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Tablet PCs required for Virginia Tech engineers

Microsoft may not be able to sell the masses on tablets, but it is getting them into the hands of some students. Photos: Fujitsu LifeBook

This fall, incoming freshmen at Virginia Polytechnic Institute's engineering school will be given tablet PCs--and will be required to use them in class, the school has announced.

As part of a new partnership with Fujitsu Computer Systems and Microsoft, Virginia Tech will be using new Fujitsu LifeBook T4000 computers to change the way its engineering classes are taught, particularly at the introductory level, the school said. It will be among the first engineering schools to institute such a requirement.

Fujitsu LifeBook

The LifeBook offers features typical of what is known as a "convertible" tablet. With a few rotations of the screen, the computer morphs from a conventional-looking laptop with a keyboard to a flat tablet that can be written on with a stylus. Engineering students at Virginia Tech will be able to take notes and construct designs on their LifeBooks, which are intended to make it easier for students to collaborate with each other and share their work with instructors electronically.

Back in 1984, Virginia Tech's engineering school required incoming students to own a personal computer. Now, using new technology to enhance students' academic experiences is more commonplace. Schools such as Stanford University and Brown University are putting their lectures on iTunes. And Duke University famously gave free iPods to all freshmen beginning in the fall of 2004.

But while the iPod is a trendy, versatile gadget that is as much a part of students' recreational lives as their academic careers, the tablet PC is a niche item that has been somewhat slow to take off. Virginia Tech, in conjunction with Fujitsu and Microsoft, will be providing training this summer so that faculty can adjust to using the machines in classroom presentations, the school said. The software that will be used includes Microsoft Office OneNote, SketchUp and Classroom Presenter.

The university's computing ambitions go beyond laptops: For a short time in 2003, its Mac-based supercomputer (known as "Big Mac") was the third most powerful in the world.