life. (Battery life was a consideration in its own right, anyway.) At the time we made our decision, the TC1100 was among the lightest Tablets available. It is still on the light end of the spectrum. Take the keyboard off and it is very easy to use and carry for an extended period of time. We evaluated a convertible Tablet early on and, while it was a great machine, it was a bear to carry and use in your arms for an extended period. I'm not a small guy and am fairly strong, but it got heavy fast. I carry the TC1100 all day with no problem.

What about the lack of a CD/DVD device built in? Well, actually, I consider that a strength of the slates and hybrids, not a deficiency. We are here for education and want these machines to be primarily educational tools. Why provide an additional distraction (not to mention more moving parts to break)? Still, all of us look to our computers for entertainment and it is a legitimate concern for the students. We offered two options for this: a docking station and a portable USB CD/DVD. Either can be used to put mp3 files on the hard drive or install and play a game. (Thus eliminating one of the gains of not having a CD drive in the machine!) The proliferation of iPods is starting to make this point moot anyway.

One other thing we really liked about the HP was the docking station. Keep a keyboard, mouse, and monitor attached to it on your desk and you have a drop-in desktop replacement with extended desktop capabilities. I am absolutely sold on the extended desktop. I wish I could have four monitors off my machine, not just two. The docking station itself is solid and works well. I have a few issues with "grab-and-go" from time to time, but they are a distraction more than anything else.

One last note. There were really two machines in the running when we made the final decision for the HP. The other was the Motion. I liked the larger screen of the Motion, though not the larger external dimensions. I didn't like the port location on the Motion as they were right where my hand held the machine when writing and the video connector was awkward when connected to a projector. They have a dynamite docking station, weight is good, and the optional view anywhere screen is superb, though pricey. The folks at Motion are excellent--the best I've dealt with. It is a machine well worth consideration.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Vermont Slate?

On a less serious note, I wanted to talk about where this blog's name came from and introduce a discussion about why we chose the HP TC1100 as our Tablet PC of choice.

Vermont was known in the past for the amount and quality of the slate mined here. You can still see a large number of older houses with slate roofs around the state. If you want to talk about durable building (especially roofing) materials, slate would be high on the list of topics. Slate was quarried all over the state of Vermont, with different colors of slate mined in different regions, including a light-colored slate from quarries not too far from Vermont Academy.

There is something symbolic in this tie to the history of the state and in the durability of slate. And of course the particular qualities of slate made it suitable for use in schools in lieu of paper. I'd like to say that is why I chose that name for this site. But it isn't.

The reality is that one of our trustees used this term in passing to describe our machines (HP TC1100s) and it just struck my fancy. So much for my creativity, eh?

There remains an ongoing debate about the two main forms of Tablet PCs, convertibles and slates. There is, in fact, a third option which is sometimes termed a hybrid. The TC1100 is one of the latter. If you want to hear all the pros and cons of each model of each kind in detail, head to a Tablet PC discussion site and ask, "What is the best model of Tablet PC?" Just don't tell them that I told you to ask. (Better yet, go to one of those sites and search the forums for existing discussions. There are many and the discussions are actually pretty civil and informative.)

In a nutshell, convertibles are notebook computers on which the permanently attached screen can swivel and lay flat against the keyboard face up or face down. With the screen and writing surface face up, the computer can be used as a Tablet. Slates do not have a keyboard that attaches to the unit, although they can accept USB keyboards, and are designed primarily with tablet use in mind.

Hybrids, as the name implies, bridge the gap between the two. They have keyboards that attach both for use and for carrying but they can be removed. The TC1100 was, to the best of my knowledge, the first of these. Arguably, the Motion M1400 with the hard top keyboard is a hybrid, too, although this keyboard is an optional component.

Each configuration has its strengths. A convertible can generally be expected to have a better keyboard. It often has a CD or DVD player built in. A slate, on the other hand, is likely to be lighter and thinner which is better for holding for long periods of time.

In theory, a hybrid should be able to combine the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of the two other types. In reality, what I've seen so far is that a hybrid gives you the advantage of a keyboard that you don't have to carry separately, but which isn't quite as good as one you would find on a convertible. I have both a Motion M1300 and a TC1100 and this is the case with both of them. Neither has a built-in CD, but for me that is a strength, not a weakness.

