GRAPHICS TABLETS: AN ALTERNATIVE TO MARKING BY KEYBOARD
Example of graded paper (pdf document)
Everyone is aware that the “broadband wave” makes it possible to integrate sound and video with traditional text-heavy materials in order to transform online instruction into a true multimedium for the first time. Less attention has been given to the fact that efficient transmission of large data files also facilitates other, less glamorous, applications that have existed for years but have not been practical for most internet users. Graphic marking and annotation of student papers is one such application.
The majority of instructors who receive and return papers electronically seem satisfied with the change-tracking and comment features in Word and other major word processing programs. Given the complexity (and expense) of such programs, it is not surprising that so few faculty members want to get involved in mastering yet another marking solution. A few instructors have chosen inexpensive, dedicated marking programs such as “Markin” and “Error Analyzer,” although most faculty are not even aware that such shareware programs exist. In any case, all of these approaches suffer from certain limitations associated with “marking by keyboard.” For example, it is not always easy to distinguish the student’s original text from the instructor’s annotations and corrections because both share the same typographical conventions. And if the instructor tries to highlight the differences typographically, then the entire text appears fussy and may even be hard to read.
Other limitations of marking by keyboard include the impossibility of making marginal comments or using proof-reader’s marks, not to mention an instructor’s own idiosyncratic graphic marks and symbols, to which many of us are extremely partial. Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of keyboard marking/annotation is the fact that using arrows (or other graphic symbols) to suggest how phrases, sentences or paragraphs might be appropriately re-ordered is extremely cumbersome and slow—assuming that one is even willing to learn how to use them within a word-processing program.
Some faculty find that the whole process of marking papers that have been submitted and received electronically is much more time-consuming because they first download the essay, then print it out on paper for easier and more careful reading, and then read it with a pen or pencil in hand before returning to the electronic version to make their annotations and comments on the screen.
The possibility of graphic marking using free form annotations has been explored for many years with varying degrees of success because there have always been obstacles affecting both usability and expense. The ideal solution would obviously consist of a horizontal screen (LCD monitor) displaying the student’s essay on which the instructor could write with an electronic “pen” with the same ease as applying a pencil to paper. Such a solution has been very slow to arrive on the market and, in the case of the Wacom Cintiq, at a prohibitive price ($1800). Tablet computers also seem to be a luxury item for most faculty at the present time, although they may become standard in the future.
With support from the Center For Excellence in Learning Technology (CELT) at The College of Staten Island, we experimented with two graphic tablets, an AceCAD Flair (5”x3.75”) and a Wacom Intuous2 (6”x8”). The Wacom is certainly the better of the two, with a far better software driver, pen and writing surface. The price difference between the two tablets is significant. The AceCAD retails for about $35, while the Wacom costs around $270. Since these are really niche products, their price drops don’t necessarily follow the price declines of other PC peripherals.
Although the Wacom Intuous user cannot write on top of a screen displaying the student’s document (as with the Cintiq or a tablet PC), the surface of this middle-range graphic tablet is sufficiently well-mapped to the computer screen that one quickly learns to use the stylus as a more precise mouse to mark up what is displayed vertically on the computer monitor’s screen. And, as in using a conventional mouse, the key to successful manipulation is to look only at the screen and operate the stylus by touch.
Wacom tablets come in a wide range of sizes from 4 x 5 to 12 x 18, but we found that the 6 x 8 model is appropriate both in terms of its mapping to a standard size computer screen and also in terms of portability. This size fits easily into a briefcase along side a laptop PC and connects easily to any WIN or MAC machine via a USB port. Wacom’s documentation is excellent and the software is easy to install from a CD.
We first used the tablet with Adobe Acrobat as our display software. This is an excellent program in terms of its ease of annotation. The main disadvantage is that each of the student files has to be converted (“printed”) from a standard word-processing software format to Portable Document Format (PDF) before being annotated—a substantial cost in time given a class of twenty-five students! It also means that each instructor has to have access to the full Acrobat program, which is very memory-intensive, although not (for those of us at CUNY) expensive due to a site license. And although relatively easy to learn, and adaptable to either Windows or Macintosh environments, the annotation features in Acrobat are better suited to photos and layouts than to standard text pages. Its cross-hairs style cursor is distracting.
While experimenting with Acrobat, we searched the internet for programs that would allow us to make annotations within Word documents so that the extra stepof “printing” each file to PDF format could be eliminated. Of the two programs that we were able to find and try out, PenOffice and Meander’s Annotator, the latter provided the greater functionality for our purpose and the price was right—$17.95 for a single license! Unlike PenOffice, which includes handwriting recognition and some other memory-intensive features, Meander’s Annotator (Annotator) is a small, single-focus program that does only one thing and does it well.
If students use a variety of different word-processing packages within a single class, it probably makes more sense to use Acrobat as the graphic software package. But where Word is the standard (as at The College of Staten Island) Annotator provides the most viable software solution for use with graphic tablets (and Tablet PCs). With Annotator, the instructor can mark up the students’ texts without converting files and the students can view the annotations in their word-processor without the need for any additional software or plug ins.
The primary requirement for any type of computer based scribal input is that it mimics paper and pencil as closely as possible. With that in mind, Annotator is very useable with a minimal learning curve. One only needs to learn the correlation between the graphic tablet’s coordinates and those of the computer screen.
Once downloaded from the Internet, Annotator appears within Word along with other tool bars at the top of the screen. Using the stylus (pen) as a mouse, it is possible to easily select from among a range of options in terms of line width and color. Erasing is not as intuitive as on a PDA, but it is easily mastered. Annotator’s cursor, a simple dot about the size of a period, seems more intuitive and natural than the corresponding feature of competing programs. We also found that Annotator’s lines more clearly approximate the look of lines drawn with an actual pen or pencil.
A major limitation of graphic annotation software has been that the annotations are not anchored to the text. When, for any reason, the text is altered after being annotated, the annotations will no longer synchronize perfectly with the revised text. In other words, the annotations are like an overlay. If the underlying layer of text is changed, it no longer lines up with the upper layer containing the graphic elements. Although the version of Annotator used for the illustration for this paper shared this limitation, the latest version of the software does indeed anchor annotations with text—a major upgrade, in our view.
We tested Annotator on several different PCs, ranging from a high-end desktop running WinXP to an older laptop with Win98. We found that with the faster CPU, the lag between writing on the screen and when the annotation became “embedded” in the document was noticeable, but still usable. Another problem was the graphic tablet’s pen button which is set as the ‘right mouse button.’ We chose to disable this function as it interfered with the usability of the software. One of the few shortcomings of Annotator currently is its erase functions. At present, it only removes a character or a pen stroke at a time, rather than just a small portion. This encourages the user to make all comments in block lettering, so as not to have to erase a whole word at a time.
Another issue that must be kept in mind is that files containing annotations tend to be quite large compared to standard word-processing files--approximately 100 K for each page of annotated text. For this reason, both faculty and students require a broadband connection for exchanging files and considerable free storage space on their respective computers.
Students at The College of Staten Island have been receptive to our use of graphic annotation, especially in Freshman Composition where extensive line-by-line marking is often appropriate. They also appreciate seeing our marks and comments in the margins and in between the lines of a double-spaced essay, which is the way they expect a marked essay to look. With this approach, further, there are no pop up comments that obscure the student’s text.
The day when it feels as natural and easy to write on a screen as on paper has not yet arrived. Still, it seems to us that the current generation of graphic tablets offers a viable alternative to marking by keyboard. Graphic tablets also provide a cost-effective alternative to Tablet PCs for those who have already purchased a desktop or laptop.
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