The Grand(ish) Experiment

There has been a lot of discussion at work recently about the future and how we’re going to embrace it. Specifically, a lot of the discussion has been around tablet computers and how the college is going to start using them.

There are a lot of people who hear the word “Tablet” and think “iPad”. This is understandable; while the iPad was far from the first tablet on the market, it was the first to really grab the attention of the general public and it’s probably safe to say that it’s the best known brand of tablet out there.

We looked very hard at the iPad and we also looked very hard at various Android tablets, Windows RT tablets and even some full blown Intel Windows tablets. We bought some of each and have found some good uses for them. For example, our Security teams have cellular enabled Nexus 7 tablets with which they can log onto our MIS System and identify students and check to see if they should be in lessons or not. Our Music department have been using iPads as music sequencers. To my considerable surprise, there are even some people who like the Surface RT, a device that I absolutely loathe. For the most part, people seem to like them because they have a desktop, keyboard and mouse and that they can use them for remoting onto a terminal server relatively easily. In other words, it seems to me that they like them because they’re like thin and light laptops.

In the end, we, perhaps rather predictably, decided to attempt to standardise on the full Windows tablets. This was because, primarily, iPads and the like are single user devices; the user “owns” the device, has their email/apps/documents/settings on there and woe betide anyone else who wants to use it. That’s OK if you’re got the budget to buy 2500 devices and assign one per member of staff and student but not so good if you want to buy classroom sets and have different people use them. Yes, you can put Office on an iPad but to use it effectively and save your documents, you have to sign the Office apps into Office 365 and you have to remind people to log out of it when they’re finished. It would only be a matter of time before someone gets to data they shouldn’t be able to get at.

With a full Windows device, we can join it to the domain. Different people can log on to it and get their own settings and documents. The device can be managed by standard management systems like ConfigMgr, KACE, Altiris or whatever else tickles your fancy. They can run standard Windows software on the desktop so you don’t have to get a whole load of new applications or retrain your users that much. Windows Enterprise has a very nifty feature called DirectAccess which acts as a transparent VPN connecting the user to the corporate network wherever they are as long as they have an internet connection. In addition, a lot of the Windows devices out there are “Hybrid” devices, they frequently come with or have optional keyboard docks so they convert into a almost standard laptop for when a user wants to do a lot of “conventional” work and despite the noise about the Modern environment, Windows is a good a tablet operating system as any other and it’s been improving steadily since Windows 8 first came onto the market. There is a lot of flexibility with Windows tablets which I’ve come to appreciate since I’ve started looking at them.

Using Windows does bring its own set of disadvantages; the only way to get “Modern” (i.e. touch friendly, tablet enabled) applications is through the Windows Store. The Windows Store is somewhat behind Apple’s and Google’s in terms of number and usefulness of apps. In terms of manageability, it’s way behind Apple’s app store. At the moment, there is no way to bulk-buy apps from there. Modern apps are installed in the User’s profile, not assigned to machines so anyone who wants a Modern app needs to either have a Microsoft account attached to their domain account or we need to obtain a sideloading key and get unsigned AppX packages from software publishers to push out to machines. I haven’t looked much at the latter option as I suspect the amount of companies willing to do that can be counted on one hand.

Anyway, despite the disadvantages being presented by Windows 8.1 and the Modern interface, we decided to use Windows tablets. We looked at the lines from various manufacturers and settled on the Dell Venue range. It is vast, it ranges from the small 8″ tablets going to 720p 10″ 32  bit Atom tablets to 1080p 64 bit Atoms to dual core Core Ms to Core i3s, i5s and i7s. You can get them with large amounts of storage and RAM. They also come with a standard range of accessories such as docking stations, keyboard docks, styluses and network cards. The styluses and NICs work with the entire range, the keyboards and the docking stations work with all of the 10″ tablets. The other advantage of choosing Dell as a manufacturer is that for their corporate lines at least, they tend to standardise on parts and accessories for a number of years which is attractive if you need to support a device for the long term.

So, we’ve selected our software platform and we’ve selected our hardware platform. The question has been, what exactly are we going to do with them? There have been various ideas proposed. The 8″ Venues are really nice devices, they perform relatively well for the spec, they’re light and they’re just the right size and weight to use in portrait mode and type on them. We’re considering using those as classroom machines to replace a load of god-awful Intel Classmate convertibles we bought a few years back. However, the idea that’s really caught the imagination so far is to replace all of the teacher’s computers with them.

At the moment, our college has a desktop PC in each classroom attached to an interactive whiteboard, projector, monitor, sometimes a visualiser, a keyboard and mouse. Each department also has a staff workroom where the majority of teachers either have a dedicated PC for them to work on or a space for them to work on a laptop issued to them by the college. The idea has been to issue a 10″ Venue to each member of staff, replace the classroom and workroom PCs with docking stations for the Dell Venues and take the laptops off those who have them. The teacher could come in a the beginning of the day, dock their Venue at their desk and do some work. When it’s time for a class, they undock the tablet and go to their class. Once they’re in the class, they dock the tablet again and they’re connected to their whiteboard, projector, visualiser and any other equipment they need. There would be no need for them to log in, they’d just wake the tablet up and unlock it. They would no longer be tied to a specific classroom if they need a special piece of software installed, they’d just take it around with them. With accessories like wireless projection systems such as WiDi or Miracast, they could have the interactive whiteboard software open on their tablet and wander around the room scribbling on their tablets with a stylus and still have what they’re working on displayed on the screen. They could go back to their desk and write on the whiteboard again. Then when they’ve finished the class, they could go back to their workroom, find a free space and dock again. If there is no free space, grab a keyboard dock and sit on an empty desk or a sofa. The idea has a lot of potential and the teachers that I’ve spoken to about it so far have seen the advantages.

So with this in mind, we have ordered some Dell tablets, one 7140 based on the Core M CPU and some refurbished 7139s based on a 1.6GHz Core i5. Both tablets have a 11″ 1080p screen, 4GB RAM and a 128GB SSD. We have ordered some Dell “Slim” tablet keyboards for them. We have also ordered and received a Dell “Mobile” tablet keyboard which is the same as the “Slim” except it has an additional battery in it and also a Folio keyboard. We have ordered a pair of docking stations and a couple of styluses. We want to give the idea a go with a few people and see how well it works.

So, what’s the big experiment you ask? Well, I think that it’s unfair that I hoist all of this stuff on teachers without trying it for myself first. I intend to use one of these tablets as my primary workstation for a couple of weeks and see how I get on. I’ll put the software that I need on it and see how it copes. While my workflow is completely different to a teacher’s, it’s probably reasonably safe to say that I put at least as much stress on a computer as a teacher does, possibly more. I’ll carry it around with me everywhere I go, take notes for any meetings that I go to on it and maybe even bring it home once or twice to see how well DirectAccess works. Then when I’ve done that, I’ll offload the setup onto someone else (possibly the college Principal, he’s expressed an interest and he’s one of the Surface RT proponents). I’ll write about my experience on this blog. I’ll talk about how well it performs, the good bits, the bad bits and everything else besides. I have to admit, I’m actually quite looking forward to this.



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