For many of you, this will mostly be basic information and old news. Next post, I'll discuss this in more depth, along with the other arguments we considered in making our decision.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Security vs. Needs: the Great IT Divide

"slick rick", who is one of our students, made a comment on the last posting that raised a good issue, but one which took the conversation in a new direction. Since the topic raised is already on my list of things to discuss, I'll dive into it now so that anyone interested in this topic can participate. The issue in question is security on the Tablets. By security, I mean not just anti-spyware, anti-adware, security patching and password kinds of stuff, but the whole philosophy of how to secure a system from all manner of encroachments and harm, while having the least negative impact on the user.

"scottygu3" made a comment in that discussion that is interesting: "IT goals are incompatible with user goals. It is a continuing give and take battle between the two." It is interesting to me in part because I disagree with it, but more because I think it demonstrates a perception problem we in IT have with regard to security. (Now, I must admit that the perception has arisen because so many IT guys have the same opinion. They don't call themselves "sysgods" for nothing. While I think the statement is inaccurate, scottygu3 is dead on in stating it.)

Rather than seeing the goal of securing the box and the network (the two are inseparable) as "IT" goals and as at odds with the users' needs for using the machine, a proper IT perspective is that we need to accommodate security and usability both while the negative impact of either on the other. If our goal in IT isn't to make the system serve the needs of the user, then we don't understand the field. The converse is true too, however. If the user doesn't understand that part of serving them is making and keeping the systems secure, either from maliciousness or simple misadventure (or foolishness) on their part, then they don't understand it either. Our job is to manage the interface between these disharmonious needs.

Inevitably, circumstances will arise where one or the other need gets short shrift. At Vermont Academy, many students feel it is their "right" to install anything they want on their computers. Now, I agree that everyone who owns a computer has the right to do with it what he will. Just don't connect the damn thing to my network if you do, OK? (There's that sysgod attitude...) Because they do need and want to connect the Tablets to our network, I feel justified in putting "right" in quotes above. By dint of connecting to a shared resource, where their actions will inevitably have impact on every other user, their rights are to some extent abrogated--of necessity. There's the real rub. (Unless, of course, you disagree with this premise that connecting to a shared resource implies collective responsibility and risk which must be managed.)

We are at an uncomfortable spot right now in our seeking for a balance point. Our history is that we owned all the machines and therefore had full control of what was on them. Our security model and policies were developed in this rarified atmosphere. When we opened the network to student-owned machines, we didn't have everything in a state where we could comfortably give them the ability to install whatever they wanted while still keeping things secure. I am not sure such a state actually exists. (See Microsoft's 10 Immutable Laws of Security. Change "computer" to "network" and you have a glimpse of the reality of a network manager.) This year, students do not have access to the administrator account on their machines. (I can hear the gasps and screams from here.) That is the real issue Rick raised in his comment.

This causes no end of problems for students with legitimate need to install something, such as a printer driver. (Why Microsoft doesn't allow this function to be assigned to a non-administrative user is totally beyond me, but they don't.) Our solution for this year is to take the time to install what the students need or want for them. So far, beyond printers, all we have installed is iTunes and games. So much for educational needs.

From a security perspective, this policy has worked. It certainly doesn't mean less work for IT, but rather more as we have to install a lot of games. In my tenure here, we have never had a significant virus infection or, to my knowledge, security breach of any kind. We certainly have had students who have tried to install keyboard loggers and other mal-ware, but our policies cramped their style adequately.

The reality is, though, that this needs to change, and for reasons Rick and Scott raised. We are still working on the policy going forward, but our goal is going to be to find that delicate balance point that serves both usability and security. You haven't heard the last of this issue...

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

My Computer Ate My Homework

One of the issues that we face as we implement our Tablet PC program for both students and faculty is how to handle backups. The more ubiquitous, the more necessary Tablets become, the more critical it is that the information contained on them remains readily accessible--regardless of the vagaries of care or carelessness exhibited by the users. The last thing we want to do is put a program in place that causes someone to lose significant amounts of work. The second to last thing is to give kids yet another excuse when they don't turn in work.

Up until the beginning of the program, the only machines on our network were school-owned, networked machines. Student accounts had roaming profiles (in a Windows 2003 domain) and files were stored on a network drive that we backed up regularly. We recently implemented some features of Windows 2003 server that even allows the user to recover previous versions of a file without our involvement.

Now, however, we not only have files stored on the local machine, but these machines are carried out unprotected in all kinds of weather, left on the floor in public areas (we lost one already to having a chair set on it), and thrown in backpacks that are then thrown on the ground or on the floor of a bus or at a peer, or ... I'm sure you understand the risks to these computers and those risks apply to every bit of work done by the student as well.

