Tablets in the enterprise: Some teachable moments

One day a teacher walked into the staff lounge at St. Andrew’s College and started raving to a colleague about the class she just had. The students were really engaged by the discussion, which was fuelled in part by the links she had forwarded to their mobile computers. They had started recording one other’s comments and learned a lot before their time was up.

The teacher stopped in the middle of her story and looked again at her colleague. “I guess what I’ve just said must be really complimentary to you.”

It was. The colleague in question was Steve Rush, IT director at St. Andrew’s and the person who has helped usher in the pervasive use of tablets across Canada’s largest all-boys boarding school.

“She was really excited by what she accomplished as a teacher,” said Rush, who detailed the elements of his strategy at the Canadian launch of Fujitsu’s Q550 tablet in Toronto. “The future is tablets. Nothing I’ve rolled out since 2003 has been adopted as quickly by teachers as this technology.”

The student adoption rate has been significant too. St. Andrews – which was founded in 1899, is based in Aurora, Ont. and teaches about 600 boys from grades five through 12 – has made the Fujitsu tablet its standard device for all students. The school was a relatively late adopter to laptop programs, according to Rush, beginning in 2002 with the advent of Microsoft Windows XP, 11 Mbps Wi-Fi and better battery life.

“We have great teachers and we didn’t demand that they implement (the devices),” he said. “We let it grow organically.”

But Rush, who also teaches computer science at the school, is confident enough in how the program works that St. Andrew’s is holding an invitation-only event for 20 educators to tour its classrooms next month, where they will learn more about its tablet strategy. At the Fujitsu event, he offered some object lessons that other IT professionals should employ.

First period: Anthropology

Rush said that while laptops were quickly adopted in English and history classes where they were easily able to obtain relevant data online, it didn’t work in others. “Math teachers can’t type in class,” he pointed out. Nor, at the time, did mobile computers really fit into the curriculum for modern language classes.

What it came down to, eventually, was a realization that laptops don’t necessarily bring students and teachers closer together. “In a meeting, the screen is often a real barrier between people,” he said. “We insist in meetings that people flip (tablets) around so they’re flat.”

Your assignment: The way we hold devices is creating a whole new kind of body language. Watch how people really work and how tablets could help (or hinder) the way teams or individuals interact.

Second Period: Creative Writing

Rush is a big fan of OneNote, which he calls the best-kept secret in Microsoft Office. He uses it with the digital ink-enabled tablet to either take notes by hand or, for more professional communication, type them. Students, meanwhile, are given electronic versions of textbooks on their tablet hard drives which are integrated with the application so if they are studying physics, for example, the graphs or notes they take can tied directly to their study materials.

“There were teachers who felt guilty having students buy a textbook and only using a few chapters,” he said, adding one teacher essentially built his own textbook by aggregating material from various Web sites. “And the student will build on these books with the notes they take in class.”

Your assignment: How can you take the kind of tasks that knowledge workers do today on devices like a tablet and bring it closer to the primary sources of data they need? If you can do it without having to create a new process but build upon a familiar one, you’re a star student.


Although St. Andrew’s has a firewall in place to block any inappropriate content on the tablets, Rush admits that students are still kids and are occasionally caught playing games or surfing other sites in class. They are reprimanded and penalized as appropriate.

“We try to treat it like any professional environment and ask that they respect the rules,” he said. Usage policies are clearly stated and communicated to parents as well. However St. Andrews encourages students to treat the tablets as their personal as well as a professional devices. That’s why it was important to have it equipped with a good graphics card that will allow them to enjoy high-quality gaming as well as use multimedia for studying.

Third Period: Economics

Rush realizes that a private school has some advantages over public ones, but he sees real potential for similar devices to make their way to everyday educational institutions.

“I think about calculators, which used to fill an entire room, and now every student can carry one around,” he said. Also, when you look at the cost of textbooks, which can run thousands of dollars, how much of that cost is offset by using a tablet device that can carry a library’s worth of more reasonably priced online materials?

Your assignment: Innovate around your costs by looking at existing expenses that might be curtailed or eliminated by fostering a more mobile, online workforce.

Fourth Period: Phys Ed

Boys will be boys, which mean even expensive tablets occasionally get damaged. “Of course when it happens, it’s never anyone’s fault,” joked Rush, whose staff deals with any potential hardware or software repairs and aims to get most problems resolved within about an hour. The important thing is that students have complete wireless access wherever they go, including the squash courts or open spaces near a building.

Your assignment: Assess the kind of journeys tablets might take in your organization and the physical risks they could encounter. Then give your IT department a pre-emptive report card on how capable it would be to deal with any of the most severe accidents.

Extra credit: If you manage to deploy tablets successfully in your organization, don’t be shy about trumpeting the results. Besides inviting peers in the education field to see what St. Andrews has accomplished, full details of the school’s technology strategy is outlined on the school’s Web site. In St. Andrew’s case, it’s a great way to attract potential students and their parents. In other organizations, it might be a great way to attract new talent.

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Shane Schick
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