Monday, October 2, 2006

Just Moodling around...

As anyone who works at a boarding school knows, the time around the start of school is always hectic and tiring. Make that exhausting. Then we add Trustees/Alumni Weekend less than a month into school, and Parents' Weekend three weeks later and it is a wonder we make it to Thanksgiving in one piece. This year was especially rough, but I'll save the whine about that for another time.

I do want to grab a few minutes to briefly mention a piece of software we have implemented at Vermont Academy. It is worthwhile in itself, but it bears special mention now because of my previous post.

A year ago we switched from a commercial, and very expensive, course management system to Moodle, an open-source system that is coming on very strong in this arena. Why does Moodle bear mention now? Because it beautifully handles the switching between portrait mode and landscape mode! You can see our site for yourself at It is a very young work in progress, but it is getting fleshed out over the course of this semester. Play with the width of the window or switch between portrait and landscape and see what I mean. Other varied and more complete sites can be seen at

I would encourage any school looking for course content management software to consider Moodle, but especially those schools that are using or looking at Tablet PCs. The price can't be beat. The feature set is solid. Development is active and well-managed. There is good support from the community. You get the source code so you can tweak it. The folks at Agilix (makers of GoBinder) are working on an interface between Moodle and GoBinder, so there are even better things coming.

Like all the other course content management systems, it is a web application, which automatically means that pen support is poor to non-existent. (Anyone know PHP and want to tackle better pen interface issues?) Nevertheless, these apps fill an important place in a school's academic support arena and I am able do most of my work with Moodle with the pen. Moodle is a good system; it looks great on the Tablet; and the future is bright for it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Narrow View

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that very few web sites look good on a Tablet when it is in portrait mode. Not even the major Tablet PC sites seem to take this into consideration. To me, portrait is the natural orientation on a Tablet PC and web sites dedicated to Tablets ought to at least accomodate this, if not be designed specifically for it. But most aren't. Why is this the case?

Here is a site that I think shows some real intelligence. (In the formatting, not necessarily in the content!) I offer it to the Tablet community as an example to learn from. When you've got it open, maximize the window then switch between Portrait and Landscape and watch what happens.

8/30 update: As so often happens to me,* the day after I posted this I found one site that does seem to make a serious, and mostly successful, effort to address this. The Student Tablet PC web site does indeed shift into narrower and wider display versions based on screen orientation. Kudos to Tracy, Trevor and Andrew. I say only mostly successful because wide links in the page can't break and still force horizontal scrolling, but it isn't required to read the text of the page itself. That and the artifacts on the left and right all fit within the display area of the page. Very nice!

*The surest way for me to find something I've been looking for or to remember something I've been trying to recall is to ask my wife. As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I find the thing.

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Vermont Slate - Act II

Well, as I've said before, the slate is dead. I'd like to follow that by saying, "Long live the Slate," but unfortunately I can't.

Since the TC1100 is no longer in production, we have had to select a new model Tablet PC for use at Vermont Academy. This was far from an easy task. We have finally made our decision, but before I reveal our choice, I would like to do a nickel review of the various models we tried out, and what we saw as some of the plusses and minuses of each.

Our selection pool consisted of two slate models, the Motion LE1600 and the Sahara i213, and three convertible models, the Lenovo X41, the Toshiba M400, and the HP TC4400. (Our demo model was actually a TC4200, but the TC4400 is on essentially the same chassis but with updated insides.)

Students and faculty had a chance to spend time with each machine and try it out, giving us feedback on their likes and dislikes for each one. We had some pretty interesting results, but in the end each machine had its proponents and its detractors. The basic minimum specs of each machine were very similar for our evaluation: 512 meg of RAM, wireless b/g networking, 12.1 inch screen, multiple USB 2.0 ports, etc. Pretty standard stuff for Tablets. We also were interest in models that offered an outdoor viewable screen, integrated fingerprint reader, wireless a/b/g, Bluetooth, docking stations, 3 year warranty, and an accidental damage insurance policy. Not all models offered all of these options.