There are tools that would allow us to automate the backup of all the files, or selected files, on the computer and safeguard the students' work just as we have always done. In fact, I use just this mechanism on my Tablet. We run Backup Exec and the laptop agent does a stellar job of keeping my files backed up to the network. About my only quibbles with it are that it doesn't always handle open files well, and my day planner software keeps its files open constantly, and I take a hit when I work at home--it will backup over the VPN which really impacts overall performance of the machine.

After discussions with a number of faculty members, this is the route we will probably be going with all of our faculty machines. Although we don't have all the possibilities and options figured out yet, it looks like this will give us the combination of data protection and centralized control that we need to have for faculty. (Why do we need centralized control? Well, we have one faculty member who put over 6 gigabytes of music in his network storage. When he gets a Tablet, more likely than not this would end up backing up wirelessly, causing problems not only for him, but for everyone else on the same access point, and for everyone on the network to some extent. We want to block backups of certain file types.)

So why not just put this on the students' Tablets and give them the same level of protection that we always have? Well, one factor is cost, though this could be built into the program or managed in any of several different ways. A bigger issue, I think, is what we are teaching the students. Or, more precisely, what we are not teaching them.

I am trying to look at every aspect of this program as an educational opportunity or to see the real educational need inherent in it. There are a number of things that our students will encounter in college and later in life that we can use this program to help prepare them for. One of the things they are most likely to encounter is the need to take responsibility for their own data. No one backs up my computers at home unless I do it. I don't know of any college that automatically backs up its students' computers, either. Even if there is one, it is far from the norm. In a few short years, not only will no one be backing up their data, probably no one will even be telling them that they need to. We want our students to leave Vermont Academy with this understanding and this habit.

What we have done at this point is to create a simple command script (a DOS batch file, for you old hands) that backs up selected file types to a secure network location, which we then put on tape. (OK, technically, our script excludes specific file types.) The script backs up everything under My Documents so as long as a student saves his files there he can back them up. During the introductory training, I explain how this works and show students how to do the backups and (this is important) confirm that the process works for each of them. Thereafter, it is up to them to simply click on an icon on their desktop to backup their systems. We suggest that they do it every day both to keep everything backed up and to keep the backup times to a minimum. Then, if a machine fails so drastically that the hard drive is inaccessible, we can quickly restore the most recent set of files to a loaner and the student is back in business.

We have tried to make it as easy as possible, but still leave the responsibility in the hands of the students. This doesn't guarantee that no student will lose files, but then that is not the goal. Our goal for us is to make sure that no student need lose files when a crash occurs and to give students the means to prevent data loss. Our goal for them is to learn enough responsibility to prevent it for themselves.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Training I - Do your users think in ink?

I suspect that there will be a zillion posts here about training. There are so many issues involved and I am convince that it is a make-or-break issue for any Tablet PC program. I will kick this series off with a post that is more philosophical, kind of a stream-of-consciousness full of my musings-of-the-moment.

Tablet PCs seem so normal in many respects. (Bear with me, here, if you disagree.) They are really just a computer. Taking notes by hand is just writing. Most programs are just Windows programs running on a certain computer. In most respects, they seem like they should be as familiar as the proverbial back of your hand. (Well, okay so the back of your hand is literal, not proverbial, but you know what I mean.)

Why then can they seem so foreign, so intimidating to some people, particularly, if I may say so, teachers and other adults? Why do they need “training” to use something that is arguably nothing really new? Why do people who don’t get training tend to revert to using the Tablet as just a notebook? Or worse, go back to using a desktop or notebook and swear off Tablets?

I was IT Director for Burton Snowboards for a half-dozen or so years. During that time I learned to snowboard and watched a lot of others learn. I even taught a few myself. Pretty consistently I saw that non-skiers tended to have an easier time learning to ride than skiers did, all other things (such as innate athletic ability) being equal. In fact, to some degree the more experienced the skier, the worse student of snowboarding they were. Oh, to be sure, some really great skiers took to boards quickly, but they were the exception, not the rule. Some simply gave up in frustration and stayed on skis. What gives?

I would argue that the experienced skier has an intuitive feel for snow and for sliding downhill on snow. They have not only a mental comfort, but they have the muscle memory that makes it intuitive for them. Clamping their legs to a single board and turning them sideways to the hill throws this muscle memory completely out of kilter. They feel constrained by the bindings and the rigidity of their legs relative to each other. They are off balance without the skill to retain or regain it unconsciously. They are frustrated at finding something that has always been so natural and easy suddenly unnatural and difficult.

