But first, I should acknowledge that I'm going to grossly (for the moment) set aside an even bigger question: is there a place for any technology in the modern classroom at all? What about students goofing off? What about cheating? Briefly, there are at least a few reasons to think we should have technology in the classroom.
First, many employers expect students to be able to use technology, so why wouldn't we incorporate it into our training? I'd like to advocate for my own personal philosophy on goofing off and cheating: there is a proud tradition of students doing both that goes back well before transistors were invented. Frankly, on balance I'll be happier if students are either goofing off or cheating as long as they're doing it while demonstrating proficiency with a modern technological tool.
Beyond the miscreants, what about the potential positive benefits of technology in the classroom? The widely-cited American Association of Colleges & Universities' 2013 Employer Survey revealed the following statistic: 95% of employers "prioritize hiring college graduates with skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace." Let's have students who are preparing to enter (or re-enter) the workforce do so with a solid grasp on technologies that will help them help their profession innovate!
Also, "teamwork skills," which in today's marketplace often involves digital teamwork skills (remote meetings, collaborative digital work, etc.), is listed in the top two "Intellectual and Practical Skills" sought by employers, along with oral communication. Having faculty incorporate technology in the classroom through group exercises, in order to foster digital interactions, will be a great help to students who will need to
So yes, technology has a useful and valid role to play in the classroom. Without a doubt, the focal question of this post ("Why tablets?") often comes from individuals who would prefer a laptop in the classroom. Or, perhaps a smartphone. An important balance to consider here is cost vs. capability. Although smartphones are relatively inexpensive, many (most?) are impractical for use in the classroom, partly because of limiting keyboard and interactive functionality. Smartphones definitely have a use in the classroom - I've had students use them to great success in many situations (like responding to multiple-choice surveys), but they're not particularly flexible in the tasks they can perform.
On the other end of the spectrum, laptops have a clear benefit: power and flexibility. They can run all of the computer programs that have, well, been designed to run on computers. They have lots of memory and fast processors. Most now have wireless internet cards built-in. For most brands, they're significantly more expensive than tablets. Employers expect students to use them! They have full keyboards and a trackpad for input. Most have built-in cameras.
Tablets sit in a useful middle ground: they're relatively inexpensive, but not very powerful. They can all access the internet, and all are relatively small and lightweight. They fit nicely on a variety of college classroom desks or can be hand-held. Bluetooth or connected keyboards are available and inexpensive for those who don't like to use a touchscreen keyboard. Critically, they can access the internet via cellular service, so they're vastly more useful for students who need internet access off campus (e.g. while commuting or at home). Although some tablet brands don't run commercially available "programs," many apps are free or relatively low cost.
Ultimately, integrating technology into the classroom should be a response to addressing existing issues with the best possible tool. In some cases, that tool might be a smartphone, tablet, or computer. All of these technologies can make important steps in the classroom. For example, incorporating tablets in the classroom has helped me go green (with less paper used for assessment).
A clear benefit unique to the tablet is the touchscreen, which enables me to receive student feedback during class in useful ways that were not possible with laptops or with paper. This often takes place as a PDF annotation exercise: I distribute a blank PDF (almost-blank, anyway: usually containing the date and the course number), and then ask each student to draw or diagram something I'm assessing their understanding of. For example, once this was a drawing of the student's family tree. I have never asked students with laptops to do this exercise because it seems like it would take longer, but with a tablet, drawing something with a fingertip is so easy to do. Students then send me their creations in class, where I can collect them, digitally flip through them, and determine whether there are concepts (or, rather, alternative concepts) that I need to address on the spot. This also works very well for concept maps. Below is an example of an extensively-annotated PDF exercise I distributed in one of my classes, where I provided the DNA sequence of a model gene and the students needed to understand how to find various elements of that gene.
Although I did already say that laptops do have built-in cameras, the ones on tablets are just so much more useful! Tablets in the classroom means additional ways to engage students. In my current tablet class, Applied Bioethics, we have two case studies we discuss each week. To help students understand various points of view, each week the student groups who present the case studies have to solicit the opinions of faculty. With tablets, instead of just having groups read the written responses of faculty, we've had some faculty video interviews presented to us during class.
With the integration of built-in cameras, tablets are also really useful in the classroom when in the hands of faculty as well. This is how I'm able to record and post the in-class content I deliver as YouTube videos, which my data suggest is really improving student outcomes in the classroom. It just wouldn't be feasible to walk around the classroom holding a laptop and using it to record my voice while controlling an on-screen presentation. Tablets have the right blend of portability and power; form and flexibility; cost and capability. If it absolutely has to be one-size-fits-all, I'll take a tablet.