A lot has happened in the 5 months since I first started exclusively using the iPad for school. 10 iterations of the iPad Student Diaries have kept you all updated on the experience as the months have gone by, but at this point it’s a bit of a DIY experience to piece all 10 articles together to find out what actually worked and what didn’t. To make it easier to get access to everything I decided to start from scratch and in a different format, so here is the Nothing But Tablets iPad Education Guide—good for both students and teachers.
Why go digital?
A question I get a lot is why I bother doing everything digitally rather than settle for an old fashioned piece of paper. A handful of people in my class can now answer that question for me as they’ve been on the receiving end of emails from me with class notes or handouts attached that they themselves managed to “misplace” over the course of the semester. Right before exams it’s always funny to be in a study group where everyone is desperately trying to find the right document in a pile of hundreds while you yourself have everything named and organized into folders on your iPad. I’ve also found myself playing games for the first 30-45 minutes of some of our study group sessions as the rest of the group have gone to print out exercises to do (or tried to erase their existing answers) while all I have to do is reopen the document or select all, delete.
In other words, being organized is a major advantage of having everything on an iPad. As long as you spend 3 minutes per day making sure you’re backed up, you won’t ever come to a lecture and find that you’ve misplaced the document you were supposed to bring. Our teachers also put up messages for us to print out documents for class ourself and bring them to lectures, which a lot of people forgot to do. No need to remember doing that when you can just download the documents to your iPad on the spot.
Weight and size is also another advantage of a digital setup. Carrying textbooks and folders full of handouts around is quite literally a pain in the back, and something you can easily avoid. Right now you’re lucky if you find all of your textbooks in digital form, but even if you find just a few of them that is going to help the load you have to carry. I’ve seen organized paper users in class who have huge ring binders full with all the handouts we’ve received during the course of a semester, and even such a ring binder is multiple times as big and heavy as an iPad, even if you have a case and a bag full of accessories.
Then you have the extra functionality aspect. I’ve expressed my frustration regarding my literature classes in earlier articles as the problem with telling students to buy and read a novel these days is that there will be hundred different versions of the same book, all with slightly different formatting, font size and so on. I can’t help but laugh when my literature professor desperately tries to explain to people what paragraph he’s referring to when all notions of common references are obliterated by the fact that none of the books are the same. Page 20 to one student is page 12 to another and in one case chapter 37 in one book was actually part 2, chapter 16 in another. All I need in order to find a specific spot in a book is a few words from the sentence and I can do a quick word search that brings me to it instantly. I can also click on words in the text and have them defined on the bottom of the screen instantly, while people who still read on paper have to use a dictionary.
For teachers this extra functionality aspect is even more important, as the apps I list further down (AirSketch, ReplayNote etc) can be invaluable tools that completely revolutionize the way someone teaches. One of my lecturer this year asked the school for a document camera back in August when we started, and that device arrived around Christmas. By the time we finished the final exams in May however, the document camera was still in storage as no one had installed it (likely due to a lack of knowing how, from what I heard). Our lecturers were therefore left with a computer connected projector and an overhead projector, and had to run around with transparencies all year to be able to show us documents and at the same time be able to annotate them. Several of the apps listed further down would have been an instant fix for this, with a 2 minute setup in August and so much time saved for the rest of the year.
The final thing to consider is cost. While an iPad initially costs more than a paper notebook and a pen, the savings add up quickly. If you can get textbooks digitally, they will be cheaper. Pretty much anything there’s an app for will also be cheaper than the physical version, such as dictionaries, ebooks, calculators, etc. There is also the controversial issue of piracy, and while I can’t condone such actions, you can’t ignore the fact that if you’re looking at overwhelming amounts of money for textbooks, you might be able to get pirated copies of some or all of them online and skip paying for them altogether. Scanning a friend’s books is also possible if you’re patient, and if you spend a few days doing that then buying an iPad might save you more money than it costs you. Again, I’m not encouraging anyone to do so, but I have to mention the elephant in the room since it’s a very real scenario in colleges and universities the world over. Heck, you might want to scan all you textbooks even if you do own the paper version, as you can fit a near infinite number of books on an iPad that weighs less than most single books. Unlike a computer, you can quite easily lean back and read textbooks on a tablet just as if it was a book, so this is one aspect where a tablet is crucial.
In order to use an iPad successfully in any hectic productivity environment you need two things; the right equipment, and the knowledge of how to use it. I’ve seen first hand that it doesn’t matter if you have a stylus and a note taking app if you have no idea how to use them together in a manner that is quick and easy enough to actually replace paper. After all, the point of doing things digitally is to improve efficiency, not just doing it for the sake of doing it. It’s therefore a good idea to make sure you know how everything works before you head off to use it for real, or you’ll end up getting a heart attack from the stress of learning on-the-go.
In this guide I am going to focus on the iPad rather than tablets in general. The reason for this is simply that I’ve looked through the Android market to find apps that would be suitable replacements for the ones I use on the iPad, with very poor results. It makes no sense to keep referring to “this only works with the iPad” every time I come across something like that, so to make it easier on myself I am going to ignore other tablets this time around.
