Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tablet PCs for Science or Math

I have a group of friends who communicate online mostly about sports. These are economists, friends of economists, and friends of friends, etc. During the baseball season it's mostly blather about the Cubs. This past basketball season a lot of it was about the Illini. (Obviously, we were not unique in that respect.) A discussion started only recently on the merits of shooting the three pointer. Based on the Illini stats, the expected value of a three point shot was about 1.2. The expected value of a two pointer was about 1.0. So somebody opined they should have shot even more three pointers than they actually did. After scratching my head about this for a while, I noted to myself that the variance for a three pointer for the Illini was about 2.16, while the variance for a two pointer was 1.0. So the three was riskier, something that seemed obvious to me. So I thought the choice of shooting the two or the three was something like a portfolio choice problem and that teams like the Illini must be risk averse. I posted something to the group to that effect, got a delayed response from a Law faculty member who likes economics but who never studied it formally, and thought perhaps there is the germ of a paper here and the ideas should be fleshed out further. Also, I needed a diversion and playing with this provided me one.

I started to write up some notes on my Tablet PC (a Fujitsu convertible). I was amazed at how similar this was for me to the old days when I scribbled equations on yellow ruled pads. The primary difference was that I used colored digital ink and varied colors for contrast, the eraser tool for the Tablet works very nicely while in the paper world I had messy cross outs if I used ink and other ugliness from erasure if I used pencil. And, of course, I could save the file and find it quickly later. Anyone who knows me is aware that I have no concept of paper filing and since I'd scribble equations on the back of paper seminar announcements or elsewhere would often have no clue where the work was after I had put it down someplace. The one downside that I noticed was that because I didn't want the Tablet flat on the desk I was holding it in my left hand and occasionally that hurt my wrist.

Armed with this largely positive experience I took to write up those notes. I did that in Windows Journal. Unfortunately, if you export from that to a Web page it uses Microsoft's proprietary format, which I believe requires IE for viewing. (If you do look at this version notice that the ruled lines, which are background in Journal, show up.) However, it is not too hard to select a page in Journal and then copy and paste into a Word document. I did that in about a minute for the four pages I had made and then saved the Word document as a Web page. This should be viewable by any browser. (But now note that the background is white without any ruled lines.) If I were to experiment with this more, I'd import the ruled lines into Word as a background and then use Word with ink annotation rather than use Journal.

I've got to believe that anyone who does notation intensive stuff or simply likes to do formative thinking with a hand written approach would like to use a Tablet PC. It seems to me it has such an upside for this sort of thing and the convertible unit I have switches readily to a regular laptop with keyboard, so you can go back to that when you need it. But if I look at the actual uptake of Tablets among the faculty, it seems we're still very early on in that.

I'd like to see Microsoft do a promo of these things. I believe that if faculty used these for a while, they'd want one and procure their own. We need about 50 to loan out faculty so they can use for a month or so, get comfortable with it, and produce some content. But that won't happen unless there is some corporate largesse.

Regarding teaching with these, in a large classroom they would seem to be a must for any class that would use the blackboard if there were only 30 students. The way our classrooms are setup, in the smaller class setting the screen for the projector is only about a third the width of the blackboard. So chalk still has some advantages, especially if the instructor writes in columns and has multiple columns up at any one time. But since this is all recorded by the computer the students doesn't have to take verbatim notes if s/he doesn't want to. That might offset the multiple columns advantage. And in a large classroom, using a Tablet PC is the clear winner.


Burks Oakley said...

Lanny - What type of Tablet PC do you use? Would you recommend this model to others in academia?

-- Burks

Lanny Arvan said...

Burks - I have a Fujitsu convertible. I bought one with a 1.7 gig CPU, which at the time was their top model. I upped the RAM to a gig, but otherwise got their package as is.

It is well engineered. The hinge for swiveling the screen works quite well. I've got complete confidence that it will last and half the time I start to twist it in the wrong direction. The Tablet itself really works well. I have not yet tried it for voice recording. That was one area where the my previous laptop (also a Fujitsu) added some unwanted hiss.

This version comes with a built in CDW-DVD player. I hardly use that. A second battery probably can be placed in that slot. But either way, that makes the thing a little heavier. I believe Toshiba has a convertible where the DVD player is external and that cuts down the weight of the base unit.