Friday, January 06, 2006

Spaces - The Final Frontier...

One of the faculty members on our Tablet program advisory group has a real thing about power. The kind that computers require to operate, that is. He is (rightly) very concerned that we make sure that there are adequate sources of power available in classrooms so that students don't run out of juice in the middle of class. (Our suspicion is that this will be the new "my dog ate my homework" excuse.)

His comments got me to thinking about the impact that Tablets will have on the environment around us, and especially on the kinds and style of spaces that we have and the furnishings in them. Mostly I just have musings about this, not answers of any kind, but then I have to start somewhere so please bear with me. My hope is that a discussion on this will ensue to everybody's benefit. If nothing else, at least writing it forces me to organize my thoughts somewhat.

Some of these issues, such as the need for power, wide provision of wireless networking, or secure places to stow the computer when at lunch or whatever are common to any kind of portable computers in schools, but others I think are unique to the Tablet PC. I'll limit my thoughts here to the latter.

My biggest concern is that many of our spaces encourage students (and faculty) to use the Tablet simply as a notebook. The work surfaces and seating in these places are set up to facilitate typing on a computer. My experience is that most users need all the encouragement they can get to spend the needed time getting used to the Tablet as a tablet. These spaces don't encourage that. In fact they actively discourage it by making it difficult to use the Tablet in writing mode.

Consider, for example, what a study carrel might look like if designed for a Tablet user. Would there necessarily be a rigid, flat rectangular surface? When used as a notebook, this would be a very beneficial, especially with a top-heavy unit like the TC1100. But what about when it is used like a Tablet? For me at least, the desktop is in the way most of the time. When I work at a surface like that, I often end up turning sideways so that I can hold the Tablet in my lap and write. The best writing angle I've found is achieved when the Tablet is balanced on my crossed legs. Any books or other materials are then on the tabletop at my left. But being the easily distractible sort, this doesn't work well in an environment where there is much traffic. There has to be a way to improve this work space. Making the space deeper to better block distractions would help a lot, at least for someone like me. Perhaps a solution is a flexible work surface, on where part of the desktop can be moved out of the way to make space for crossed legs with a Tablet on them.

In the same public-area vein, docking stations in study areas, particularly carrels, would be a huge improvement of the workspace, albeit one that seems at odds with what I just said since they would require the flat rectangular surface. Whenever I am at my desk, I use the extended desktop if I am not actually writing. (When I am, I sit in that same half-turned position I just described. It gives me a crick in my neck after too long, so I guess my office could stand some ergonomic improvements, too.)

Classroom furniture could also use some reconsidering. Flexibility is again going to be key—some want a desktop even when writing, others want nothing in the way of their arms and legs when the Tablet is in their laps. In a public area, one might have different kinds of surfaces or work areas to address the different needs, but in a classroom the same desk or table will need to service the needs of many individuals in rapid succession.

Student lounge areas and common sitting areas are other places where I see a need for alternatives, although I think these are generally better than the more formal study or academic spaces. At Vermont Academy, our lounge furniture tends to be low with deep seats (i.e., long front-to-back). From what I've seen this encourages bad posture to begin with, but it also makes it hard to hold the Tablet in one's lap and use it. I think even bean bag chairs would be an improvement.

One other area that I've thought of so far is the question of lighting. Glare, whether from overhead lights or from windows has always been a problem for computer use. We have invested in anti-glare fixtures for a lot of our computer spaces and that has worked quite well for the vertical screens of desktops. Now, however, we have screens that are more horizontal. Even with the non-glare fixtures in my office, I am looking directly at a reflection of the lights overhead if I don't hold the Tablet at a certain angle or facing a certain direction. I don't know what the answer is here (ambient floor lighting?), just the question.

I'm sure that there is much more in this area to consider. I'm equally sure that a lot of these concerns won't be addressed before next year when we fully roll out Tablets to all students. But at least the discussions will begin and maybe we can address things over time. I would love to hear from others who have thought about this and especially from others who have found good ways of addressing it. I would love to hear as well from anyone who thinks I'm making a mountain out of a molehill...


Blogger Chris said...

On the power theme, I'm waiting for the day when all PSU connections are standardised. Then every room can have at least one (retractable, perhaps) cable that is guaranteed to fit your tablet/phone/PDA/whatever. Imagine, you'd never have to take a power brick on business trips again!

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Barry said...

I do think you're on to something. Our bodies and mind are hooked together and personal experience says getting a different perspective is sometimes as easy as changing position. My reading position at a desk is identical, btw. If we're going to expect students to think, then we have to let them sit/stand/walk around so they can. I also agree that the tablet mode is about thinking and less about doing. It slows me down, which I like. There is definitely a time to use it and I'm glad it's there.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Chris Brandt said...

Some things I've noticed when using my tablet(s) over the past several years...

1. Having the tablet at an angle while writing is very helpful - both for the glare and for the posture. The TC1000 had feet that would prop it up at maybe 5 degrees when in portrait mode and without the keyboard attached. (Not sure if the 1100 has the same feature).

2. Larger screens make it harder to find a spot & angle without annoying glare from above.

3. Matte finish on the screen helps to diffuse the glare when it is there.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Mark Payton said...

Good comments all. Thanks.

Chris, I hope that day is realized soon. In the meantime, I'm excited by some of the advances in battery technology and even more so by those in fuel cell technology. I could live with a 10 hour battery (if it could charge in < 6).

Barry, you said it well about the Tablet slowing you down enough to think--something all to rare in this world, let alone in the internet world. I know it helps me keep my email shorter and more concise.

Chris B. The TC1100 has those feet, too, and I use them just the same way. Love this machine... Good observations on the screens and glare. We'll have to keep those in mind as we search for a new standard model.

6:40 PM  
Anonymous Martin said...

Chris << any day now (crossing fingers) Splashpower will have products in the stores that will bypass the universal PSU connector for the holy grail of *wireless* universal power. Then, hopefully, we can either put power into every work surface - whether wirelessly from the floor, or wired, or something else completely - or at least have a simple and robust charging location in every classroom.

"Bye-bye wires," are the words I long to say.

3:41 PM  

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