Tuesday, March 29, 2005

How Mighty is the Pen?

I have a new Tablet PC and the quality of the pen input is really quite amazing. It is extremely easy to write this way and to get comfortable with using the pen. The only two issues I've got is with the heat generated by the unit - so it really is much better to have the thing on a desk rather than on my lap - and with glare, where the less reflection of overhead light, the better. With those caveats, the Pen is really great. The Tablet is much better at meetings than a laptop, because I look like everyone else who has paper writing pad. And I've also had fun making little screen movies of economics diagrams. I can see how with some care and by inserting voice over one can record something on the Tablet that would be as effective as a lecture given in a large classroom, where there really is very little give and take with the students.

Here I want to talk about "online office hours" or online group work and how digital ink fits in with that. For those who have designed collaborative working spaces for students, I believe it is well know that even with the penchant for computer technology, the students really like to have regular whiteboards, where they can share their ideas visually. I think this is especially true for courses where diagrams are part of the way information is represented and also course which are notation heavy, whether in Math or in Music.

It seems we are "almost there" achieving the same type of effect online. There are seemingly many possible alternatives for smart whiteboard software that allows interaction over the network and now we have the pen input side handled....almost. When I did my large intermediate micro class we relied almost exclusively on text chat (and asynchronous discussion areas) and that worked pretty well given the expectations of the students. Now we are seemingly on the verge of making the entire process much richer.

Here is the issue. Tablet PCs are pricey. Not too many people have them. I did some searching this morning for an alternative and found this lcd screen from Optoma, which allows the pen input with a regular computer. This is still not cheap, but I could see having one or two of these in a bullpen room for TAs so they can use the pen. And I can see the faculty member buying one to interact with the students. Of course, I've not tried them for how functional they are. I know the Wacom equivalent is twice the price. I also know, however, that if you want to go even cheaper, you can get a tablet where you don't "write on the screen." I bought one of those. It does exactly what it is supposed to do but it is cognitively difficult to use, because you write one place and the image show use in a different place. So based on my own experience with that, I don't think you can go that route.

What about the students? Will they have pen input? Probably not in most cases. So let's consider the case where the students are at a regular comptuer and that TAs have a Tablet PC or equivalent. How will online office hours work in that environment and will it sustain with rich visual interaction or degenerate to text only? I don't know but that is the experiment we should be having right now. It would be good to figure out how to do that and if it is worth getting the pens for the TAs.

I do think it at least conceptually possible that the TAs stay with their pen and do diagrams, while the students rely on text chat. And perhaps it is possible for the students to copy pre-created pictures and then ask text based questions about those. What I would like to see is how that works in actual implementation. It would give me a much better sense of what we want/need in terms fo the smart whiteboard software. I'd also like to know whether voice communication is helpful here or if the text chat is better. Obviously, for archival purposes it is better.

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