When Microsoft introduced its Tablet PCs two years ago, and promised a revolution in education technology, expectations were high. But revolutions aren't spontaneous, and two years later K-12 adoption of tablets has been minimal, held back by high prices and low functionality.
But educators (and, curiously, not Microsoft) are nurturing the seeds of the revolution with their long lists of educational benefits that tablets offer, both in 1-to-1 computing environments and other deployments. Among their claims: students and teachers can learn to operate a tablet in minutes because the pen-based approach is so intuitive; tablets maximize mobility and foster collaboration; tablets may be the machine of choice for many special needs students; tablet functionality caters to differentiated learning styles.
"It's like the tablet has turned educational technology inside out," says Joe Hofmeister, director of technology at Cincinnati Country Day School where more than 500 tablets will be in use in the school this year. "Now, instead of everybody having to learn how to deal with this machine through the keyboard, now the machine has adapted itself to people."
There's no accurate count of how many K-12 schools in the U.S. are using tablet PCs in the classroom, but a quick survey of the top manufacturers puts the number at less than 500. Hewlett-Packard says it has "hundreds"
of deployments. Gateway says it has somewhere around 100. Averatec, the newest and lowest price player in the market, has none. IBM, Sony, and Apple don't even make a tablet
or a "convertible," which is essentially a notebook PC with a screen that swivels around to rest flat over the keyboard and recognizes handwriting and drawings entered with a special pen. Microsoft, which created the Tablet PC operating system that runs on all these machines, declined to comment on the adoption rate in education.
"By no means would I suggest this is an overwhelming movement; [education] is still very much a notebook and desktop market," says George Warren, director of K-12 computing at Hewlett Packard. Warren estimates HP sells three desktops for every notebook in the education market, and that tablets make up less than 10 percent of the notebook share.
Convertibles, which are likely to replace plain tablets as the pen-based computer of choice, makeup only about 1 percent of notebook sales, says Sam Bhavnani, senior mobile computing analyst at Current Analysis.
These numbers place tablets at the very beginning of the typical technology adoption curve. It's the technology "innovators" that have embraced tablets at this point. If experience holds true, they are likely to be followed by early adopters, the early majority, the late majority and finally the diehards (who are reluctant to adopt anything new).
"Some people are talking about the death of the tablet, saying the tablet's not doing well. We're not seeing that at all," says Ted Ladd, spokesman for Gateway. "I think there were a lot of kinks to iron out."
Barriers to Adoption
Perhaps the biggest kink to be ironed out has been the cost. Even with the various manufacturers discounts that might be available, schools that have adopted tablets or convertibles put the price tag at about $2,000 per student machine. Analysts say the price hasn't followed the usual erosion curve for a couple of reasons: First, Microsoft charges more to license its Tablet OS than it does for the desktop or notebook version. Second, manufacturers have had to increase memory and processor speed to create machines that meet user demand.
That said, prices are just now starting to drop. Averatec, a relatively small player in the market, introduced in July a convertible that retails for less than $1,300. Gateway offers its newest version for around $1,700. Toshiba's tablets cost districts about $200 more per unit than a comparably configured notebook, says senior product manager Craig Marking.
The second major barrier to tablet adoption has been the functionality of the machines. Users accustomed to speedy desktop processors were turned off by the relatively slower speeds of early tablets. The handwriting and voice recognition features that are part of the Microsoft Tablet OS have also improved since the early release, analysts say. Additionally, some tablets don't have integrated keyboards, large hard drives, or CD or DVD drives--all problems remedied by the new convertible models.
PC makers are clear that these are the issues that need to be fixed before tablets will make a significant dent in the education market.
"Schools embrace the tablet function and the mobility of a tablet or convertible," says Toshiba's Marking. "But they would prefer the functionality and price point of a desktop."
What will likely bring this about is to have the rest of the big PC players get into the tablet market. If Apple, IBM and Dell start to make tablets or convertibles, competition will drive prices down and functionality up, say market analysts.
These explanations for slow adoption are the market-centric ones, though, and probably apply beyond the education market. But educators who have adopted the technology blame their colleagues for a lack of knowledge.
"They're worried about price, they assume the price is going to be a lot more expensive. They're worried it's going to be a delicate machine that's going to break down," says Hofmeister. "These are all assumptions that are incorrect ... People have no clue about the relationship of this machine to differentiated learning styles and kids who have significant learning difficulties."
So are tablets the next big thing in educational technology? Given the way the innovators who are using them already rave about the devices, and that the prices are slowly coming down as functionality increases, the answer is a qualified yes.
"This is probably one of the first pieces of equipment that's come around that I think will be around for a while," says Diane Bode, education technology specialist at Judson Independent School District in San Antonio where more than 300 tablets are in use. "I think this will be it in five years."
But will tablets stir a revolution?
"There are no revolutions in education," Hofmeister says. "Schools have an incredible immune system. They react to new things coming into the system the same way our immune system does: They gather around it and try to kill it as soon as they can."
Rebecca Sausner is a freelance writer who frequently covers education issues.