I think something like this happens with a lot of users when they get a Tablet for the first time. Relearning so many skills and concepts that they have worked to learn and master is difficult and uncomfortable. There is a strong and real sense that things that should be easy are suddenly hard. There is a mental block to thinking in a new way, a kind of mental muscle memory that is suddenly out of kilter. For example, how many of you when showing someone writing in Journal or some other app hear the question, “How do you convert it to text”? After all, in their minds, text is the input for computers and ink must just be a new way to get text. (Well, it can be that, of course, but it is so much more.) You have to explain that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, ink is just ink and stays that way.

We need to find ways of training that address these difficulties. A key goal needs to be to get people to “think in ink” to borrow Microsoft’s phrase. Part of our training needs to help them learn new ways of doing old things, of course, and hopefully at least as efficiently as they could on just a keyboard. But, we also need to help them to get past the idea that they just do all the old things, in the old way, but with a pen.

If any of you are language teachers, I suspect that a big obstacle you see is students who want to speak Spanish or French or whatever with English constructs and American (or whatever) style phrasing. Kids construct their ideas and phrases in English, then translate them. What we really want them to do is learn to think in Spanish or French and construct their thought in that language and with that language’s idioms and phrasing.

Maybe some of you language teachers have tricks you could share that help with this. I think we really do face much the same obstacle.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

On the pace of implementation

I made my proposal that Vermont Academy move to the Tablet PC platform in March of 2003. I had used the platform for a number of months, thought about pen computing for over 10 years, and realized that the TPC OS was very well done, the hardware was finally ready, and the combination had tremendous potential for education. In retrospect, that document clearly and accurately outlined a good view of the capabilities of the Tablet PC and many of its ramifications for education.

It was also audacious and unrealistic in the timetable as I proposed it. While I had what seemed to me at the time very good arguments for such an aggressive timetable, I forgot or ignored a large number of people and technical issues that have been the death of, or at least a hindrance to, any number of technical projects in academia and business.

As a consequence of this enthusiasm (not to mention my hubris) I have met with frustration time and again as the pace has been so much slower than I had originally intended. If I had had my way, we would have Tablets in the hands of all faculty and students already and a multitude of programs and practices based on them.

We might also be on the verge of a spectacular failure by now.

Our forced slow pace has achieved a lot of things that wouldn't have happened otherwise. Our infrastructure is much more complete and robust. We have learned a lot from our early adopter students and faculty. The faculty has not been forced into using a technology that they don't understand yet. The platform has matured, both the hardware and the software, in real and important ways. We have had time to begin thinking more about the many unforeseen ramifications of this whole thing. We have seen some of the adjunct pieces that need to be handled for this to succeed, but which weren't obvious at first. We have seen the problems and mistakes elsewhere (for example http://tinyurl.com/58tr6) and have the opportunity to learn from them.

We have made some mis-steps along the way. The pace has allowed us time to deal with them. With fewer users at this stage, problems are more easily addressed.

If you are thinking about a program for your school, think about taking your time. Ultimately success, however it is defined, is the goal. Maybe the tortoise did have it right after all.

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Wireless, wireless everywhere...

One of the features of our project at Vermont Academy is ubiquitous wireless networking. I will be addressing several aspects of this in forthcoming posts, among them security and availability, why we would do this when we wouldn't wire to the pillow, and implications for classes. This will probably be a topic for some time to come, actually, as we don't even pretend to have most of these issues solved yet. You may even find me contradicting myself over time as my thinking and our practice evolve.

One issue I just want to raise at this point is that we, a "college prep" school, are in the business of preparing students for success in college. I think we need to consider this a much broader issue than just ensuring that our students have an adequate academic background with proper subject matter breadth and depth. They need a large number of skills that support their educational efforts. Vermont Academy has a good learning skills department where many of these issues are addressed for students with identified needs. However a valedictorian of a graduating class a few years ago commented that one area he wished we had better prepared him was by teaching him how to take notes!

For a Tablet PC project to really succeed, these adjunct issues need to be addressed, or at least on the table for discussion. Most, if not all, of them are non-technical but they can be make or break issues for some students or faculty. If, for example, we teach our students how to take notes in a way that makes their notes more meaningful come review time and with keywords written strategically to facilitate searching for materials and with clarity that facilitates sharing notes with others when the need arises, we will help them to be more successful students and the Tablet PC will have become a critical component of that success. The skills could be applied with paper and pen, but the Tablet will be something that makes those notes even more useful to them.

