[April 13, 2006]

Virginia Tech engineering freshmen required to buy tablet PC

(Comtex Business Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)BLACKSBURG, Va., Apr 13, 2006 (The Collegiate Times, U-WIRE via COMTEX) --The Virginia Tech University College of Engineering has taken the unprecedented step of requiring incoming freshmen to purchase a tablet PC as part of its technology requirement. For Nik Bauman, a former member of the college's Student Technology Committee, however, the change is an ominous one.


"I've never actually heard a student bring up (the idea) that tablets would be a good idea," the junior computer science major said.

A tablet personal computer -- in its "convertible" model -- is a laptop with a screen that swivels and folds down, allowing users to write on the screen, annotate papers, sketch diagrams and take notes with a special pen, while still maintaining all the abilities of a typical laptop. The slimmer "slate" model allows for electronic note-taking but lacks a keyboard, instead attaching to a PC through a USB or wireless connection.

Bauman and Ryan Harne, a junior mechanical engineering major who is also concerned about the new requirement, expressed misgivings regarding the implementation of new technology while the university has yet to fully take advantage of existing laptop technology.

"When they changed over to laptops, it was perceived that they would be heavily incorporated into the coursework," Harne said. "The average engineer will use that laptop for the two intro courses and that's it. As in any major, they will take it to class and sit in the back and chat on AIM. That's the most use it gets after those intro courses."

"I have never, except for my first year, never been given even slides to follow along with ... it's all things I have to write down by hand in class," Harne said. "I can perceive that they will effectively use this in the intro course ... but after that, it's an expensive piece of machinery that will have little use."

Members of the technology committee within the College of Engineering believe tablets will be utilized sufficiently and priced competitively -- especially considering meetings with tablet vendors held privately under non-disclosure rules.

"(The students voicing concern) don't have access to the non-disclosure stuff we're getting from the vendors," said Tom Walker, associate professor in the department of engineering education. "Students get a great price break from all these vendors that we're talking about. We're talking about a price gap of only $100 to $200 dollars (between tablets and laptops)."

When the College of Engineering began requiring laptops in 2002, the cost of a laptop was $400 to $600 greater than that of a desktop, according to a news release from that time.

"If you corrected for inflation ... and you extrapolated up to this year, the tablet screen is, probably, about the same as today's tablet," Walker said.

For Glenda Scales, associate dean of Distance Learning and Computing, and education and engineering computer committee chairwoman, the eventual benefits far outweigh the short-term costs.

"When you look at the instructional aspect of the technology in the classroom, this allows us to do more in class ... annotation, note-taking, peer-grading, 3D sketch ... that it allows us greater flexibility," Scales said.

The computing committee within the Pamplin College of Business is recommending, not requiring, tablet PCs for freshmen entering in the fall, having come to similar conclusions regarding the future of the technology, but finding it unnecessary to require tablets at this time.

"I think the feeling in the committee was to allow an option, to allow the students a choice. If they were more comfortable with a regular laptop, to go ahead and allow them to do that. Let them know the advantages of that option. I use a desktop, I use a laptop, and I'm getting a tablet," said Terry Cobb, associate professor of management and a member of Pamplin's computing committee.

Bauman found Pamplin's conclusion superior.

"Suggesting tablets is fantastic. I like to promote flexibility, so the student can choose what tools (he or she) can use best. And by requiring (tablets), you are cutting the student off from what they could use best," Bauman said.

Bauman was part of a 2005 committee that tested Macintosh computers for their applicability to the engineering field. Walker said this alignment is the real cause for the protest.

"You have to read the hidden agenda. The fact is that a lot of the people are Apple fans -- they'd like to see us have a Mac PowerBook," Walker said. "By us going to a tablet requirement, it wipes out all hope for Apples ... in the next year, anyway. I've received a lot of angry e-mail from students, but most of them are from the Mac Users group."

The deal would have adverse consequences for the largest computer manufacturer represented on campus.

"It also wipes out Dell, because Dell doesn't have a tablet," he said.

Dale Pokorski, director of computing for the college of business, believes much of the resistance is just standard reluctance to embrace new technology.

"I think that until somebody has actually owned a tablet and used it they're not going to know the capabilities. I'm not going to get a laptop next year. I'm going to get a tablet, even if I use that tablet only for meetings and such. Being able to use that handwriting feature and use the search feature and have them forever (would be useful)," said Pokorski, whose husband, a Ph.D. student in the college of business, uses a tablet PC in both his student and professional concerns.

Tommy Regan, director of Information and Learning Systems in the College of Engineering, said that by utilizing the Faculty Development Institute, professors will be better able to maximize the tablet's possibilities. Cobb, for one, is already enrolled for summer instruction.

"It's to keep us old guys up to speed," Cobb said.

The new requirement requires a convertible tablet with benchmarks that put it at the top end of current national collegiate laptop requirements. Bauman, however, believes that the new specifications aren't necessarily what they're cracked up to be.

"The hardware it comes with is not as fast for an equally-priced laptop, and when a computer has to last you four years that's a problem," Bauman said.

Walker doesn't lend much weight to Bauman's appraisal.

"The reason we didn't go to tablets earlier is because we waited until the tablet was not just a slate ... an additional input device. It is a full-blown powerful laptop computer, as powerful as we would specify without the tablet," Walker said.

Walker cites a fundamental change in the tablet industry within the last two years, as the predominately slate-type models produced by Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba were forced by competitors to increase their machines' benchmarks.

"I have a Fujitsu on my desktop. It's a fully-featured laptop that runs at 2 GHz and runs everything that students were required to have this fall and more," Walker said.

In Bauman's eye, the requirement will bode ill for a certain group of Tech applicants.

"There's a certain type of student, and consumer, that pays attention to technology ... not everyone does it, and certainly not everyone in the College of Engineering does it, but those types of students know that tablets are a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," and would thus view the university adversely when making a college decision, Bauman said.

Though Bauman said the move was "certainly about publicity," Regan believes the publicity will come as a result of Tech's ability to "keep out on the front edge of better technology."

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