The Motion LE1600 is a pure slate, but it does come with an optional "convertible keyboard" which we also evaluated. It is quite light weight (3.13 lbs) since there is no keyboard in its normal configuration. It uses a Pentium M processor running a 1.5 GHz (a Celeron model is available) and an Intel 915GMS chipset. The default 30 gigabyte drive is small, but a 60 gigabyte drive is available. Maximum memory is 1.5 megabytes. It claims 3+ hours of battery life, but offers an extended battery for longer battery life. Motions have a terrific docking system, letting the LE1600 dock in portrait or landscape, and an excellent internal microphone setup. The case is very attractive and rugged, being made of carbon fiber and magnesium alloy, and feels good in the hand. There is an option for an outdoor viewable screen. I will confess to being a long-time fan of Motion Tablets, and this model is a very nice addition to their line. The keyboard is another story. During our evaluations, this model got good reviews as long as we didn't include the keyboard. It was universally panned by our students who tried it out when the keyboard was attached.

The Sahara i213 is a little-known sleeper in the Tablet arena. It is a beautiful Tablet and looks like what I would picture an Apple-made Tablet PC looking like. Nice lines, a screen that goes almost edge to edge, keeping the external dimensions as small as the TC1100, but giving the larger workspace of a 12.1 inch screen. It uses a Pentium M processor running at 1.3 GHz, the slowest in the group by spec, but not really noticeable in use. Base hard disk size is 40 megabytes, with larger units available. Maximum memory is a rather paltry 1 megabyte. It comes with 802.11b/g and no Bluetooth. It, too is quite light (3.1 lbs), the lightest model we examined. While we didn't receive an evaluation unit, the docking station looks great and allows the i213 to dock in either portrait or landscape mode. It's a bit pricey, though. Sahara does not offer any kind of attachable keyboard, nor does it support Bluetooth, so an RF or tethered keyboard is the only option, the former through use of an adapter. There is no outdoor viewable screen option. The plastic case is an off-white color, though our evaluation unit was actually a special run pink color. This was a huge hit with our females (both students and faculty), but unfortunately, the color was not available to us for purchase. For myself, I liked the style of this unit enough that I would consider it as a likely replacement for my TC1100 if it were based on the newer Centrino Duo chip and had an outdoor viewable screen.

The Lenovo X41 shows all the hallmarks of its ThinkPad heritage: a slim, sleek black case with a terrific keyboard and integrated TrackPoint pointing stick in the keyboard. The model we tested had the 8 cell battery, claiming 5+ hours of battery life, and bringing the unit's weight to about 4 pounds--still quite light for a convertible. Some users liked the small ledge created by the extended battery as a hand-hold, others did not. (The optional 4 cell battery is about an inch shorter than the 8 cell and does not stick out beyond the back of the unit.) This model is powered by a Pentium M running at 1.6 GHz. It had 512 meg of RAM with 1.5 meg max, a 60 gigabyte disk, wireless a/b/g networking, Bluetooth, and integrated fingerprint reader. There are several docking station options, but none of them allow for rotation of the screen to portrait mode. There is not an option for an outdoor viewable screen.

The Toshiba M400 has the Intel Centrino Duo processor running at 1.6 GHz, an 80 gigabyte disk, 512 meg of RAM (2 gig max), 802.11a/b/g wireless, Bluetooth, a 6 cell battery (claiming over 5 hours of battery life), an integrated fingerprint reader, and an internal DVD/CDRW drive--the only model tested that contained an internal optical drive. It weighed in a a solid 4.5 lbs. Toshiba offers several port replicator options, none of which allow for rotation of the display to portrait mode while docked. The case is rugged and there is built-in protection for the hard disk in case of a sudden drop of the unit. The unit includes a touch pad pointing device. Toshiba also has some very nice custom software on the unit, particularly the wireless management tools. Unlike the rest of the models considered, the screen on the M400 was a softer plastic that showed tracking on the surface for pen users with heavy hands. There is no outdoor viewable screen option.

The HP TC4400 was not physically evaluated, as it had not yet been released by Hewlett-Packard. However, the release date was scheduled early enough that we wanted to consider this unit since it was the only model other than the M400 that ran on Intel's newest chip. Because it is externally the same as the TC4200, we evaluated that unit for look and feel, recognizing that performance would be slower than the TC4400. The TC4400 we considered has the Intel Centrino Duo processor running at 2 GHz, 1 gigabyte of RAM, an 80 gigabyte hard disk, 802.11a/b/g wireless, Bluetooth, a 6 cell battery, and an integrated fingerprint reader. The keyboard includes both a touch pad and a TrackPoint pointer, either of which can be disabled if desired. Several users commented on the perceived ruggedness of the unit. An outdoor viewable screen is an option. It weighs in at 4.6 pounds as configured. The docking station, just as with the other convertibles, does not permit rotating the screen to portrait mode.

