I've already given a general critique of why tablets should not be used in schools in Too cool for secondary school: why tablets should NOT be used in education, but there is one issue that gets to the heart of the matter. Typing, text and data manipulation is important in learning. Many learners will be expected to write, edit and input data, not only while they learn but also when using computers at work or at home for leisure. If tablets make you write sloer, edit slower, even alter the way you write down to shorter sentences, they may actually inhibit this important dimension in learning. As you progress through the education system you are expected to write more, in more styles and to a higher standard. Given the increased use of tablets in secondary schools and universities, we must also ask whether typing is better on touchscreens or keyboards. Are we missing the fact that touchscreens may inhibit or even damage this dimension in learning?
Research comparing touchscreen with physical keyboards goes back over 20 years has consistently shown that touch screens produce slower and less accurate performance when compared with physical keyboards; Barrett & Krueger, 1994; Wilson, Inderrieden, & Liu, 1995; Schneiderman (1998); Ryall (2006); Hinrichs (2007). Benco (2009) at the University of Washington’s Information School, with Microsoft Research, showed accidental touches and a 31% lower typing speed (or 20 words per minute faster). But there’s even more bad news.
1. No feel for keys and boundaries
As there is no feel for key and keyboard boundaries, it is difficult to gauge when you have found the right key, especially at speed, so you can’t make small adjustments. This has been found to lead to slower typing speeds and higher error rates. With no haptic or tactile feedback through a physical keyboard, you fail to feel key and keyboard boundaries.
2. Slow visual checks
You also require visual checking while you type, which slows down typing speed and increases error rates. Barrett (1994) claimed that touchscreens “pale in effectiveness” when compared to physical keyboards, largely because of the lack of feedback and need to visually check the touch keyboard. In learning, you want students to focus on the text and tasks not typing.
3. No home row anchor
‘Home row’ resting means that typists can rest their hands on a physical anchor, the lowest row of keys, to help them calibrate their finger movements when typing. They can then look at the screen without interruption to increase speed, reduce error rate and more importantly, focus on the writing task – meaning , expression and so on.
3. Text editing slow and difficult
A cursor, operated by a mouse or fingerpad is pixel accurate compared to a finger, which makes highlighting, cutting, copying and pasting more difficult and more prone to error. This causes real problems when doing pieces of even basic writing, where learners have to learn through failure and do lots of error correction, rewriting and reordering of words of prose. In more complex pieces of writing it becomes critical. The danger is that touchscreen keyboards, being more difficult to use, hamper progress and limit skills progression in writing.
4. Inappropriate for high-level tasks
Some learning tasks, such as coding, require large amounts of character editing, and would be severely restricted on touchscreen. Mathematics quickly requires high-level symbol manipulation. Additionally, when it comes to creative tools such as graphic, audio and video media creation and manipulation, progress is quite literally impossible with touchscreen. Fingers may also obstruct text that is being manipulated.
5. Tilt matters
Typing on a surface that is flat also brings problems. A notebook or laptop screen sits up at an angle from the keyboard. This angle is typically between 100 and 120 degrees. You may not have noticed but when you go into an Apple store every Macbook is at exactly the same angle. Employees use Simplify Angle, an iPhone app, to measure this angle of elevation when they open the store!
A device that has the keyboard at a 180 degree angle to the produced text is a problem as it leads to awkward lean forward positions or requires the addition of a special add-on, at extra cost, to tilt the tablet. Even then you have to hold your hands in the air and this leads to fatigue, which may result in less produced work and limit the amount of effort the learner will put into a piece of written or other work.
6. Detracts from sustained use
Morris (2010) claims that touchscreens, compared to physical keyboards, puts a brake on sustained use. For learning professionals this is a real worry as students may stop prematurely or reduce performance in a writing task, simply because of the limitations of the input device.
7. Alters linguistic style
Touchscreen may even alter style of expression, Wigdor (2007). It may limit experimentation, more complex sentences and playing around with vocabulary and style, all tasks which are important for skills development. This is even more worrying. Of course, physical keyboards can be added to tablets but at extra cost and one could argue that this just reinforces the argument for buying a notebook or laptop in the first place.
We can use this evidence to identify the point in education where learning may become inhibited, if not damaged, by tablet use. Note that this is not a fatal objection to the use of tablets in education. It is, however, a severe warning about their appropriateness for deeper and mature learning that involves even modest amounts of writing, note taking, data input, use of mathematical notation, image, audio and video manipulation, coding and so on. The danger is that we are being lulled into believing that tablets are appropriate by qualitative reports from students (who let’s be honest don’t mind doing less!). What’s needed is more hard-headed research, not on attractiveness but on attainment.
Morris, M.R., Lombardo, J., Wigdor, D. 2010. Search: Supporting Collaborative Search and Sensemaking on a Tabletop Display. Proc. CSCW 2010, 401-410.
Benko, H., Morris, M. R., Brush, A.J.B., Wilson, A.D. 2009. Insights on Interactive Tabletops: A Survey of Researchers and Developers. Microsoft Research Technical Report MSR-TR-2009-22.
Wigdor, D., Penn, G., Ryall, K., Esenther, A., Shen, C. 2007. Living with a Tabletop: Analysis and Observations of Long Term Office Use of a Multi-Touch Table. Proc. Tabletop 2007, 60-67.
Hinrichs, U., Hancock, M., Collins, C., Carpendale, S. 2007. Examination of text-entry methods for tabletop displays. Proc. Tabletop 2007, 105-112. “Text entry a major deficiency in multiple studies”
Ryall, K., Forlines, C., Shen, C., Ringel Morris, M., Everitt, K. 2006. Experiences with and Observations of Direct-Touch Tabletops. Proc. Tabletop 2006, 89-96.
Barrett, J., & Krueger, H. (1994). Performance effects of reduced proprioceptive feedback on touch typists and casual users in a typing task. Behavior & Information technology, 13, 373-381.
Wilson, K.S., Inderrieden, M., & Liu, S. (1995). A comparison of five user interface devices designed for point-of-sale in the retail industry. Proceedings of the Human Factors & Ergonomic Society 39th Annual Meeting, 39, 273-277.
Shneiderman, B. (1998). Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human Computer Interaction. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.