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 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,

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.