It seems that every blog post and article we read these days is about tablets: iPads, TouchPads, Android Tablets, Windows 8 and whether it will work well on tablets, convertible tablets. Tablets, tablets, everywhere. Particularly in education, where we're always looking for low-cost computing devices that resonate with our students, there's actually a fair amount to be said about tablets. That being said, I'd like to take a minute and talk about a very different type of tablet.
If you've never used a graphical tablet before, it's a bit of an adjustment from the touchscreens, touchpads, and all other things "touch" to which we've become accustomed. I picked up a basic Wacom Bamboo pen tablet last weekend for the day job. The virtual whiteboard in my company's virtual classroom has plenty of drawing and writing tools, but whiteboards were made for writing and there was only one way to find out how well we could simulate a real whiteboard experience in a Flash application.
$70 and a trip to Best Buy later, I had Wacom's cheapest graphical tablet hooked up to my MacBook Air. It can function as a mouse with the digital pen held just above the tablet, the cursor magically following my every move. Getting the hang of clicking, selecting, and moving with the digital pen took a bit of time and it wouldn't ever be my mouse input of choice. However, it became very natural to navigate within an application where I was using the tablet anyway.
If I was creating graphics in Photoshop or leading a class and drawing or writing on a virtual whiteboard, for example, switching from actually creating content with the tablet to grabbing new tools or selecting objects was easier (and ultimately more efficient) than using the touchpad. More importantly, I got back one of the abilities on a virtual whiteboard that I most missed from my days teaching.
There is nothing quite like sketching out a concept visually or working through a math problem in gory detail with a class. Every day at the end of class, my whiteboards would be full of notes, annotations, examples, sketches, and figures. I even stole an extra whiteboard that I found in the supply closet and hung it up late at night so that I'd have extra room for my pictures. Colleagues of mine would paint entire walls with whiteboard paint so they could do the same. When the principals questioned our tactics, we pretended that the bright white walls and extra whiteboards had always been there.
However, as we increasingly move towards virtual and online collaboration tools (whether virtual classrooms or Google Drawings), this ability is largely lacking. Add a basic tablet, though, and you're back in business. There are simply things that you can't do with a mouse and toolbar that are trivial by hand.
Even better, the Bamboo fits in my small bag right alongside my Mac. $70 and very little added weight gain me an incredible teaching tool. Even if I'm using something like Camtasia to capture my lesctures and presentations, the pen allows on-screen movements and annotations that have real value for those viewing the lesson after the fact.
Basic tablets (they're available with all sorts of bells and whistles, the most notable being multitouch), are cheap additions to the classroom, and affordable enough that teachers and professors can simply buy the tablets themselves. The overhead projector might be dead, but for educators who miss the great lessons they could deliver with a few colors of markers and a wet paper towel, the tablet is the answer. Same goes for whiteboard devotees, ot to mention their value for school graphics programs.