Laptops for Students


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I branched off the note taking into a College Application essay The Quest for the Perfect Notetaking Medium

This essay describes my experiences and thoughts on using computers in the classroom. It is based on both my experiences at Haverford High School, and the Pennsylvania Governor's Schools of Excellence in Information, Society & Technology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. In both of these learning institutions I describe my own use of both the provided laptop and my own machine. I also attempt to describe my observations of how others were using the provided machines.

During the second semester of 11th Grade Haverford High School participated in a PA state program called Classrooms of the Future. It was a program to get one laptop per student into HS classrooms. In addition, for the last month of school I carried my own Fujitsu T4220 tablet PC around. In addition, I used this laptop to take notes at Gov School. At Gov School, each student was issued their own laptop with full (unrestricted) access. This article is about my experiences with them.


Classrooms of the Future

The problem with the laptops is that they were per classroom. Since CoF was in 3 out of my 4 classes, I had a separate laptop in each. Each class took ~5 min to get and put away the laptops. In most classes, we did not use them at all. In every class except Biology, we only used the laptops for a certain task, say a web quest. A web quest consisted of a very boring task of going site to site, as written on the worksheet, in order to fill it out. It was totally boring. Teachers did not even really like giving those because of the large overhead of getting out the laptops. Many just gave this project because they had to "use the technology".


In Biology, we were allowed to use the laptops everyday to take notes. Most people just took notes in Microsoft Word. About half then printed them out for saving in a paper note book, and others amassed a collection of Word files on a flash drive.

Sure, some people played games on their computers or surfed Facebook. I did too in the beginning. (But I did less of it as I learned to control myself, and did even less when I had my tablet)

My Own Tablet with OneNote

With a month left in school, I purchased a Fujitsu T4220 tablet PC for $1,215 (it normally sells for over $2,000). I bought it for the Gov School in Technology I was going to in the summer. I decided to use the laptop as a mobile, note-taking machine and thus I tried not to load it down with too much software and hardware connections I would have to unplug each time I carried it.

In school, I carried the laptop everywhere - and specifically did not carry it in a case so it would be easily accessible. Even in Gov School, I gained the reputation for carring my laptop everywhere.

I did even less web surfing while the teacher was talking on my tablet. I think their are 3 reasons. First, it's physically harder to do multiple things at once on a tablet. Second, since I owned my tablet after having a CoF laptop in Biology for a few months, perhaps I had learned to discipline myself. But what I think is the most important distinction, is that I could conduct personal business and "surf the web" during my personal time, such as during lunch or in between classes.

It also helped me be more productive in my business too. I could send emails as they came in, instead of waiting for the end of the day to respond. This greatly closed the feedback loop, letting things happen much faster.

There were 2 problems which made the laptop less useful in school. The first was battery issues. The tablet has 3 hours of battery life. This is enough for 2 classes. Bit I am always nervous it will run out of battery. I suppose this is an unfortunate trade off. The school should provide better power access (see my experience at Gov School below). Secondly, the WiFi I had access to was only in half of the classrooms. This was a major bummer because I could not easily look stuff up online, like I did in Biology. The CoF machine ran off of a separate WiFi network - which was a problem because I would have to use it sometimes to access the internet.

OneNote Rocks!

Using OneNote to organize notes is awesome. I really grew to like OneNote. It allows you to import content from anywhere, annotate that content, and then organize and search it.

You can import content into OneNote by pasting it in, clipping a section of the screen, or using its virtual printer to "print" it into your notebook. For instance, my Biology teacher used a lot of PowerPoints. If she posted them online (which I had to ask her to do many times) I could input the PowerPoint slides directly into OneNote. I could then annotate them with ink (as described below). In addition, I could easily paste in research that I found online. I could then "scan" it as I was taught in World Cultures by Mr. Cobb. "Scanning" means highlighting important parts and writing notes in the margin which come to mind. This technique helps me read better.

In addition, with e-Notes, you can easily add things including more space to write. With paper, if you want to add a line between 2 lines you already wrote you have 3 options:

  1. cram it in - writing small and illegibly
  2. write it somewhere else and draw an arrow
  3. add it at the end and now your notes are out of order

With E-Notes you can rearrange and add notes, just like any document on the computer. You can also add space, for example with my "scanning" technique on paper I would have to cram my notes in the margin, on OneNote, I can add space between paragraphs and I have as much space as I want.

It is also easy to share notes with OneNote. For example, if someone missed a day of class, it is just 2 or 3 clicks to send them the notes. No need to track down a copy machine or transcribe them (which could be beneficial, however, if it forces you to read them)

The alternative for OneNote for many is to do each day's notes in Microsoft Word. The problem with this is that your notes are not organized and are scattered around in a bunch of Word files. With OneNote you can organize your notes into sections which are part of Notebooks. There is nothing to open, as everything is there. In addition, you can quickly search a section, notebook, or all notebooks for a keyword. With Word this is impossible, unless you use some sort of external desktop search.

