June 30, 2006 8:18 AM PDT

Tablet PCs required for Virginia Tech engineers

This fall, incoming freshmen at Virginia Polytechnic Institute's engineering school will be given tablet PCs--and will be required to use them in class, the school has announced.

As part of a new partnership with Fujitsu Computer Systems and Microsoft, Virginia Tech will be using new Fujitsu LifeBook T4000 computers to change the way its engineering classes are taught, particularly at the introductory level, the school said. It will be among the first engineering schools to institute such a requirement.

Fujitsu LifeBook

The LifeBook offers features typical of what is known as a "convertible" tablet. With a few rotations of the screen, the computer morphs from a conventional-looking laptop with a keyboard to a flat tablet that can be written on with a stylus. Engineering students at Virginia Tech will be able to take notes and construct designs on their LifeBooks, which are intended to make it easier for students to collaborate with each other and share their work with instructors electronically.

Back in 1984, Virginia Tech's engineering school required incoming students to own a personal computer. Now, using new technology to enhance students' academic experiences is more commonplace. Schools such as Stanford University and Brown University are putting their lectures on iTunes. And Duke University famously gave free iPods to all freshmen beginning in the fall of 2004.

But while the iPod is a trendy, versatile gadget that is as much a part of students' recreational lives as their academic careers, the tablet PC is a niche item that has been somewhat slow to take off. Virginia Tech, in conjunction with Fujitsu and Microsoft, will be providing training this summer so that faculty can adjust to using the machines in classroom presentations, the school said. The software that will be used includes Microsoft Office OneNote, SketchUp and Classroom Presenter.

The university's computing ambitions go beyond laptops: For a short time in 2003, its Mac-based supercomputer (known as "Big Mac") was the third most powerful in the world.

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14 comments

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warm reception
My opinion on the warm reception is just people are not sure how well tablet pcs work when writing with the stylus. Its kinda of like if it ain't broke why fix it. Even if it could be better why worry about it right now because what we have works just fine. I think programs like this provide a good starting point to get more people framiliar with how the technology can be used to change how one works.
Posted by chuchucuhi (233 comments )
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Infrastructure support
There better be electrical outlets everywhere and spare laptop/tablet batteries in every room. Otherwise, classes will be constantly interrupted by low-power problems.
Posted by Get_Bent (534 comments )
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I think it stinks
Why tablets why not just regular notebooks. Tablets stink they are not going to make it. The fact that you can write on the screen is the only feature Microsoft and manufactors are pitching. Why sepnd the extra money for one feature, I can just hope that tablets will go away soon. The sooner the better in my opinion.
Posted by StargateFan (122 comments )
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Because tablets can do more..
The tablet can function as a Laptop too. It's an option that's finding it's way onto more and more systems at least partly because it doesn't add a whole lot to the price of the system.

Why does the capability to write bother *you* so much?
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
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Some advantages of Tablet PCs for engineering students
What advantages does a Tablet PC have over a "regular" notebook for an engineering student?
Here are a couple:

Think about taking notes in math class or sketching out a problem in a physics lab. It's doubtful you'll find it practical to type out your notes on a standard notebook. With a Tablet PC you can stay digital and handwrite your work on the Tablet PC. Yes, you could use paper instead, but digital notes are searchable and a whole lot easier to share electronically. Let's say it's midnight, the night before an exam and you _really_ need the class notes for one of the days which you were absent. Believe me, you'll be a whole lot happier if your classmate has digital notes that they can email right over versus paper ones they'll have to photocopy and you'll have to run over to get.

Or what if you're stuck on a math problem? With a Tablet PC you'll be able to IM your handwritten work to a classmate to get some help or maybe you'll open a shared page in OneNote and work out the problem together. Try explaining the problem over the phone or in a text-only chat session instead.
Posted by robotbuilder (2 comments )
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Interesting experiment
The fact that Virginia Tech is a "partner" with Fujitsu and Microsoft means they're getting a REALLY good price on the tablets (like FREE, maybe!) for the purpose of promoting the tablet format. I hope Virginia Tech (not Fujitsu or Microsoft) publishes a report at the end of the school year giving feedback from students and faculty about their experiences using tablets. Should be interesting.
Posted by Norseman (1319 comments )
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digital pen
NY Times recently had a story about "digital pens." These are actual pens that write on actual paper, so you get all the normal visual-sensory feedback. But they use special paper and a teensy "camera" that allow them to keep track of where the pen tip is, so that later on they can download everything you wrote to your computer. All for a MSRP of 200~300 $US, including software that can turn your handwritten notes into typed text and inserted diagrams. If some college could get a bulk deal, they could probably offer it for $100 or less. Sure, it doesn't give you all the capabilities of a tablet PC, but it's much cheaper and would be much easier to lug around. Not to mention that losing it would not be so catastrophic.

For me, though, the absolutely crucial question is "what does it feel like?" If writing on a tablet PC is anything at all like signing your name on those checkout counter things, then I for one would find them impossible to use. It may be hard to beat pen & paper on issues such as lag time, proximity of "pen" tip to the line on the "paper," available precision, contrast, glare, and sensory feedback. Anyone out there have experience with these tablet PCs?
Posted by dmm (336 comments )
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Tablet are Great
I find some of these comments similar to conversations and repeats of history. That flying machine will never work, that ship wont sink, MS Windows will lose to OS2, etc. I have used a tablet PC ,TC1100 for three years now; I would hate to go back to plain laptop. The hand writing is so good even with my scrawl, that I can do and answer short emails with out unpacking the keyboard, browse and read emails, network etc with the pen and its so easy, have not tried voice yet, as phobia about talking to machines, but may get there some day, my old man hang-up My biggest disappointment with the new generation tablets is that the keyboards are not detachable, as I hardly ever carried my keyboard with me. To me this is the technology of the future, as one commenter wrote, take paper notes, scan, store OCR, why even other with a computer just stick with paper and files. My minutes are taken and stored, and backed up straight by the PC. Whish I could consistently write clear, lost that art a long time ago, the OCR is very good so could benefit a lot more

One Note is a great tool, still learning.

