Sunday, August 01, 2004

Beyond Gimmicks: Tablet PC trial in Crescent Girls’ Secondary

CNA (31 Jul 04) reports that 300 students from Crescent Girls' Secondary "will no longer need to lug heavy textbooks to school". The trial to use Tablet PCs started some 4 weeks ago, allowing students to have "lessons on the move - in the class, in the garden or even at home". I'm thinking of the movie Dead Poet's Society, where Robin Williams threw away the textbooks and conducted classes under a tree.

The report also says that with the Tablet PCs, students can "learn anywhere, any place and any time, transforming the way students learn in school." The students seem to find it a boon. One student said they can do their “homework, projects and everything" - I'm betting the "everything" refers to IRC and Blogging as well (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

Several thoughts upon reading the CNA report:

Thought #1 - Technology is both the key Enabler and Disabler.
While the potential benefits of equipment like the Tablet PC are vast, there are also the accompanying problems. Consider this scenario:

Teacher: "Ok Class, please boot up your Tablet and open up the document I emailed last night."
Student1: "Teacher, my battery has gone flat."
Teacher: "I thought I reminded you all to charge your battery before coming out to the field? Ok, you sit with Ling over there."
Student2: "Teacher, my Tablet crashed!"
Teacher: "Where is your backup? No backup? I thought I'd reminded you all about saving your work every 5 minutes?"
Student2: "But Mrs Wu said that we only need to save every 10minutes..."
Student3: (Close to tears) "Sir, I dropped my Tablet! My mother is going to cane me!"
[15 minutes later]
Teacher: "OK OK, those who need to share the Tablet PC, please do so. We have to get to the lesson proper. Now everyone will... William and Boon Keng! What are you doing?"
Student4 & 5: (In unison) "Nothing Sir!"
Teacher: "What nothing?! What is this? You two are doing IRC when you should be paying attention!?"
Student4: "But Sir, I was just asking Boon Keng how to copy and paste the document into my blog."
Teacher: "... I... I don't care. You have to pay attention. No one is allowed to do anything else. If you are not paying attention, you won't know what is going on."
Student6: "Teacher! Michael is assessing the Mediacorp website!"
Student7: "I am not! This is the Discovery Channel lah, stupid!"
Student6: "You then stupid! You smell too!"
Student8: "Yah teacher, it's very hot out here. I want to go back to the computer lab. Here no aircon."
Teacher: "That's it! I give up!!! I am going to tell Principal Tang that this class will stick with books and remain in class for the rest of the year! Why did they try this experiment anyway? I told them it wouldn't work, but Noooooo, they wouldn't listen..."

The above is just tongue-in-cheek. But some of the problems are already happenning in classes that have used computers during lesson time. I'm no anti-technologist. My point for the ramble is that with everything in this world, every Plus has a Minus, a Yin & Yang, Light & Dark.

We learn in basic physics that "For every action, there is a equal and opposite reaction". For such experiments to be successful, schools need to anticipate and pre-empt those potential Negatives. Not all would be eliminated. The thing is to ensure there are more Positives than Negatives at the end of the day. BTW, here’s an interesting blog by Shel on the issue of power supply.

Thought #2 – What’s are the REAL critical success factors?
It's clear to me that students love this because it's gimmicky. The real test will come when the novelty aspect wears off. Then it's just another piece of machine. I've not used a Tablet PC but I understand that one key feature is that it accepts handwritten notes. My experience with a Palm PDA is that while handwritten input (as opposed to keyboard) is convenient, the handwriting recognition isn't as fast as input via keyboard, or writing by hand on paper.

So content and teaching methods will be the real critical success factors. Teachers need to modify their teaching strategies to really benefit from the technology. Otherwise, the benefits from using IT will not be very significant. I'm not alone in this view, which brings me to Thought#3.

Thought #3 – What were the lessons learnt from the 1999 eduPAD experiment?
Prior to the Crescent Girls' experiement, there was a similar trial by Dunman Secondary School - EduPAD - in Sept 1999. Unlike the Tablet PC, which was a commercial product, the eduPAD was a customised device targeted specifically for schools for use in teaching and learning.

It was supposed to bridge the gap between a low-cost Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and the notebook or desktop computer. It too, was all about “learning anytime, anywhere”. The idea was to “shrink text books to the size of postage stamp sized chips, which students can then slot into the EduPAD, enabling them to review textbooks page by page whilst studying at home.

This was an ambitious R&D project, involving the (1) Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) which mooted the idea for the eduPAD and provided pedagogical support; (2) Kent Ridge Digital Labs (KRDL) which offered the technological expertise for the software; (3) CET which designed the hardware; (4) local publishers to contribute to the content; (5) the school who provided the users (teachers and students).

In mid 2000, I spoke to some folks from CET, as well as one or two teachers from Dunearn High. My personal take on the trial was that the proverbial Achilles Heel in the project was CONTENT. The hardware was great for its time – it allowed the ability to store worksheets, assignments and handwritten notes, and access the Internet. But without content, the effectiveness of the trial was limited.

