Benefits of Using Convertible Tablet PCs for Tax Instruction

By J. David Mason, CPA, Ph.D., and D.J. Kilpatrick, CMA, Ph.D.

Editor: Annette Nellen, J.D., CPA, CGMA

A major issue in tax education, for both instructors and students, is how to deal with the challenges and innovations of teaching and learning tax—in particular, those involving technology. This column looks at the benefits of using a convertible tablet PC to teach tax concepts, whether in academia, in-house training, or continuing education. A convertible tablet PC not only makes the instructor's job easier, but it can also improve the active learning experience of students. In addition, a convertible tablet PC may make in-house training more economical and feasible even for small CPA firms that use their own in-house experts.

Convertible Tablet PCs and Related Software

A convertible tablet PC is both a fully functional laptop computer and a sophisticated tablet device. An example is the Fujitsu Lifebook T902 Tablet PC. When a convertible tablet PC is opened as a laptop, the user can access the internet or use any software loaded onto it. By pivoting the screen 180 degrees and laying it flat, one can use the device and others like it, as a tablet computer, since the screen has both stylus and touch capabilities.

A software program makes using the touchscreen and pen input features of the tablet straightforward and efficient. With such software, virtually any file type (including Microsoft Word, Power­Point, and Excel) may be converted to annotation (writable) capabilities. Multiple PDF files can be opened in separate windows. Annotated files may then be saved for later use. The annotations may be subsequently erased or permanently incorporated into the PDF file. For example, PowerPoint slides, the Internal Revenue Code, recent cases and rulings, and blank pages can all be opened for reference or annotation as needed. This capability allows the instructor to open and organize all files prior to class in his or her office, if so desired.

Additional software, e.g., Camtasia, may be used to record both the audio and visual components of the delivery, including all the screen activity of the computer, in sync with the classroom lecture and discussion. This allows the presentation to be available as a self-study course or as review material for students who attended the class. The presentation can also be prerecorded and made available for professional staff on a self-study basis.

A legitimate question is why a convertible tablet PC is superior to other, more traditional delivery methods such as a whiteboard, easel pads, etc. This column identifies six dimensions on which to compare the tablet with other teaching tools.

Six Dimensions on Which to Evaluate the Tablet

Face-to-face exchanges: For effective teaching, the classroom must permit students to be involved in the experiential teaching process. This suggests that the classroom environment should improve communication and support two-way interactions, with no visual obstructions between students and the instructor. Projecting the presentation materials on a screen behind the instructor, for example, does not detract from the face-to-face classroom experience. However, when writing on a whiteboard, the instructor turns away from the students. Thus, if an instructor uses a whiteboard extensively for illustration/problem-solving, as often is required in tax instruction, the face-to-face exchange is compromised.

Extensive presentation capabilities: The multifaceted nature of tax instruction may require instructors to refer to a variety of resources during a training session or class. For example, when applying the law to fact patterns, they may need to refer to the relevant statutes, various primary and secondary interpretations of the statutes, cases dealing with similar fact patterns, and the fact pattern itself. The instructor may also want to refer to handouts, software, and internet applications (e.g., Excel, PowerPoint, and tax research services). A classroom that is technologically equipped to permit presentation of these various sources as they are referred to will complement the delivery.

In addition, because teaching tax often involves complex and/or interrelated topics, referring back to previous topics is often necessary. A computerized classroom makes this easy because of the computer's ample storage and powerful search capabilities. A negative example would be the whiteboard, due to space constraints—i.e., the prior topic must be erased from the whiteboard to make room for the current topic.

Visibility of presentation materials: In a training environment, it is best to present materials in a way that allows them to be seen simultaneously by the instructor and the students. A projection device allows the instructor and students to see the material as it is being presented. Prepared handouts can also provide this visibility, but they are not necessary, given the availability of technology for display and storage.

Unrestricted annotation capabilities: Perhaps the most important criterion for effective learning is a classroom environment in which the instructor and students can experience the education process together. Whether the instructor is applying tax knowledge to fact scenarios or using illustrations or flowcharts to demonstrate various concepts, the environment must enable him or her to work through the process with the students and allow them to experience the concepts simultaneously. A classroom environment that does not accommodate instructor annotation of the presentation materials is a serious impediment. If the instructor can work through the solution or proof as the students similarly work through it, they are all truly engaging in the learning experience together.

Freedom to respond to classroom dynamics: An engaged class often asks questions. In response, the instructor may need to digress from the planned presentation to illustrate or elaborate on the point raised and then return to the prepared material. All such digressions require the instructor to present or annotate materials other than the planned presentation. A classroom environment that allows for this flexibility enhances the education experience.

Virtual access to classroom experience: Virtual access enables the instructor and students to have the classroom experience not just during the specified time but to also have access afterward to the materials that were used and developed during class. Virtual access is unrestrained by time or place.

Prior to the advent of modern technology, virtual or anytime access was cumbersome and expensive. However, advances in technology have led to improvements in the virtual accessibility of classroom materials, often in a cost- and time-efficient manner. Internet-enabled access can include audio and visual digital recordings of class sessions.

The Convertible Tablet PC Compared With Competing Delivery Methods

The comparison below offers a context in which to compare the tablet with other competing classroom delivery environments and tools. Some would argue that the tablet computer, in general, possesses the best features of its competition (i.e., whiteboards, overhead transparencies, and laptops) while overcoming many of their shortcomings. In addition, the tablet computer has some unique features that the alternatives lack.

