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Microsoft Surface Pro: aligned to the needs of students?

Surface Pro 2 from Microsoft
Surface Pro 2 from Microsoft
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Tablets are not laptops.This is well known. While tablets and laptops offer different ways to access and create content, the stark differences between the two devices has begun to narrow. The Microsoft Surface Pro 2 can be considered the best of both worlds; the ease of a tablet, with the power and flexibility of a laptop. It was reported today, February 10, 2014 on about how schools are using the Surface Pro, and importantly, what led to the decision to adopt the Surface Pro over other tablet alternatives. Although the information provided is essentially a marketing campaign by Microsoft, the information and accompanying video is highly instructive and makes many valid points that should be considerations for all would-be adopters of tablets.

The most compelling information was shared by the Williston Northampton School, located in Massachusetts. One of the first points made was about creating content. The statement made by the school was that “…we want our students to be creators of content. So we knew the iPad was not going to be a good device for us.” This type of statement is not unusual, and in fairness, should speak to tablets as a whole, not just the iPad. Creating content is less efficient with tablets. However, it is not a zero sum game. For many tasks, tablets can be suited to creation, but generally, they are not the ideal device for productivity, particularly at secondary or college levels. Tablets in general are best suited to consumption; that is what they do best. Yes, many apps support creativity. But, apps were born of low processing power during the early days of smart phones, and the inability to use web browsers efficiently. As processing power increases in tablets, the ability to run full versions of software will become commonplace. Some apps are great for the simplicity of use though. Notable is iMovie, which is tough to beat. However, video software has become commodity, and there are many other viable alternatives. One should never become fixated on a single aspect of any device, unless that is the core need driving adoption.

The Surface Pro runs the full version of Windows, leaving little daylight between what software can be run on the tablet as compared to a laptop. There is no sole reliance on apps. The Surface Pro can run Office, or any other Windows program. This is a major plus for secondary level and college students. Perhaps it is not as important for primary level education where the apps often serve the learning needs of students.

The ability to create content also includes the use of a keyboard, which is well integrated into the Surface Pro, and well as mouse options, when necessary. A touch screen is great for many things, but not all tasks. Keyboard input remains a necessary input mechanism to create content efficiently. Too many schools have incorrectly assumed that touch screens are a replacement for keyboard input. That is simply not the case. Just ask the Los Angeles school district that purchased iPads, to find out subsequently that keyboards were necessary.

Perhaps the most striking and relevant issue was how students use the tablet to write efficiently. This included annotating, note taking, drawing and highlighting. The inclusion of an active digitizer that supports pen input is a major advantage for the Surface Pro. Students need to write efficiently, including highlighting/annotating and note taking. The result of the active digitizer built into the device enables one to write smoothly and efficiently on the tablet surface, analogous to writing on paper. Most all tablets, Apple and Android, use a passive digitizer, which makes handwriting on the tablet slow, not terribly accurate, and above all, cumbersome. A student perhaps put it best when she stated , “it’s exactly like writing on paper with the smoothest pen imaginable.” It is no small issue that students need to write efficiently, particularly for active reading, where handwriting inside of the text, highlighting, and coding is an important learning strategy. The advantage of being able to take notes efficiently on the tablet screen is obvious, and universal to the needs of all students.

The value of writing on documents was also emphasized by the faculty, where one teacher described how he can offer feedback to students by “…writing little notes to them [using pen input].” The immediacy of feedback with hand written comments on papers is essential to the learning process and an important feature for teachers as well as students. Overall, the integration of the stylus pen input with a tablet is a tremendous step forward for teachers to collaborate with students.

Considering the value added features of the Microsoft Pro, this should raise the bar for technology analysis in school settings. While the Surface Pro is not the only Windows tablet out there with an active digitizer, it is the only 10 inch Windows table that does. There are two 8 inch tablets from Asus and Dell that offer active digitizers. Both are not nearly as powerful as the Surface Pro, but are less than half the cost. It comes down to the depth of the analysis and research to drive the adoption decision.

Schools need to seriously consider the gap between consumption and productivity that leads to increased learning outcomes. The use of apps might be appropriate for many curriculum needs, but are still not full featured software options. Having the option to load and run software should be a consideration. The reliance on apps and the goodwill of the ecosystem to offer needed software options is unnecessarily limiting. The ability to hand-write is central to learning, and to formative feedback from teachers. Few tablets support natural writing ability, outside of the Windows tablets with active digitizers. Whether one wants to admit it or not, keyboard input is also an essential component of content creation. One cannot use a touch screen for all input and expect to realize efficient content creation and high level of productivity. Moreover, LCD keyboards are not suited to efficient text input except for very small amounts of text entry.

With all due respect to the existing crop of tablets, they were never designed as education tools. They were intended for entertainment, and in many cases, are shoe-horned into learning environments. The serious limitations of existing tablets become more apparent as one looks comparatively at the design aspects of the Surface Pro or other Windows 8 tablets with active digitizers. There is much room for improvement in tablets vis a vis as an educational device. The Surface Pro, and other tablets with active digitizers, should serve as food for thought by educators and students considering the adoption of tablets as a learning device.

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