It was a tough decision, with a lot of good comments both pro and con on most of the units. In the end, there were a couple of factors that drove us in the direction of our final choice, the TC4400. First, we couldn't see standardizing on (and asking families to pay a comparable price for) Pentium M based systems when the Centrino Duo was already out. This left only two units to be considered. (Lenovo has the X61 scheduled for shipping in November of this year, too late to be considered, and neither Motion nor Sahara would state whether or when they were releasing updates incorporating the new chips.) Second, price was a major factor. We requested quotes from all of the vendors on the configurations we evaluated. Surprisingly, the two slate models came with the highest price tags and the vendors moved the least from their list price. The HP handily won on price alone, even though it was the most powerful model examined and even when we added the outdoor viewable screen option. Plus, we already have a good, established relationship with a warranty center, so sticking with the same manufacturer minimized problems in that regard.

Finally, we actually did consider many other matters as well, a few of which I want to mention.

Being able to rotate the docked Tablet to portrait mode should be standard practice with docking stations. That no convertible manufacturer's docks allow this shows a significant lack of understanding of Tablets on the part of convertible makers. This was a big strike against the convertibles.

The keyboard is a crucial tool for students, even those that do use the Tablet function extremely well. Neither slate model had a particularly good keyboard option, though both had excellent docking stations. All of the convertible models had very good keyboards. It is unfortunate that they are just dead weight when in Tablet mode, though. This was a critical point--students need good keyboards and they need them to be convenient even when away from their desk.

Nevertheless, given the interest that the pink case had for the girls at Vermont Academy, we might well have supported the Sahara i213 as an optional choice if we could have gotten it in that color. This evaluation was the first time that I have seen many girls actually excited about a computer. (Manufacturers, are you listening?)

Thursday, May 4, 2006

A Thousand Subtle Things, Part II

I'm always surprised by how much time goes by without my realizing it. When I wrote my last posting, our quarterly trustees meeting had just occurred. This weekend is the next one, which means (obviously) that almost full quarter has passed. Sheesh! Where does the time go?

Even though it has been a while, I want to follow up with some more of the little, and maybe not so little, things that make the Tablet PC such a terrific computer.

Mice were a huge improvement in the computer interface. Those of us who remember the days of DOS and DOS programs remember what it was like trying to learn and recall keystroke combinations, selecting things with keyboard arrow keys, etc. Being able to use a pointer and select from menus was a wonderful thing. But there is a level of indirection still when using a mouse. Your eyes are focused one place and your hand is manipulating the controller elsewhere. One gets used to it after a while, but it is still somewhat artificial. With the pen, the manipulation is direct, just as it is in real life. You point at the menu choice you want to make. You write where you want the text to be. You circle the things you want to select. It is very natural.

This direct manipulation is particularly useful when annotating a document. In Word 2003, the pen works just as one would expect and can be used to annotate any Word document. PDF Annotator can be used to annotate PDF documents directly. Other documents can be printed to OneNote or GoBinder or Windows Journal and can be annotated there. Oh for the day when most text books are available in a usable format! Already, I use PDF versions of our standard forms. I can fill them out, print a copy for the other offices (since our system still depends on paper) and keep my electronic copy on my system. At least I don't have to keep track of so much paper.

Tablets also represent a return to a couple of paradigms that are quite ancient and familiar. The first, already addressed, is the paradigm of the book or paper. Holding and reading on a Tablet is essentially an ancient practice brought up-to-date. Likewise, the use of a pen or writing tool is as old as writing itself. All of us learned to write long before we learn to use a keyboard and this life-long skill is brought into play with Tablets. (Sadly, this skill seems to be getting lost these days as we push keyboarding earlier and earlier in schools.)

That said, there are times when the keyboard is the only way to go. For these times, I use a docking station with full-size keyboard, mouse, and second monitor. Make no mistake, even though it is not a speed demon, my Tablet is the BEST desktop system I've ever had because of this configuration. Sure, add a second video card and you can get the second screen going on a "real" desktop. But, can you then just grab the computer and go with it? With my Tablet I can. I don't have to close applications, log off, change any settings,… I don't have to do anything but pull it from the dock and go. Not all Tablets have such a great dock as the TC1100, but they should.

