Why pen based tablet pc’s?

With all of the hype about the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) http://www.cesweb.org/, it seems fitting to write my first blog about ‘Why pen-based tablet pc’s?’ in the classroom.

Before using tablets, I wasn’t really engaged in technology for mathematics teaching.  Until 5 years ago, my internet experience was limited to the odd email or looking up a phone number/map. In my first year of ‘back to full time teaching’, just staying prepared for the students seemed a difficult enough task.  Once teaching, I was exposed to our learning management system (Blackboard), but with so much else to learn, all I had really mastered by the end of the first year was email and posting announcements for students.  As a math teacher, I found adapting to a keyboard for typing math difficult and required me to think in ways that weren’t as natural as pencil on paper, especially as I can be quoted as saying ‘I can’t think unless I have a pencil in my hand’.  Writing on a board seemed to have worked for my teachers, so why should I be the one to change the way it has been done for the past hundred years or so?

By the start of my second year, my classroom concerns overtook my hesitation to investigate what technology might have to offer.  As the courses I teach have common final exams, my emphasis was on ensuring that I had covered all of the required content.  Of some frustration was the process of n (writing lengthy problems on the board, waiting for students to copy them down, writing solutions, moving aside for students to copy, erase and repeat). Being height challenged, not always having clear handwriting, teaching in large lecture halls – added to my angst. I knew that this was not the way I wanted to teach – nor, I am quite sure, the way this generation of students wants to learn.   In order to eliminate the time wasted by this copying/recopying method, I decided to learn Microsoft Word and type my class notes.  This ‘framework’ of notes had many of the shortcut methods I had developed from 20 years of math tutoring, followed by questions with plenty of space for student solutions.  Many hours were spent typing as I was new to Word, using the limited math functionality that was available at the time, and figuring out how to post to the LMS.  However, it worked, as students would download the documents and write into them.  This allowed us more class time for discussion and sharing of information.

With a small bit of success, it was necessary to keep moving forward.  The first step was to convince the ‘people with money’ that software was required to make typing math more intuitive – so we ordered MathType  http://www.dessci.com/en/products/mathtype/.  The next logical step was to copy the ‘course documents’ onto acetates and use the overhead projector.  The value added by this progression was that I was now facing the students and could see the looks of puzzlement/agreement to judge for myself their level of understanding.  In addition, I could leave the front of the room and wander amongst them while they were working to engage in conversation as they solved problems.   I magnified that effect by asking to have peer tutors in the room – in particular in the large classes of 70-80 students.  (The effect of  peer tutoring will be the subject of another post).  Sometimes, I could even convince a student to write their answers into the acetate spaces so that others could see how they solved and then learn in a way that may be more familiar to their thinking.  The overhead projector failed to be the ideal in that it was difficult to see from the back of the hall (especially exponents), it projected in only one colour (difficult for graphing), and unless acetates were washed, a costly waste of non-recyclable plastic.

In the break before the next semester, I mastered the document camera.  The advantage of using the doc cam was that it projects from note paper (no more acetates hanging to dry in my office) and it has the ability to zoom into a particular portion of the page.  Although still required to be at the front of the room to navigate, it seemed like the perfect technology for teaching mathematics, as we could write in solutions in a stepwise manner that could be seen by all.  The importance of being able to ‘write in’ answers, one step at a time as a collaborative discussion is a must for math teacher.  Further, it did project colour, so graphing and highlighting became that much easier.  The zoom feature was great, however, it required the instructor to continuously look over their shoulder to make sure they were still writing on the screen – students were quick to let you know when you have wandered off.

The type of mathematics we teach is very much applied.  It is important that the student be strong in the skill, but in order for them to remain engaged, they must know how this skill will benefit them in their chosen career.  With each concept taught, about 30% of the time is spent teaching/reinforcing the skill and the remainder, in how it is used in the laboratory. We recognized quite early that Web 2.0 could provide a powerful tool to make mathematics classes ‘come alive’.  After 30 years of teaching fundamental understanding of calculus, I discovered the ‘Calculus Phobe’ http://www.calculus-help.com/tutorials who, with animation and simple direction, gives a fantastic explanation.  (The importance of learning objects will be the subject of another post). The problem then became the inability to make an easy transition between the internet and the doc cam, in particular now that I was going to the internet sometimes 3-4 times per lecture.

