The Microsoft Surface as a Productivity Device

One of the things that intrigues me most about personal productivity is the idea of designing efficient and effective workflows. By this I mean developing common sets of processes to accomplish different tasks. For example, I often need to read and comment on my students’ writing. In the past, I relied on printing their work and marking it up with a pen. I would then pass these back the following week in class. This worked fairly well for me and my students, except for three issues:

  1. My writing is terrible – I even had trouble translating my own writing when students couldn’t read my chicken scratch
  2. This process delayed my getting comments back to students in a timely manner – particularly on rough drafts that they hoped to revise prior to submitting the work
  3. Unless I made photocopies of the commented work, I didn’t have a record of comments I’d given them at different stages of the process – a problem with a major piece of writing like a dissertation proposal that goes through many revisions

So, these issues were frustrating enough that I was determined to plan a better workflow.

To mitigate these concerns, I began to use the robust commenting features built in to Microsoft Word. Between highlighting snippets of text, tracking changes, and adding comments in the margins, I was able to replicate the same kind of process without some of the challenges inherent in working with paper/pen.

When the iPad was released several years ago, I began an experiment in trying to shift this workflow to a tablet device. I loved the lightweight form factor and ability to read the work more like a document on a table in front of me instead of reading on a vertical screen of my laptop or desktop. I was especially jazzed about the idea of being able to add hand drawn comments and scribbles via a capacitive stylus. Fortunately, a number of robust PDF editing apps were developed for the iPad. I so wanted to figure out and enjoy this workflow, but after two years of near constant exploration, I ran into some new (and old) workflow challenges.

  1. I had to convert every piece of student writing to a PDF file, then either email it to myself or save it to Dropbox in order to access it on the iPad
  2. It was often even more difficult to get the commented documents off the iPad and back to the students
  3. Using the capacitive stylus to leave handwritten comments made my poor handwriting even more difficult to read.

Essentially, with the iPad I introduced even more problems to my workflow than in either of the first two approaches.

When I began working with the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) project, I had the opportunity to explore a range of Microsoft software, tools, and devices. About two months ago I received a Surface RT and began to explore this as an iPad alternative. It didn’t take me long to realize that the Surface is an entirely different device than an iPad. While the iPad is an excellent consumption and entertainment device (my kids love using it for all kinds of activities), trying to use it as a real productivity device was a constant headache for me.

Here’s what the workflow looks like on the Surface.

  1. I either save my students Word documents to a Dropbox or Skydrive folder (or set it up so that the students can upload files there directly)
  2. I open them up in the full version of Word (that’s included for free on the Surface RT) and use the full set of track changes, comment options, etc. to mark up the documents
  3. I can use the same capacitive stylus with the writing recognition tool built in to the device and it does an amazing job of translating my chicken scratch into crisp, clear typed text
  4. I simply save the file and send it back.

The addition of this one device has literally transformed the way I can provide students with feedback on their writing. The workflows I use with the Surface are not only way more robust and simpler than the iPad, I actually find that this 2 pound device has replaced my laptop and desktop for all but a few key functions. The best part is that not only can I develop these workflows easily, I actually look forward finding new opportunities to use this productivity tablet.