I also suspect (but did not verified) that the project did not really have any significant impact on exam results. Although this may not have been a goal of the project, it would still be the ultimate benchmark by most teachers and parents. With loaded teaching assignments, not all teachers would welcome the R&D nature of such trials. On top of that, they have to think of different teaching approaches in addition to their existing workload with other classes not in the trial.

Parents might also ask, “How has this improved my child’s exam grades? If I have to pay extra for the gadget, I’d rather go back to using textbooks and the tried-and-tested ways of classroom-based teaching.”

Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot when it comes to exams. Indeed, the title of the NIE/ NTU study is also telling, for it says “Perceived Benefits of eduPAD in Enhancing Learning”. The benefits of IT applications in schools have yet to be rigorously measured.

The findings from a NIE/ NTU study (2001)- Perceived Benefits of eduPAD in Enhancing Learning - concluded that the “introduction of electronic devices per se into the classroom would not bring improvement in teaching and learning automatically. Teachers and students need to modify their teaching/learning strategies and make full use of the opportunities provided by such a device to do things otherwise not possible." I also notice the paper was careful to say "perceived benefits".

Thought #4 – Why do want to do this at all?
The recurrent theme for such IT experiments in schools is that it will eliminate the need for school bags and textbooks (this was the same thing they said about digital content replacing books and libraries at least 10 years ago, and that hasn't happened).

Other espoused objectives include:
  • “… bringing a new dimension to the growing popularity and importance of distance learning education" Alberta Canada
  • "Preparation of the youth to be able to succeed in the information society of the 21st century" Slovak Republic
  • “… for engaged learning, the deepening of school-business collaboration and, most broadly, the nurturing of a culture of innovation and enterprise across the education system.” Singapore

My thinking is, perhaps, shallower - the key question ought to be: "How will the Tablet PC - or equivalent - make a student a better person in the broad sense of the word?"

Thought #5 – But try we must!
To quote the MOE Minister's 1999 press release:
“What the school or classroom of the future will look like is still very much anybody's guess. What we can say is that it is unlikely to settle on any one model. More probable, a variety of models will emerge, responding to different needs and learning aptitudes and leveraging on different technologies and resources.”

So Singapore will have to continue to try, to learn from successes and failures. And try again.
Why am I so interested in such projecys? Simple answer:
Libraries => Used for learning & research => Taking notes => How can libraries anticipate and support future trends?

Tablet PCs and/ or its application in education:

For a broad discussion on the applications of Tablet PC, with comments from Bill Gates (Microsoft), Chiaki Itoh (Fujitsu), Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard), Atsutoshi Nishida (Toshiba), Kazuhiko Kobayashi (NEC), Stan Shih (Acer), and James Chu (ViewSonic) - Tablet PC Launch Press Conference - New York, Nov 2002.

The NIE/ NTU findings on an evaluation of a proto-type hand-held electronic device - Perceived Benefits of eduPAD in Enhancing Learning
From the abstract:
"... At the end of the trial period through a survey and focus group interviews the benefits of this innovative device as perceived by the teachers and students were determined. Both the teachers and students expressed a positive attitude towards the use of an electronic device to enhance teaching and learning. However, they also pointed out that the barrier to the use of eduPAD device in the classrooms resulted mainly from technical problems, such as slow speed of loading and accessing time to the Internet. The students also said that the instructional approaches used in eduPAD classrooms were largely the same as those found in traditional classroom. The findings suggest that introduction of electronic devices per se into the classroom would not bring improvement in teaching and learning automatically. Teachers and students need to modify their teaching/learning strategies and make full use of the opportunities provided by such a device to do things otherwise not possible."

For current product and industry developments on Tablet PCs - Table PC News (from Tablet PC Magazine).


  1. Have you used one? I have. Normally in a laptop mode, not the tablet mode. I have one genuine complain - the display. I wish they install an airbag in it, so that it can be activated each time I bang my forehead against the monitor when I cant see those ant size text on the screen.

    Well, every year there is a hype. "Year of The Tablet" for example. But then remember the famous quote "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.." -- Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943

    Just to add to your anthropomorphy, do u know that the I-ching 8 trigrams forming a possibility of 64 hexagrams are binary in nature? (bits and bytes) Maybe God revealed computing to Fuxi 3000 years ago..

  2. Hi Gah Gah,
    I'm vaguely aware of the I-Ching trigrams, but no, not aware of the binary nature till you pointed it out. Actually, I think everything on Earth can be expressed in binary numbers.

    That's what most First Contact scenarios (i.e. humans communicating with Alien Intelligence) are written in Sci-Fi - like "Contact" by Carl Segan, "Deepness in the Sky" by Vernor Vinge (to name a few). I remember Asimov wrote a story where the Periodic Table was used as a 'Rosetta Stone' of sorts, but I digress...

  3. periodic table as nature's Rosetta Stone. matter anti matter. yin yang. inspiring, makes me want o dig up my old cd "Adrenalin" by a liverpool goth band "Rosetta Stone".

    I don't read much SF and war stories. But I did remember reading fantasy stuff "watership down" when I was 10 or 11. Of Cos I was attracted to the fluffy rabbits on the cover and not because it was cleverly classed under "SF". When I was in NL, Only to get out from a creeping boredom that I would pick up an Asimov. No offence to SF fans.


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