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A MacBook, or any laptop, is usually the default educational tool of choice for students but there are signs that our latter-day electronic versions of slates are making serious inroads in modern education.

Apple disclosed in February that it had sold more than 8m iPads directly to educational institutions worldwide, quite apart from the unquantified number sold to individual students.

With Android and Windows devices benefiting from updated operating systems and software, as well as student-friendly accessories such as digital pens, tablets are set to storm the bastions of education.

In terms of screen size, Apple recognised the popularity of the 7in category when it launched the iPad mini in October.

This size is easier to hold in one hand and makes for a better eReading experience of textbooks and other publications. Apple emphasised this with an update to its iBooks app for the launch.

The mini differentiates itself from the competition with a wider 7.9in screen that gives a noticeable expansion of the view of web pages and text on a page.

Such has been its popularity that Apple expects to sell 55m minis this year compared with 33m of its 9.7in iPads, according to the DisplaySearch research firm.

Samsung may feel Apple has been trespassing on its territory after it popularised the 7in size three years ago with its first tablet – the Galaxy Tab – and it hit back at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month with an 8in version of its Galaxy Note.

The Note 8.0 has the same intelligent S Pen as other Note sizes and offers features such as “reading mode” technology, which optimises the resolution for eBooks.

The pen allows note-taking in the S Note app and there are features such as recognition of mathematical formulas, as well as handwriting.

If you draw an imperfect triangle, the software recognises it and will straighten the edges.

The pen adds a “hover” ability to a tablet that was only available with a mouse before.

With this Air View feature, holding the pen just above the screen can give previews of emails, photos, videos and appointments without opening their respective apps, although this is still largely dependent on using Samsung’s versions of such apps.

Samsung is targeting the education market with its tablets. Its Note 10.1, announced in January, is bundled with Kno etextbook software, giving access to hundreds of thousands of titles.

Kno once had ambitious plans for large-screen and dual-screen tablets for higher education but switched to a software-only operation two years ago as it realised it lacked the scale to achieve its ambitions.

Its latest software is Kno Me, a dashboard that shows students their progress and engagement with their interactive etextbooks.

It allows them to compare how they are doing by sharing their results with classmates.

Handstand has just launched the Nota Reader, a website and Android app that gives students access to textbooks they can annotate with videos, links and images; sharing them with other students.

The textbooks are part of a free catalogue provided by the open educational resources (OER) community.

There are more free resources at iTunes U, which offers online courses and lectures. Apple describes it as the world’s largest online catalogue of free educational content and announced the milestone last month of 1bn content downloads.

Although Apple has yet to embrace pens for its tablets, there are plenty of third-party versions that can be used on an iPad and numerous apps that allow note-taking in this way.

Penultimate is one of the most popular and a new version offers a cleaner interface and searchable text, with optical character recognition (OCR) of handwriting made possible.

Penultimate notebooks are viewable on almost any device, as they are stored in the Evernote note-taking service, which has apps for nearly every platform and acquired Penultimate last May.

Evernote stores recordings made on the new Livescribe Sky – a digital pen that I use to make notes every day with old-fashioned ink and paper.

Many students still prefer taking notes on paper and the Livescribe Sky offers the best of both worlds.

Handwriting is captured by a camera in the barrel of the pen and audio of a lecture is recorded by a built-in microphone.

The Livescribe Sky has WiFi, so when the lecture ends, the notes and their audio are automatically uploaded to Evernote as online PDF documents with audio embedded.

They can be shared and accessed from any browser, disseminating a lesson from teacher to student to the world using the oldest educational aids of pen and paper.

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