Whiteboards/chalkboards/easels:­ The main benefit of whiteboards, chalkboards, or easels is their annotation capabilities. If multiple boards are in the classroom, the instructor can illustrate distinct concepts on each board, allowing students to compare and contrast them. This is an advantage over the single-slide limitations of other delivery methods such as a transparency device. The major limitation of whiteboards is directly related to their major advantage, namely, their annotation capabilities. Face-to-face exchanges are compromised when using a whiteboard because the instructor, when making annotations, needs to face the board rather than the students. Presentation capabilities are restricted (prepared handouts cannot be displayed), and virtual access to the classroom experience is impaired. This medium also does not allow instructors to incorporate technological tools, such as the internet or software programs. Finally, access to the annotations on the whiteboard terminates when the class ends; thus, virtual access to the classroom experience is limited to the note-taking proficiency of individual students.

Overhead transparencies: Transparency devices have the benefits of the whiteboard and overcome, at least partially, two of the limitations of whiteboards. Unlike whiteboards, the transparency machine permits the instructor to continue to have face-to-face interactions with students while annotating, since the instructor faces the class when writing on a transparency. However, the intense light of an overhead projector can impair face-to-face exchanges. In addition, transparencies represent a major improvement over whiteboards, as materials may be prepared in advance, with handouts provided to students. As with whiteboards, departures from planned material can be accommodated, within limits, by using blank transparencies to present additional illustrations and explanations. After they have been presented in the classroom, the annotated transparencies can then be scanned and posted on a classroom website, such as Blackboard, for virtual access outside the classroom.

Laptops: Laptops represent a major improvement over whiteboards and transparencies due to the computer's extensive presentation capabilities and, with a projector, visibility of presentation materials. (An alternative to the laptop is a classroom desktop computer installed in the lectern for the instructor's use.) A laptop also brings the benefits of computer technology into the classroom. This includes being able to incorporate self-prepared and/or adapted PowerPoint presentations provided by other authors into the learning experience. Similar to transparency use, prepared material (e.g., PowerPoint files) may be distributed to the class in advance as handouts for note taking. In addition, the laptop has nearly boundless presentation capabilities including access to multiple types of resources (e.g., online tax services, tax preparation software, and online video tutorials).

However, the greatest weakness of a laptop is its limited annotation capabilities. The instructor is not able to annotate freehand during the process (e.g., work problems, develop illustrations, complete handouts), thus impeding experiential teaching. To overcome this shortcoming, at least partially, reversion to a whiteboard with its attendant limitations becomes necessary.

The convertible tablet PC: The tablet overcomes the major limitation of a laptop as a classroom delivery method because of its versatile annotation capabilities. In addition, the convertible tablet PC incorporates most of the benefits of the other delivery methods, as well as overcoming many of their limitations.

The tablet is suitable for engaging in face-to-face exchanges while annotating (unlike whiteboards and transparency devices). Material presented in prior class sessions may be revisited in a subsequent class session, due to the tablet's vast presentation and storage capabilities. In addition, handouts may be prepared in advance, provided to students, and projected during class. The tablet screen can be split to show more than one slide simultaneously.

When students ask questions, the instructor can depart from the prepared presentation and address the question in a variety of ways. For example, he or she can open a new blank page on the tablet to work through the question with related annotations. In addition, other source documents, handouts, and internet resources can be accessed to address the question. The instructor's annotations on the tablet may be saved and then posted to the classroom website (or intranet for in-house training sessions).

With the appropriate software, such as Camtasia, the tablet can record both what is spoken in the class session as well as the corresponding annotations. Thus, the annotations are recorded in real time and synchronized with the audio. Once they are recorded, the sessions can be converted to a number of different video formats for subsequent publication.

Conclusion

Overall, a convertible tablet PC meets the above six criteria for evaluating classroom delivery methods: face-to-face exchanges, extensive presentation capabilities, visibility of materials, annotation capabilities, freedom to respond to classroom dynamics, and virtual access. Based upon the six criteria, it may be argued that a convertible tablet PC in tax education can complement and enhance the teaching of tax by its ability to simultaneously engage the instructor in the experience of teaching and the student in the experience of learning in a way that the other referenced delivery methods cannot replicate. In addition, the convertible tablet PC can assist any size CPA firm with meeting its continuing education requirements by providing an economical and efficient means of delivering professional in-house training, including archiving presentations for later use.

While the focus of this column is the use of tablet PCs for educational purposes, it is not too difficult to foresee the potential benefits for CPA firms in their day-to-day activities. The tablet's annotation capabilities can take the paperless office concept to the next level. A tablet PC would permit direct freehand annotating on any scanned document used in performing professional accounting services (and during the office review process). This can provide costs/benefits in terms of increased efficiency and decreased throughput time in performing professional services in a paperless office.   

Contributors

Annette Nellen is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif. She is a member of the AICPA Tax Division Tax Executive Committee and the Tax Reform Task Force. David Mason is an associate professor of accounting with the E. Craig Wall Sr. College of Business Administration at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. D.J. Kilpatrick is an associate professor of accounting with the College of Business and Public Policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage. For more information about this column, please contact Prof. Mason at jmason@coastal.edu.

 

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