This next point is a bit more hearsay at this juncture, but I welcome comments, clarification, and references. Other Tablet users have told me of a body of work that talks of the benefits of hand-writing when note-taking over typing when note-taking. Apparently the muscle action involved in writing helps to more firmly set the material in one's memory. Anecdotally I would confirm part of this from my own experience. If I write something down, I usually remember it. If this is really so, getting students writing their notes on a Tablet should be pure gain for them. They get the same benefits they would by writing on paper plus all the benefits they gain by putting them on their computers. Email me or post a comment if you have more information on this.

For my last point in this post, I'll just leave you with a quote I heard from an attendee at the recent Workshop on the Impact of Pen Technology in Education (WIPTE, about which more later): "The Tablet PC finally marries the left brain with the right brain."

Monday, February 20, 2006

A Thousand Subtle Things, Part I

As often happens, I was recently asked what is the compelling argument for Tablet PCs over traditional notebook computers. That this came from a trustee at the quarterly meaning added a significant importance to the question and to getting the answer right.

The problem is, I'm not sure there is a right answer to that question for most of us. But the question is the problem, not the lack of an answer.

You see, I don’t think that there is a single big argument in favor of Tablets that makes them compelling. There are, however, many, many little ones and even these are variously compelling to different individuals. In an age where everyone thinks and talks about The Killer Application and The Next Big Thing, small subtle arguments can get lost. I think it's time to bring them front and center.

So, in no particular order, here is a list of some of the arguments that I think combine to make a compelling case for Tablet PCs:

First is that they are light enough and flexible enough to be a truly ubiquitous computer. While we have had portable computers for some time, many are still heavy enough that you don't want to carry them everywhere. My TC1100, sans keyboard, weighs in at a svelte 3 pounds. It is less than an inch thick and slightly smaller than a sheet of paper in its other two dimensions. I traded my 2+" thick Franklin Day Planner for it years ago and have never looked back. I always have it with me because it is so easy to do so.

Some would argue that ultra-portable notebooks offer this same weight and size advantage. Fair enough, but the form of the computers differ greatly. This is a second argument for the Tablet. Have you ever tried to work on a notebook while walking or standing? How about when curled up in an over-stuffed chair? What about lying against a tree? Open the keyboard and you can use the Tablet any way you can use the ultra-portable, but it doesn't work the other way.

Closely joined to this argument is the ease of reading on the Tablet. I have a good-size library of Reader and Acrobat books on my Tablet. I can read them comfortably in bed, in a car, with my feet up at my desk, or wherever I can read a book. (Actually, I can even read it in places I can't read a book, since I don't have to have a light source.) Emphasis, by the way, is on comfortably. I never could stand trying to read on a notebook computer screen. Unlike with a book, you have to adapt your position to the computer to be able to read. With the Tablet, I can hold it just as I always have with a book, regardless of my position. I often read while walking around campus. Can't do that easily with a notebook.

Let me jump back to my Day Planner for a second. With it (or with Outlook, with which it synchronizes) I have my contacts always with me, available in a matter of seconds. Again, I don't need to find a table or desk to look someone's number up or make a note of a commitment or jot down something. I can do it as easily as I could in my Franklin book. Easier, actually, since it was somewhat more awkward to hold the book in my hand while writing.

Not to mention that it is fully searchable, even when the notes and tasks are hand-written. Any day planner user who has ever had to find notesthat are a year or two old will understand this argument immediately. And, again, it is the ease of using it in any position that is a plus for a Tablet over a notebook.

Well, that and the fact that one can even write notes in the first place. Anywhere I can hold my Tablet, I can write notes—I've even jotted down a quote heard on the radio while driving. (Kids, don't try this at home.) I would have had to trust my too-frequently addled memory if I had only a keyboard to use. I can at least write one-handed without looking down.

While on the subject of note-taking, have you been in meetings or classes where people had notebooks open and were taking notes, at least ostensibly? Not only is it quite unclear what is really going on behind that screen, the very fact that you have to look at the back of it raises a social barrier that I, for one, find quite unpleasant. No one bats an eye when I have my Tablet down on the table or in my lap while taking notes. At church, I don't think most people even notice that I am using a computer (which has both my Bible and my notes on it). The social barrier is pretty much non-existent in this case.