But I digress. (That's what I get for writing this at midnight.)

The Miami Herald published an article today discussing the problems seen on college campuses that have implemented widespread wireless networking. You can read it here. Registration is required, but there is no charge. In a nutshell, the kids are doing what kids do on the Internet, but they are doing it in class to the detriment of themselves, their class neighbors, and even the professor's ability to concentrate.

This is one of those areas where "college prep" means teaching a skill or a self-discipline required for success, not just a strictly academic subject matter. Whether this is really our job has been a subject of some debate at our faculty meetings, but since I'm writing the blog, my point of view is the one you get to hear. Throwing out kids into that environment (and given recent trends most of our students will face this in 2-3 years) without preparing them to handle it is like giving them the car keys without teaching them to drive. You are planning for some of them to have accidents, perhaps fatal to their academic careers. We in the high schools must have a plan to teach our students how and when to shut down the browser/IM client/online RPG/whatever.

A Bit of History

I have been watching pen based computing since before the days of Windows for Pen Computing, which was released in 1992 (I think--that was a long time ago). Anyway I'd followed it in the trades before that but PenWindows was the first one I was able to get my hands on. I was fascinated, and saw a lot of potential, but given the state of both the hardware and the software, that potential was never to be realized in that incarnation.

I got excited again when I got my Palm Pilot, and later my Pocket PC. The experience was a big improvement in many ways, but the size and other limitations seemed to constrain these platforms to certain specialized uses only.

Conventional wisdom is that Microsoft requires three tries to get software right. I think their pen interface efforts follow this pattern. PenWindows = version 1. Windows CE = version 2. That makes the Tablet PC OS version 3, and it is a winner. Not finished, plenty of room for improvement, but stable, usable, and ready (enough) for prime time.

For an excellent history of pen computing, and some intelligent commentary, check out Dan Bricklin's site, http://www.bricklin.com/tabletcomputing.htm.

I've been IT Director at Vermont Academy for 7 years and consulted with them for several years prior to that. In that time, while I have seen some potential for technology in classrooms and on campus, we have not aggressively pursued wiring to the pillow, extensive classroom use of technology, or particularly innovative academic uses at all. Oh, some of our faculty, to be sure, have used computers in various ways, but we have generally not pushed it. We did not wire to the pillow when that became all the craze, students did not connect their laptops to our campus network, classrooms did not have projectors in them, etc. (Please don't think this is because I am one of those IT guys who merely resists change. I worked for one of them once. Uh-uh, that's not me. I love tech and geek toys as much as the next guy. It is just that we had valid reasons to hold off.)

All of this has been changed with the advent of Tablet PCs. Our former logic no longer applies because the rules have changed in various ways. Some of the new rationale was applicable with notebooks, of course, but it wasn't compelling enough to bring about the sea change in direction that we have undertaken. In some of my next articles, I will go into some of these reasons in more detail and share our logic then and now.

Friday, March 4, 2005

Welcome to the Vermont Slate

This blog will chronicle the progress of the Tablet PC Program at Vermont Academy, a small independent boarding school in Saxtons River, Vermont. In my postings, you will get a healthy dose of personal opinion as well as being able to see what we are doing, what we are doing it with, and why we decided to do it that way. One of our stated goals for this project is share what we learn with other schools. Rather than wait for "success" or "completion", neither of which can really be defined in advance, I'm going to share what happens as it happens. I know I can learn from any discussion this generates too, so maybe we can have a symbiotic relationship.

Just keep in mind that the postings, and especially the opinions are those of an individual, not Vermont Academy.

We first began our project two years ago this month, making us one of the first schools in the nation to commit to this exciting educational technology. Our progress has been steady, but slow, and will continue for quite a while yet as we work our way into fully becoming a Tablet PC school.

The issues will be many and varied. Some will be technical, of course, but many will be philosophical. Some will deal with pedagogy. Others may deal with psychology. I have come to realize that a program like this can't help but touch and be touched by almost every aspect of boarding school life and that reality will be reflected in what gets posted here.

Posting may be a bit slow at first as I get everything in order, but I hope that this site will become a valuable reference site for other schools, public and private, as they look at and begin to develop their own Tablet PC programs.