As an added measure against malware, the U.S. Air Force Academy plans to implement health checks of tablets when cadets log on, says CIO Richard Mock.

Jun 10 2010

Tablet PCs Take Off at the U.S. Air Force Academy

The new devices expand the ability to use computers — in the classroom and on the go — when teaching across disciplines.

Just as desktop computers replaced typewriters, and electronic whiteboards have begun to supplant chalkboards, tablet PCs are taking the place of pen and paper in schools run by many federal agencies.

At places such as the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Defense Language Institute, as well as private and public schools across the nation, more and more students are showing up to class toting tablets. The appeal? The systems can be used across multiple disciplines. They are highly portable and interactive. Plus, add-ons and software let students customize the use of the tablet for their learning needs.

The adoption of new technology creates challenges, particularly when teaching students how to use systems wisely and ensuring that IT can protect the systems from attack — and the data from theft.

In every instance, the academy has found ways to mitigate these concerns, through special protective measures and training for users, says Richard Mock, CIO for the academy, which is in Colorado Springs, Colo.

It was at the urging of the Air Force Academy’s math faculty that the government military college first considered asking its students to use tablet PCs, Mock says. And now, four years later, all academy students use them as their primary computers. This fall, the 1,350 incoming cadets will be required to purchase Fujitsu LifeBook tablets through an academy-managed contract.

Teaching Aid

Unlike traditional notebook systems, pen-based portables are ideal for teaching subjects that use equations and symbols, such as math and chemistry, as well as languages that rely on non-Western characters (such as Arabic and Chinese) not found on standard keyboards, says Dave Berque, chairman of the Computer Science Department at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. More than a thousand DePauw students have used HP EliteBook tablets for at least one course over the past two years, he says.

“A lot of educational content doesn’t lend itself to the typed word,” says Berque. “Graphs in economics, molecules in chemistry, incline planes in physics — all of them can be sketched and drawn more readily than they can be typed.”

At the Defense Language Institute’s Foreign Language Center, tablets have proved especially useful for language instruction in Chinese, notes Su-Ling Hsueh, a language technology specialist for DLIFLC. Hsueh wrote her doctoral dissertation on the use of tablets at the center.

“Tablet PCs not only facilitate reading, listening and speaking ability, but also allow students to handwrite notes in the target language,” she notes.

“This capability enables students to focus on writing their characters with the precision needed for the tablet PC to recognize input. This is one of the tablet PC features that conventional laptop computers cannot replace.”

Depending on the software used, tablet PCs can offer other advantages, too.

At DePauw, tablets are equipped with DyKnow software that can record pen movements and play them back later — so students can study how an equation or a graph was actually constructed, Berque says. The software can also record audio, allowing students to replay class sessions, and instructors can send lecture notes directly to students’ machines, letting them spend more time participating in class and less time acting like “human Xerox machines,” says Berque.

An Education for IT, Too

But tablets also raise unique issues from an IT management perspective, such as extra wear and tear to the kinds of security concerns that come up with any portable machines.

“The cadets can be pretty hard on their machines,” Mock says. “There’s a relatively high incidence of spillage and breakage.” The systems have to be fairly sturdy for such an environment, he says.

Another concern, says DePauw’s Berque, are the styluses each machine requires for pen input. “Students accidentally stick the pens in their pockets, walk out and lose them,” he says. “These things cost $50 apiece. That’s an expensive mistake, though one that’s easily remedied by tethering the pen to the tablet PC.”

A thornier issue is edge security. Mock says cadets are free to bring their tablets off campus; they may also use them to access social media sites, such as YouTube and Facebook, provided they do it responsibly. But like notebooks, the tablets can expose the academy to a wide range of external system threats through mobile and recreational use.

The academy has set up a separate network solely for cadets and staff, and pushes antivirus software down to each tablet, but Mock acknowledges malware infections can still be a problem.

“It’s rare, but it does happen,” he says. To keep malware from spreading, the academy plans to install a virtual LAN to quarantine cadets’ machines until they’re up to date on all security patches.

Cadets have also lost machines, though Mock adds that the academy has had pretty good luck recovering them. When one can’t be found, cadets must pony up another $1,000 or so for a replacement unit.

Although students don’t have access to classified information, the biggest risk is the potential loss of personally identifiable information. Mock says the academy intends to implement a program to run compliance tests on tablets to check that they are free of malware and fully patched each time a user logs on to the network. At the moment, the academy is waiting for approval of a standard Air Force tool to do these health checks.

Another important requirement is creating a wireless network with enough reach and bandwidth to serve an entire campus. Though DLIFLC first began using tablets in 2007, it’s only now fully deploying its Wi-Fi network. Because of the increased use of streaming media and electronic blackboards, the language center had to boost its network bandwidth from 7 megabits per second to more than 70Mbps. But ultimately, it wants to reach 200Mbps to ensure throughput and eliminate latency.

A Whole New Classroom

The biggest challenge may be getting buy-in from instructors, says Ken Collura, director of school communications and instructional technologies for the Catholic Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. Many professors initially resist changing their teaching styles to meet the demands of the new technology, he says.

The three biggest roadblocks to implementing a tablet PC program in schools are “teachers, teachers and teachers,” Collura notes, adding that his was one of the first private school systems to deploy tablets.

“While students take to this interface quite naturally, it can be a dramatic change for instructors,” he says. “What you can’t do is buy 500 tablets, hand them out to students, and say, ‘Use these to take electronic notes, and that’s it.’ If it’s simply using a stylus and a screen instead of a pen and paper, it’s a waste of money. It must coincide with a change in pedagogy — a new way to engage and communicate within the classroom.”

<p>John Johnston</p>

More On