Ink. Useful?

After talking with people at Gov School, I am recognizing that ink is more of a gimmick. I am using it less than when I first got my tablet. Writing is just so much slower than typing. Even web surfing feels faster with a mouse. Plus converting screen sizes was so slow with 1GB of RAM, so I avoided it. It's better now with 4GB of RAM, it's just that I am conditioned now not to convert modes.

When I am just taking notes, it is easier to type into OneNote. When I am surfing the internet I do it as a laptop. Perhaps I am just use to that.

However I use ink in 2 cases:

  • drawling diagrams
  • writing on PowerPoints and notes given by teachers "scanning".

It is just so much faster to draw anything. When I do sketches for GridView, I can draw in 30 seconds (and have it digitally stored) what would take me 5 min using draw tools.

In addition, when I get PowerPoints provided by teachers, or typed notes of some form, it is very helpful to be able to draw on top of them. First of all using existing notes lets me skip writing basic information and write more advanced notes. Plus being able to write on top of lets me add stuff without disturbing the original and lets me see where my notes stop and the given ones start.

In Psychology, the teacher handed out PowerPoints of each chapter in the beginning of the year. I did not have my tablet then, and I created this strategy of writing over PowerPoints on paper. The paper was a problem since I would often run out of space.

Gov School: Personal; Unrestricted Access

In Gov School each student was assigned a standard IBM laptop. It was an OK performer, and it was also a bit more on the thin and light side. We were also given unrestricted access to the machine (aka Admin access).

Many of the students installed games onto their laptops and AIM software. Unfortunately, during class, many used these programs instead of paying attention. A few professors asked the students to close their laptops because most were not paying attention to the class. I think that many people had trouble focusing on the classes, because the information was not relevant to them and most classes were not hands on. Many who spoke to me were really board by the classes because information was only covered in a overview PowerPoint style. In the 2 classes that were hands on, everyone was paying attention and using their laptops to follow along (this were tech classes).

One thing which made the classes' use of technology successful were that large powerstrips were given to each class. Each class was given 2 16 (or 20??) outlet powerstrips This let everyone nearby plug in their computers. These powerstrips work wonderfully when students are seated relatively close together in rows. If I were in charge of any deployments of computers in classroom I would most certainly require that these be purchased.

A few people also brought their own laptops to the program. Most, however did not, or left those computers in their rooms. Only I with my tablet and another student with his Mac (there were less Mac users than I expected) brought our own laptops to class in addition to the program laptop.

My Note Taking

The reason I purchased the tablet was to try out how to streamline my note taking for college and I thought the Gov School as a college precursor would be a good experience for me. I decided to do all electronic notes. This strategy is easier when most of the class is electronic, for instance, the professor gives out his or her notes or PowerPoints online, or if information from the internet needs to be added. For example, in Linux System Admin class, I imported tutorials from the internet into OneNote and highlighted the important steps and added notes in the margin. However, if the class gives out paper, it makes things harder. For instance, in UML/Systems Design class, the professor gave out his PowerPoints on paper. I found it is best to make the notes on top of the printed PowerPoint with a pen, and not make any notes in the computer, and then scan in the notes into my notebook at the end of the week. I realize that the scanning part is a major drag, however I've gotten better at it. I can scan about 50 page in an hour while also doing something else.

What I am trying to avoid is splitting my notes among paper and computer. I really want one centralized repository for my notes.

Some of the professors made their PowerPoints available and I wrote on top of them in OneNote. When notes were not given, I typed into OneNote.

Prof. Song, the UML/Systems professor at Drexel's Graduate School in Information Science said that I would "graduate suma cum laude from Harvard" due to the quality of my notes.


I carried around my N800 for most of 11th Grade. In school I used it mostly to keep up with email (reading and writing short emails) and checking things on the web, like the news. My use of it was hampered mostly by the very inconsistent WiFi connection at the school. In addition, the device was slow, especially the email.

At home I used it to access Hotmath to help me with PreCalc, and Spark Notes to help me as I read books for English 11. I also used it to take a break every 20 min or so by surfing the web, or do additional research on Wikipedia as I was taking notes for American Studies. It was convenient to be able to sit or lie anywhere in the house while doing homework. The device was just too slow and rendered many web pages wrong.

I have since sold my N800. The keeping up to date in school is replaced by the tablet, and I can now use the tablet around the house for Spark Notes or Hotmath (although the power of the tablet is more of a distraction). The only thing I miss is being able to read email on the go in a pocket-sized device. However, since the N800 only used WiFi, I could not download email on the go. I now want a Blackberry-like device, which can download email on the go and surf the web from anywhere. Those plans are expensive, however, around $70/month.