Take a tablet for a headache?

Late last Friday afternoon I received an offer that I found difficult to refuse. One of our Faculty members had been participating in a trial of tablet computers, primarily for marking electronic assessment submissions, but was struggling to find the time to fully participate in the trial and decided to opt out. Suddenly the Faculty had a ‘spare’ tablet computer from the trial and wanted to pass it to somebody who might be expected to use it. That somebody was me.

I’m not a tablet computer ‘true believer’. I have serious doubts that it is worth spending roughly twice the money on a tablet for no real gain for what I consider ‘normal’ use and a considerable loss for a Mac user. In fact I recently commented elsewhere on a post by another participant in the trial, in relation to online marking with a tablet computer:

I’m not sure that I’d like using a Tablet PC (even if that PC were a Mac ;-)). I’ve always had an aversion to people touching computer screens and leaving greasy finger marks and for a long time I used a fountain pen in preference to a ballpoint because I liked writing with something that had sufficient friction for me to feel confident the tip would not slip all over.

Then again, I really do like using my iPhone and have learned to look past the greasy finger marks. I also used a Palm with a stylus for several years and found that easy enough to adapt to. Perhaps I need to try doing something with a Tablet PC and see how that works out but the tools I have been using for the past few years seem to work for me and inertia is strong.

The tablet trial is being run by Birgit Loch as part of her USQ Teaching Fellowship. As part of that trial, those of us who are experimenting with tablets are expected to document our experience and share it with others involved in the project. There is a closed USQ space for that purpose but I figured I could post here and copy or link to get my thoughts into the ‘official’ space.

I spent an hour or so tinkering/playing with the tablet on Friday evening. The onboard help files were not all that helpful and, without administrator access (why do techs insist on setting things up like that?), I apparently could not install some online help that appeared in a search. A quick exchange of email with Birgit straightened me out on how to get the ‘digital ink’ flowing and I was able to scratch around in a test file.

The weekend and Monday were committed so it was Tuesday afternoon before I sat down in my office, transferred some downloaded student submissions from my Mac to the tablet, and proceeded to try my hand at marking. Because I had seen folk using tablets in ‘pad’ mode, once I had the files in place I rotated the screen and went to work with the stylus.

It took me longer than it would have with the keyboard and mouse to insert a new page at the end of the submission and insert a copy of my marking guide. Part of that was lack of familiarity with the Word 2007 interface (I use 2008 on my Mac), part was my usual awkwardness with Windows (it is not my Mac), and some was the trackpad (not a mouse). With a bit of exploration I was able to record a macro that automated the insertion of a marking guide at the end of subsequent submissions.

Working with the stylus was awkward enough but I found that, although I could enter text using the on-screen entry box or keyboard, I could not locate the inking controls that Brigit had helped with on Friday night. I resorted to using Google on my Mac to find instructions, but even when I found the controls to switch on inking I could not get it to work. After several attempts I opened the test file I’d used on Friday night and had no such difficulty there. Back in the student file ink would still not activate and I spent most of 30 minutes becoming increasingly frustrated. Eventually I tried a different student submission and found that ink worked immediately. Evidently the first file was different in some way. When I checked later with Birgit she had no explanation either. Most of the 27 submissions I had to work with had no problems but at least one more did. Apparently some DOCX files behave that way for no reason we could discern. Ultimately the fix for such files was simple – save in the older DOC format and get on with it.

After talking with Birgit I adjusted my approach to use the tablet in a normal laptop configuration, typing any larger blocks of comment and using the stylus with ink for less formal comments. Even then I found it awkward to write accurately and legibly with the stylus sliding on the surface and the calibration apparently not quite right. Part of that may be related to my inexperience with the equipment but I suspect it is inherent in the device. I worked through my 27 files reasonably quickly, though no more so than if I had used my usual techniques on the Mac and probably less legibly in places. Once they were done I transferred the files back to the Mac where I was able to upload in bulk to the assessment system.

What of the tablet and the headache? Based on this limited experience I don’t think it is going to cure any assessment headaches for me and, though on this occasion it did not cause me any real headache other than some brief frustration, I see no reason yet to move from my previous scepticism about tablets. Given a choice of spending the difference between the price of a decent Mac laptop and a tablet on something else I’m sure I’d find plenty of ways to spend the money on things that would do more for my productivity than a tablet.