After 1.5 years of listening to my rants about making the technology work for teaching mathematics, the Dean placed an HP pen-based tablet PC into my hands.  I now had the perfect tool – I could bring the previously designed Word doc note framework into the Microsoft Journal and write on using the ‘stylus’.  The software has multiple colours and thickness of pen as well as highlighter.  Make a mistake?  Simply turn the stylus over and erase (as you would with a pencil).  A student wants you to go back in your lecture?  Simply scroll to the location and continue with your discussion.  Demonstrate a learning object?  The internet is at your fingertips.  Bring up the online textbook to show the pages you are working from, or project questions for students to work on while in class. What could be better?  Actually having all of the students with the same technology capabilities available to them is.

From there, as they say, the rest is history.  Having, fully understood the importance of pen-based tablet technology for teaching mathematics, again my visionary Dean suggested that we apply for a Hewlett-Packard Technology for Teaching grant.  We were the fortunate recipients, and in the fall of 2008, opened our first tablet lab.  Students, having their own tablet to use in the classroom, were connected to their teachers using collaborative software.  Obviously, many more stories to be told here…


After teaching for almost 30 years, I must admit, I will never go back to teaching mathematics in any other way.  Now that I have made this five year progression from whiteboards to tablets, my advice regarding all of this hype about ‘tablets, tablets, tablets’ – Educators, if you really want a tool that will benefit students for every course in their syllabus, make sure to choose a tablet that comes equipped with a pen (stylus).


Enough for now, please feel free to comment…


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Why pen based tablet pc’s?

  1. Judy says:

    Hi Carol,

    I enjoyed reading your well written, interesting article.

  2. Seth Ellis says:

    I teach Geometry, Pre-al, and Computers. I’ve been 3 years on just a whiteboard and have finally skimped enough money together for a projector so I can finally use the smartboard that was given to me a year ago. (The declining costs of projectors has been enabling). I’m very interested in what you write about tablets and am very excited to start using this in class. Simply for providing visuals, having a projector is awesome. I’ve love for students to have tablets in class too. Have you used smartboard tech and how do you feel it compares with tablet use on the teacher side of things?

    • 44mathtech says:

      Hi Seth – thanks for your interest.
      I haven’t used a smartboard, but have watched many presentations where teachers are using them. In some ways, due to the pen-based input, the methodology is the same. What is different in a tablet pc classroom is that we connect to students using DyKnow software. In essence, our screens are projected onto all students screens, and they write into the notes. I can also ‘share control’ with students, so they can become the temporary teacher, and students can submit panels for me to review their work. There are also lots of interactive features – I guess it is time I wrote another post…

  3. greg says:

    What tablet PC hardware would you recommend to purchase today?

    I teach at a community college, where there is not yet much for technology supported instruction. I have my own older HP pen-based tablet PC. It works great, and I much prefer using it to the (antiquated) chalkboards and standard overhead projectors we still have here.

    I seem to have encouraged a few of the higher-ups to purchase some tablets for some classrooms, and I’ve been asked to make recommendations. I thought that would be easy, but I can now only find devices that react not only to the stylus, but also to skin contact. This makes it tough, because most people I rest my hand on my writing surface as I go, and that contact messes things up.

    I need a pen-enabled screen that either does not react to skin (non-capacitive touch) or one where that funtionality can be disabled. And I can’t find one. The iPads and their ilk all seem to be capacitive (skin) touch.

    The other thing that matters to us is real-estate. A tiny 7″ screen won’t cut it. I think the screen should be at least a 12″ diag.

    Any thoughts from anyone?

    Thank you in advance,


  4. Ben says:

    Math tech, I have been using a tablet PC from gateway for the past three years and would never go back either. I am curious about the interactive software that you wrote about. I am responsible for helping teachers integrate tech in their curricula. Perhaps I can find it on a subsequent post. But if would be so kind as to post it here, I would get the email notification. Thank you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s