I'll end this first bit on this topic here. There is a lot more and I will follow up on it as time allows. In the meantime, I would love to hear what other Tablet users find compelling. Let me know in a comment here or at markp(at)

Friday, January 6, 2006

Spaces - The Final Frontier...

One of the faculty members on our Tablet program advisory group has a real thing about power. The kind that computers require to operate, that is. He is (rightly) very concerned that we make sure that there are adequate sources of power available in classrooms so that students don't run out of juice in the middle of class. (Our suspicion is that this will be the new "my dog ate my homework" excuse.)

His comments got me to thinking about the impact that Tablets will have on the environment around us, and especially on the kinds and style of spaces that we have and the furnishings in them. Mostly I just have musings about this, not answers of any kind, but then I have to start somewhere so please bear with me. My hope is that a discussion on this will ensue to everybody's benefit. If nothing else, at least writing it forces me to organize my thoughts somewhat.

Some of these issues, such as the need for power, wide provision of wireless networking, or secure places to stow the computer when at lunch or whatever are common to any kind of portable computers in schools, but others I think are unique to the Tablet PC. I'll limit my thoughts here to the latter.

My biggest concern is that many of our spaces encourage students (and faculty) to use the Tablet simply as a notebook. The work surfaces and seating in these places are set up to facilitate typing on a computer. My experience is that most users need all the encouragement they can get to spend the needed time getting used to the Tablet as a tablet. These spaces don't encourage that. In fact they actively discourage it by making it difficult to use the Tablet in writing mode.

Consider, for example, what a study carrel might look like if designed for a Tablet user. Would there necessarily be a rigid, flat rectangular surface? When used as a notebook, this would be a very beneficial, especially with a top-heavy unit like the TC1100. But what about when it is used like a Tablet? For me at least, the desktop is in the way most of the time. When I work at a surface like that, I often end up turning sideways so that I can hold the Tablet in my lap and write. The best writing angle I've found is achieved when the Tablet is balanced on my crossed legs. Any books or other materials are then on the tabletop at my left. But being the easily distractible sort, this doesn't work well in an environment where there is much traffic. There has to be a way to improve this work space. Making the space deeper to better block distractions would help a lot, at least for someone like me. Perhaps a solution is a flexible work surface, on where part of the desktop can be moved out of the way to make space for crossed legs with a Tablet on them.

In the same public-area vein, docking stations in study areas, particularly carrels, would be a huge improvement of the workspace, albeit one that seems at odds with what I just said since they would require the flat rectangular surface. Whenever I am at my desk, I use the extended desktop if I am not actually writing. (When I am, I sit in that same half-turned position I just described. It gives me a crick in my neck after too long, so I guess my office could stand some ergonomic improvements, too.)

Classroom furniture could also use some reconsidering. Flexibility is again going to be key—some want a desktop even when writing, others want nothing in the way of their arms and legs when the Tablet is in their laps. In a public area, one might have different kinds of surfaces or work areas to address the different needs, but in a classroom the same desk or table will need to service the needs of many individuals in rapid succession.

Student lounge areas and common sitting areas are other places where I see a need for alternatives, although I think these are generally better than the more formal study or academic spaces. At Vermont Academy, our lounge furniture tends to be low with deep seats (i.e., long front-to-back). From what I've seen this encourages bad posture to begin with, but it also makes it hard to hold the Tablet in one's lap and use it. I think even bean bag chairs would be an improvement.

One other area that I've thought of so far is the question of lighting. Glare, whether from overhead lights or from windows has always been a problem for computer use. We have invested in anti-glare fixtures for a lot of our computer spaces and that has worked quite well for the vertical screens of desktops. Now, however, we have screens that are more horizontal. Even with the non-glare fixtures in my office, I am looking directly at a reflection of the lights overhead if I don't hold the Tablet at a certain angle or facing a certain direction. I don't know what the answer is here (ambient floor lighting?), just the question.

I'm sure that there is much more in this area to consider. I'm equally sure that a lot of these concerns won't be addressed before next year when we fully roll out Tablets to all students. But at least the discussions will begin and maybe we can address things over time. I would love to hear from others who have thought about this and especially from others who have found good ways of addressing it. I would love to hear as well from anyone who thinks I'm making a mountain out of a molehill...