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The Tablet: Big Machine on Campus?

This September, some University of Virginia students will be lugging more than course outlines, gargantuan textbooks, and standard laptops. Tucked away in their backpacks, 425 students of biochemistry, psychology, or statistics will have a new, free Tablet PC, courtesy of Microsoft (MSFT) and Thomson Learning (TOC).

The school believes the compact, portable PC, which is about the size of a typical spiral notebook, will add a new dimension to the classroom. The Tablet will let professors enliven lectures with digital extras and enable students to scrawl notes and draw diagrams while watching 3-D molecules split -- all with the touch of a stylus.

For Microsoft, the giveaway could be a way to help juice the Tablet PC's popularity among tech-savvy students. Only 500,000 have been sold from its November, 2002, debut through the end of 2003, while some 39.5 million laptops were sold in 2003. Industry analysts say Tablets -- which now retail for about $2,000 -- will pick up speed by 2006. Wanda Miles, executive director of learning technologies at Microsoft, hopes this pilot program will boost sales. "There's tremendous potential for Tablet software in the higher-education market," she says.

CLOSER TIES. With its snazzy new ink and handwriting-recognition technology, which allows a user to write on the screen, the Tablet whips hastily scrawled notes into organized and searchable Microsoft Word documents and gives students access to the teachers' own handwritten notes. Professors can audio-record lessons for students to listen to during study hours.

University of Virginia Psychology Professor Dennis Proffitt, one of three academics participating in the pilot program, believes the ability to produce images directly related to the lecture will help close the loop between lesson, professor, and student. "If I need students to draw a cartoon of the eye, they can use several different colors and just drop it into their notes with this technology," he says.

Charles Grisham, a biochemistry professor, says he'll use the Tablet for in-class testing, as well as to show Flash animations of bouncing molecules and atom models. Thomson, with input from the participating professors, is developing the colorful Flash animation, 3-D models, and other interactive features.

BIG TEMPTATIONS. Like other classroom technologies, the Tablet has its drawbacks. True, it's light, weighing in at less than five pounds. But its battery power lasts only four hours, a problem for students juggling tight schedules or planning extended cram sessions. And while the Tablet may let students do away with spiral-bound notebooks, it won't substitute for arm-breaking textbooks.

Then there's the challenge of getting faculty -- accustomed to using slide projectors and tried-and-true lectures -- to buy into new technology. Grisham, one of the pioneers in the program, says it'll take him an an additional two hours of preparation to incorporate the Tablet into a lecture. He thinks that's worth the effort. "It can do things a textbook just can't do," he says.

Meanwhile, the Internet and Instant Messenger will tempt students. Many professors across the country have banned gadgets and laptops from the classroom because students were spending more time checking movie schedules and electronically yacking with each other than typing class notes. Grisham, says the potential for distraction isn't an issue, and that it's up to the students to use the technology responsibly. "We hope to make it so interactive, they'd be foolish not to pay attention," he says. "We'll keep them busy."

THE NEXT POWERPOINT? If the program is successful, it won't be just students and teachers who reap rewards. Of course, there's potential financial gain for Microsoft and Thomson, which is trying to get a leg up in the future of textbooks and learning materials, as well as for the university. (Final costs for launching the program weren't available.)

Should the Tablets prove to be a hit, they'll be sold at the campus bookstore, giving the school a healthy profit. Whatever hardware manufacturer is chosen to participate will likely benefit as well. "Just about every university is doing deals with IBM (IBM) or Apple (AAPL)," says Alan Promisel, an IDC analyst. "[All the computer makers] want to see their products in college bookstores."

Edward Ayers, dean of UVA's College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, couldn't be more enthusiastic about the Tablet's prospects. "There hasn't been anything this powerful for classrooms since PowerPoint," he says. High praise, indeed. By Diana Middleton in New York

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