Good luck to this university a great step.
Posted by asutt01 (2 comments )
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i don't like the idea
here is why i think it is ridiculous.

1.) You guys say "we're trying to stay on top of technology". That point is totally invalid if you require tablets. Tablets are a dead fading technology going nowhere and i personally feel that they are being required b/c the dean knows someone at Fujitsu and is getting a hefty profit to his school. The other reason i feel he is pushing this on the students is b/c he wants a name for himself. "Hey we're the first university to do this so everyone else should follow me b/c i'm so great" That is exactly why he is requiring them...NOT to stay on top of technology

2.) The recognition on the screens is horrible as is. It has a 256 pressure sensitivity...which is poor recognition. A graphing tablet attachment (something that only costs around $200 for a nice one) has double that pressure sensitivity and is half the weight of a tablet. Though the student would need two pieces, it is a much better option.

3.) Why require something so expensive that will only be used in three courses? College is expensive enough without such a high priced piece of hardware. Now you want to put thousands of kids in even more debt? I realize that you can use them in other courses, but the three freshmen engineering courses is what the students will need the tablet for. I have talked with people who were happy with their tablets...and a lot of them say they would rather take notes the good old fashioned way. not to mention relying on a piece of technology is not something any engineer will want to do.

4.) Like i stated earlier, tablets are a dead technology and a poor investment. I could understand if the requirement was something worthwhile that was worth investing in...but tablets are used in like .001% of today's technological world (not an actual figure...but you understand my point).

I had my heart set on a Macbook...which is where the smarter investment would have been made. PC's are junk in the first place if they run windows...and they eat up memory like it's going out of style. A Macbook would have been a better investment for the reason that it manages memory much better, the hardware is much more stable, it can run windows through emulation (which has been proven to run just as fast...if not even faster than XP), and it is a technology only pressing forward. A tablet is a dead technology that noone in the world wants. The only people who want it are the people who profit off of it; namely the Dean and his staff.

I am not a person pushing Macs on anyone... I simply do not feel it is justified to require something so hefty. Recomending is just fine...but the students should be able to use whatever computer that allows them to learn best. Laptops brought to class are more of a distraction rather than a learning tool. Most college students that bring their laptop to class will tell you that they found themselves chatting rather than learning or using the laptop for any real benefit.

Another point is that the GPU in the tablet pcs is a piece of junk. An Intel 945GM with 64 MB of SHARED VRAM? how is that supposed to handle a program like AutoCAD?

No statements have been made as to "how" specifically the tablets will be used in class which leads me to believe this is a publicity stunt...not an educational benefit
Posted by magekillr (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
i don't like the idea
here is why i think it is ridiculous.

1.) You guys say "we're trying to stay on top of technology". That point is totally invalid if you require tablets. Tablets are a dead fading technology going nowhere and i personally feel that they are being required b/c the dean knows someone at Fujitsu and is getting a hefty profit to his school. The other reason i feel he is pushing this on the students is b/c he wants a name for himself. "Hey we're the first university to do this so everyone else should follow me b/c i'm so great" That is exactly why he is requiring them...NOT to stay on top of technology

2.) The recognition on the screens is horrible as is. It has a 256 pressure sensitivity...which is poor recognition. A graphing tablet attachment (something that only costs around $200 for a nice one) has double that pressure sensitivity and is half the weight of a tablet. Though the student would need two pieces, it is a much better option.

3.) Why require something so expensive that will only be used in three courses? College is expensive enough without such a high priced piece of hardware. Now you want to put thousands of kids in even more debt? I realize that you can use them in other courses, but the three freshmen engineering courses is what the students will need the tablet for. I have talked with people who were happy with their tablets...and a lot of them say they would rather take notes the good old fashioned way. not to mention relying on a piece of technology is not something any engineer will want to do.

4.) Like i stated earlier, tablets are a dead technology and a poor investment. I could understand if the requirement was something worthwhile that was worth investing in...but tablets are used in like .001% of today's technological world (not an actual figure...but you understand my point).

PC's are junk in the first place if they run windows(linux is the way to go for PCs)...and they eat up memory like it's going out of style. A Macbook/Pro would have been a better investment for the reason that it manages memory much better, the hardware is much more stable, it can run windows through emulation (which has been proven to run just as fast...if not even faster than XP), and it is a technology only pressing forward. A tablet is a dead technology that noone in the world wants. The only people who want it are the people who profit off of it; namely the Dean and his staff.

I am not a person pushing Macs on anyone... I simply do not feel it is justified to require something so hefty. Recomending is just fine...but the students should be able to use whatever computer that allows them to learn best. Laptops brought to class are more of a distraction rather than a learning tool. Most college students that bring their laptop to class will tell you that they found themselves chatting rather than learning or using the laptop for any real benefit.

Another point is that the GPU in the tablet pcs is a piece of junk. An Intel 945GM with 64 MB of SHARED VRAM? how is that supposed to handle a program like AutoCAD?

No statements have been made as to "how" specifically the tablets will be used in class which leads me to believe this is a publicity stunt...not an educational benefit
Posted by magekillr (2 comments )
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