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Some Students In 9.01 to Get E-Tablets For Class Use

By Ricarose Roque


Some members of the Neuroscience and Behavior (9.01) class will be issued e-tablets for the remainder of this term, making it the first class ever at MIT to integrate these devices into the classroom.

“The e-tablets will allow a real paperless classroom,” said 9.01 professor Gerald E. Schneider.

A cross between a laptop and a hand-held organizer, the e-tablet combines the power and capability of a PC with the function of a notepad, enabling its users to write directly onto the screen and rendering keyboards and touchpads obsolete.

“Lectures are always throwing [so much] material at students that they just become passive stenographs,” said Ruthledge G. Ellis-Behnke G, who has been leading the Paperless Classroom project. “With the e-tablet, their attention is taken away from copying and onto the lecture.”

Due to budget constraints, the introduction of the e-tablet to 9.01 students, originally set for the beginning of this term, has been repeatedly postponed. In addition, not all of the students will receive tablets.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to get these tablets into the hands of students in two weeks,” Ruthledge said.

“I hope I get one,” said 9.01 student Farhan I. Merali ’05. “It’s going to take some getting used to, but it seems like it can become a valuable tool.”

Tablet to enhance learning

By integrating the e-tablet into the classroom, the paperless classroom project aims to eliminate the use of paper hand-outs, lecture notes, even textbooks.

“Part of the cost of textbooks [arises] from shipping, publishing, and binding,” Ellis-Behnke said. “You can deliver all that information with the tablet without that cost.”

The use of color in the otherwise black and white diagrams and visuals in student handouts is another added bonus for this class, which studies anatomy.

“Color is especially important to this department,” Schneider said. “We can’t afford it though. It costs us a dollar per page to print in color.”

The e-tablets also feature the ability to write directly onto Adobe Acrobat PDF files, allowing students to annotate handouts.

“We also plan on including additional software to increase the tablet’s usefulness to students,” said C. Jordan Gilliland G, the designer of these “tablet-friendly study tools” who has also been working with Ellis-Behnke and Schneider on the project.

In eliminating paper handouts and “passive stenographers,” Ellis-Behnke believes the project will increase learning as well as student-teacher interaction.

“Less time will be spent on menial tasks and students can focus more on these digitized handouts instead of constantly copying and writing,” Ellis-Behnke said.

Ellis-Behnke and Schneider also plan to extend the use of e-tablets to quizzes and tests.

“We’ve already tested the idea on our [teaching assistants],” said Ellis-Behnke. “Students will take the test on the tablet and e-mail it back to their professor.”

Funding enables project launch

With the help of Gilliland, the Paperless Classroom project has garnered enough support and donations from both manufacturers and MIT.

“This project follows a sound and useful approach to academic computing that may be helpful to study,” said Senior Strategist of Academic Computing Phillip D. Long.

Along with the grant from Academic Computing, the Paperless Classroom project also receives funding internally from the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department.

“Classes like this [9.01] rely heavily on color diagrams and real to life pictures for their study,” said Mriganka Sur, BCS department head. “This is a really novel and interesting idea that I believe has the potential for long term success.”

Gilliland and Ellis-Behnke have also made deals with various tablet manufacturers such as ACER and Compaq for tablet donations and price reductions.

And “Adobe has also agreed to reduce the price for their tablet pc software from $62 to $28,” Ruthledge said.

Tablet to compete with laptop

In introducing e-tablets to students and to the rest of the MIT community, the group hopes that the e-tablet will grow in popularity and pervasiveness like the laptop.

“They’re not as powerful as the laptop, but they’re almost there,” said Ellis-Behnke. “These tablets certainly don’t have 1.6 GHz, but you can do almost anything on these.”

“When I first started out in March, I didn’t think using these tablets would be a feasible idea,” Gilliland said. “But with Microsoft’s backing with their new operating system and further advancements in technology, more and more manufacturers are being encouraged to produce these devices.”

The increased participation of manufacturers has also led to lower prices for tablets with prices ranging from $600 to $6000, said Ellis-Behnke.

Currently, there are three types of tablets available. One kind has no keyboard but allows infrared connection to a portable keyboard. The second type features a detachable keyboard, while the third type has a non-removable keyboard that can still be converted to a tablet.

Gilliland and Ellis-Behnke have decided to use tablets with detachable keyboards, with pens that have active digitizers instead of pressure sensitive sensors. The e-tablets will also feature the Microsoft operating system Tablet XP with built-in wireless and standard ethernet connections.

“Each tablet will also have a two-gigabyte network backup,” Ellis-Behnke said. “You won’t have to worry about the system crashing.”

Future dependent on test outcome

During and after the introduction of the e-tablets to 9.01 this term, both Ellis-Behnke and Gilliland will evaluate the actual usefulness and effectiveness of the tablet to students.

“We want to see that if we actually remove paper from the class, if it will actually maintain or increase student performance in the classroom,” Ellis-Behnke said.

Ellis-Behnke hopes that once the tablet is introduced that students will eventually consider purchasing their own devices.

“We’re thinking that MIT can set up a loaner program, where students who can’t afford their own can still use one,” Ellis-Behnke said.

Despite all the features and potential that Ellis-Behnke claims the Paperless Project possesses, further integration and funding of this project depends on the outcome of this first test.

“If this e-tablet turns out to be quite useful and they can identify where it’s useful, then there’s a potential for a large implementation of this project,” Long said.

Project goes beyond the classroom

In incorporating course material on the Web for use in the e-tablet, Ellis-Behnke plans on giving access to this information to outside parties, such as alumni.

“We want to help alumni continue with their education and to maintain their bonds with the Institute,” Ellis-Behnke said.

The “digitized information” can also be assessed by collaborative projects that span across other nations.

“This project has the potential to run along the lines of what President Vest said, of bringing the world to MIT,” Ellis-Behnke said.

Alongside the Paperless Project, Ellis-Behnke also plans to extend the use of e-tablets in MIT libraries for browsing Web journals.

“When you look, around MIT is always constructing new buildings, but none of them will have new libraries,” Ellis-Behnke said. “E-tablets will give the existing libraries the physical space they’re already lacking.”