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Hand writing and tablets should go hand in hand

Writing with tablets
Writing with tablets
Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Samsung

A recent research study from Mueller Oppenheimer (2014) found that taking notes using a keyboard resulted in lower learning levels when compared with taking hand written notes. The overall conclusion of the study stated that “the present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.” Taking notes on laptops has become fairly ubiquitous across education, but Mueller and Oppenheimer contended that “… whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.” Hence, if taking notes using a laptop/keyboard is actually an impediment to learning achievement, are there other alternatives using technology that can support written note taking?

The ability to take notes using one’s own words can indeed be supported through technology. The tablet computer is the device of choice for this task. However, few tablets support a natural and efficient writing experience. While all tablets can theoretically be used to write, the technical limitations of a capacitive touch screen makes writing slow and cumbersome. The screen does not respond instantly, and the writing lag is very distracting. Further, writing on a tablet with a finger or with a fat tipped capacitive stylus adds to the unwieldy experience. It is the cumbersome nature and unnatural writing experience that make most tablets unsuitable to efficient and natural hand writing.

To serve as an educational device well suited to notes, the hardware requires an active digitizer. This is a component that is built into the screen and enables to use of a stylus pen that is fine tipped like a pen. More importantly, the inclusion of an active digitizer makes writing natural because the screen response is nearly instantaneous, analogous to writing on paper. It is imperative for a tablet to include an active digitizer to make the writing experience as efficient and natural as with paper.

There is an interest in moving tablets from primarily consumption oriented devices to productivity devices. Because the active digitizer and stylus pen adds cost to a device, most tablets forego this component. However, students need devices that support productivity, not just consumption. While the keyboard is still the mainstay of user input for content creation, the use of the written word is also an equally important consideration. Pursuant to the research of Mueller and Oppenheimer, students and schools would be well advised to consider writing functionality when selecting a tablet for educational use.

The two brands that have led the way with active digitizers are Samsung and Microsoft. There are also other manufacturers such as Dell and Asus. Samsung offers the Galaxy Note, which is an Android based device. The active digitizer is a key feature of the tablet, but the limited footprint of Android devices in the education environment has limited this to a niche device without broad appeal. The Microsoft Surface Pro 2 and 3 both offer Windows 8.1 based tablets with active digitizers, and schools are beginning to to respond positively. Because of the Windows operating system and Intel CPU, the ability to run any software is another key aspect that makes the Surface Pro a device well aligned to the needs of many students.

Although research clearly suggests how hand written notes are more valuable than keyboard input, the high cost of a device with an active digitizer is a serious limiting factor. The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 starts at $799 without the keyboard attachment, which is really necessary for other student activities beyond note taking. The device will cost about $1000 once fully outfitted. That’s far too expensive for many schools and students.

It would be a welcomed development if tablet manufacturers selling into education markets recognized the cognitive importance of hand written notes. This isn't a luxury feature; it is essential to the learning needs of students. Active digitizers need to become standard features of tablets in education because of the significant importance of hand written notes. Schools and students should demand this feature, and not try to use second best technology because that is all that is available. It is also time to for vendors to step up to the plate to more effectively meet the needs of the education market.

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