Tablet technology has been available to consumers since the 1990s, but was not originally heavily adopted. New generation tablets, most of which are designed without dedicated keyboards, are becoming more common.
I am currently taking a Graduate course with an instructor that uses a tablet to present his lecture content. The environment created is very similar to the typical blackboard or whiteboard classroom, but instead the instructor’s laptop screen is projected for the students to follow. I am recording notes for this class in the same way, using my tablet to reproduce what is being created on the projector. For both of these applications, tablets provide some advantages over traditional methods, but also introduce some drawbacks.
As a note-giver
From a lecture or presentation perspective, a tablet simplifies many of the activities required, such as eliminating the need to erase the board, allowing the marking up of images, and offering many drawing tools, such as coloured inks of varying thicknesses. With the addition of a desktop recording software, the lecture can be recorded and saved to the class website. Students are able to review these screen-castings and catch up on content they missed. This can be particularly helpful for graduate students, where travel to conferences can interfere with a class schedule.
Many of these advantages also have direct disadvantages, such as reducing the movement of the instructor in the classroom. Since the tablet is typically used at a podium, the instructor will remain rooted here during the lesson. It is much harder to interact and gesture with a projection screen than a blackboard. This reduced movement can impact the interactivity of the class, confining it to a style of note-copying rather than getting input and involvement from the students. Although no erasing is required, the screen is much smaller than a collection of blackboards, so less content can be shown at one time. This can hinder students’ ability to visualize the progression of course material and make connections.
As instructors, we should be aware of these advantages and disadvantages because our choice of presentation method affects all members of the class. Switching perspective now to the role of student, a tablet and note-taking software can also be used to record notes, regardless of the method of presentation.
As a note-taker
I have used this method for a couple equation-intensive engineering courses and, as expected, also found some advantages to be balanced by drawbacks. A strong benefit I have found is the high speed of typing compared to writing. In courses with a lot of text note-taking, a lot of time can be saved. An added benefit is being able to look up while recording these notes, something that is not easy when writing on paper. This allows for more focus during the lesson and less time bogged down blindly copying notes.
I don’t find drawing on a tablet faster than on paper, but the added tools do provide benefit. Being able to draw shapes or axes with a couple clicks saves time and improves quality. Drawings can also be modified after they are created, rather than having to pull out an eraser and start over. For mathematical equations, there is a choice to write it out in full or use a built-in equation editor to type the equation. The latter option provides a nice appearance that is less likely to be misread in the future, but it requires some getting used to and can be slower than the former method.
Recording all the content digitally means that it can be easily searched using keywords, even handwriting in many software packages. This can save time if you need to find something quickly and don’t want to look through all your notes. But being able to leaf through your notes is exactly what you lose when going digital. No longer can you quickly flip through them to look for a key image or figure.
A major concern with taking notes electronically is the reliance on electronics and electricity. What if your computer crashes during a lecture? What if you don’t have an electricity source for the 3 hours of class coming up? A backup is always required in case your tablet is unavailable. A pencil and paper don’t have these technical limitations and are much more reliable.
Although it may not be reasonable to expect tablets to replace pencil and paper or chalk and blackboard, they have established a place in the classroom. In both cases, there is a significant learning curve when beginning to deliver or take notes using a tablet. If you want to start using this technology in the classroom, take the time to become comfortable with it before taking the leap!