We all know that the iPad has established a dominant market position in terms of units sold and the percentage of market share. However, the market is still very young and comparatively small compared to all other types of computer devices; laptops and desktops. The primary competition for the iPad are Android tablets mostly from Samsung, Asus, Acer, Motorola, and Lenovo. The adoption of tablets by individual students is limited because of functionality issues. This could all change with the introduction of Windows 8, scheduled for release on October 25, 2012.
Students have been reticent to adopt tablets mainly because they are essentially consumption devices. Students need computers to create content as well. Tablets, both Android and iPad, have not been effectively designed to support the creation of content. The adoption of tablets by students in higher education is miniscule, except when the institution provides the devices. One might ask why that is, and what could change this? One possible answer is the introduction of Windows 8 and improved hardware.
Windows 8 has been designed to operate on a tablet, and leverage existing Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel. Student complaints abound that the current tablets do not support Word or Excel, so are of limited value in education settings. This is primarily true in higher education where students write many papers, and use spreadsheet software. The standard, like it or not, is Word and Excel. The introduction of a Microsoft operating system that can run on tablets and can support Microsoft applications will have widespread appeal to students. However, that is only part of the story about why students have not embraced tablets.
Another side of the story is something called Active Reading. Active Reading is how many students learn. Active Reading involves immersion with text through physical actions of the user. The most common strategies used in active reading are writing; underlining, highlighting, writing in margins (aka marginalia), and other coding schema’s. It is well researched that students use active reading strategies while reading to learn. Active Reading is very different than reading for pleasure, and this issue has been missed by e-readers and tablets, at least to date. The inability to efficiently support functionality for active reading strategies has turned off students to electronic reading, particularly with tablets.
While Windows 8 now potentially solves an important student need with a tablet operating system that will offer Office applications, the question remains about Active Reading. Immersion with text requires writing. Writing on a tablet is cumbersome at best. There are reading applications that support highlighting, underlining, and marginalia, but they offer a mediocre user experience. Any electronic solution must beat least equivalent to the experience of reading and writing on paper. The use of one’s finger, or a capacitive stylus pen, is much less efficient when compared to reading and writing on paper. Quite simply, any innovation must offer a better experience than what it hopes to supersede. If anyone has ever written on a tablet screen (capacitive touch screen), a finger is too fat, and a stylus is about the same size as a finger. A capacitive stylus is not only fat-tipped, but is rubberized and spongy to mimic a finger. A capacitive touch screen responds to heat transfer and not pressure. That is why a capacitive touch stylus pen is an unnatural writing implement compared to a pen or pencil. Therefore, writing with a stylus is rather uncomfortable and awkward. Think about writing with the eraser end of a pencil rather than the sharpened point.
The truth is that students cannot efficiently use Active Reading strategies with a tablet computer, and this results in a continued preference for the printed text. Surely schools can shoehorn in digital solutions to students as a forced measure, but it is very telling that individual student adoption is very limited.
There is some hope on the horizon, and is indeed very encouraging. Lenovo is set to release a new 10 inch tablet with Windows 8 (http://www.lenovo.com/products/us/tablet/thinkpad/thinkpad-tablet-2/). The reported release date is to coincide with the release of the Windows 8 software at the end of January. The Lenovo ThinkPad 2 comes with a new feature that might be compelling to students. It breaks the mold of the capacitive stylus pen as a fat-tipped pen. The ThinkPad 2 will include a stylus with a new fine tipped point, much like a pencil. The tablet and stylus is designed for free-form writing. This is a significant step for tablets, and could potentially spur widespread student adoption. Writing efficiently on a tablet screen in a way that mimics the paper experience should not be underestimated. This is a key function for students.
Microsoft applications plus a more efficient writing experience on screen will surely push other device makers to respond in kind. There are many unknowns about the ThinkPad 2 and Windows 8, but it does seem these two important developments might make the tablet device more suited to student use. Like many other things in life, time will tell if Lenovo and Windows 8 might make some inroads. Stay tuned.