As such, the main piece of hardware you will need is an iPad. I’ve used both the iPad 1 and the iPad 2 this semester, and I would highly suggest the iPad 2. The main reason is that the extra amount of RAM—three times the free RAM to be specific—is going to be a huge help since you’ll be running many apps at once and switch between them. Apps are automatically closed as the iPad run out of RAM so the difference between the old and new iPad often comes down to whether an app will restart completely when you switch back to it or if it will continue where you left off with no delay. Another difference is that the iPad 2 is flatter on the back, making it a lot easier to lay down flat on a tablet to write on.
I have accumulated a big pile of accessories for the iPad and not all of it is really necessary. Below is a list of what I use, how, and why. Substitutions or exclusions might work just as well or better.
- Smart Cover (iPad 2 only). I’ve found that the Smart Cover is a very useful accessory as folding it around the back of the iPad 2 gives it a better grip on a table, so you can lay the iPad down flat without it being pushed around by your finger or stylus. Other cases might do the same job on this one.
- Stylus. If you’re going to write notes on your iPad (and I assume you will), you will have to get a stylus. My favorites are the Just Mobile AluPen and the Wacom Bamboo Stylus. Both are very high quality, very precise styli that really set themselves apart from the cheaper capacitive styli out there. As for picking one, there are some small differences in terms of accuracy etc. that you can read about in the Wacom Bamboo Stylus review but when it really comes down to it I would suggest you choose the one that you think looks the best to use.
- Smartphone or digital camera and Apple’s Camera Connection Kit. The sad truth is that the world isn’t very digital just yet, and you’re likely going to run into quite a few instances where you’re expected to work with a piece of paper that isn’t available as a downloadable file somewhere. Personally such papers never survive my analog archiving techniques (put it somewhere and hope it stays there) and so I really do prefer to keep everything on my iPad. To combat paper I use a compact digital camera to take pictures of documents, import them to the iPad using the SD card reader in the Camera Connection Kit and then use an app called Scanner Pro to turn them into PDF files that look like proper scans. An alternative is to use a smartphone with a similar app, which will also give good results. Just don’t try to use the iPad 2’s camera, as it’s too crappy to do the job.
- Flashlight. Yes, a flashlight. This is a companion to the above smartphone/camera setup, as your scans will look much better with proper lighting. Using a flash is often not an option in a lecture environment, so something a bit more directional might be needed. My favorite for this task is the Romisen RC-N3, because you can easily remove the head with the reflector and lens, creating an even flood beam that has no visible hotspots (a lot like a LED flash on a cellphone).
- Tablet stand. While it’s often easiest to lay the iPad down flat, there might be times when you’d instead like to prop it up at a difference angle. The Smart Cover can do this to some degree, but a more flexible and stable stand is very useful to have. My favorite stand at the moment is only $6.70 shipped worldwide so it won’t break the bank either.
- Keyboard. Depending on what courses you’re attending/teaching, you may want to switch between a keyboard for quick typing and a stylus for more flexible annotations. The Apple Bluetooth Keyboard is what I have been using and it’s a very nice keyboard, though I will be looking into the $250 Crux Loaded when it’s released.
- AirStash. This one is nice to have, but considering the price ($99) and functionality it’s not for everyone. In a school setting, it essentially gives you the ability to move files to and from the iPad from any computer using USB, without the need for a cable, iTunes, or internet connection. Useful for sharing files, receiving files etc. from computers where you can’t install anything.
- Cleaning kit. You’re likely to spend most of your time in well lit areas, meaning that finger marks are going to show up much better if you don’t keep the screen clean. SQUEEGiT is one option for a cleaning kit, especially if you pair it with a microfiber cloth.
I want this guide to cover both students and teachers. While many of the various usage scenarios fit both students and teachers, I decided to split the software section into two parts to better organize everything. There will be apps in both sections suitable for both user groups though.
Software for students
- Note taking app. I have tried a lot of these and my favorite is Underscore Notify, despite the fact that it has some issues with using too much RAM (meaning it’s best for iPad 2s). Notify lets you import all sorts of documents and images including PDF files and take notes on top of them before exporting a final version for posterity. That can also be said for apps like smartNote and a few others, but what makes Notify my preferred choice is its magnification writing mode, allowing you to magnify a small part of the screen up to 4 times in order to write big but produce small writing. If you don’t have a need to import documents, Penultimate is a good choice as well. All these apps are so cheap that you might as well get them all and find the one you like the best.
- Document organization app. I wouldn’t recommend reading documents in the same app that you use to create them, as this is slow and can often lead to accidental changes. I export all documents to PDF format and open them in Apple’s own iBooks application. iBooks allows me to create different folders for different subjects, and a major plus is that it automatically syncs the documents back to my computer when I sync with iTunes. My personal computer setup also includes Carbonite, an automated computer backup service that runs in the background and backs up all my important files to the internet. Anything I create on the iPad is therefore safe even if both my iPad and computer dies, as long as the files have been put in iBooks and my iPad synced with my PC (which isn’t a huge hassle to do every day). Another good app is GoodReader, which has some advanced highlighting and bookmarking features that are very useful if you have your textbooks (or other large documents, like compendiums) in digital form. Finally, Evernote is something in between a note taking app and a document organization app, complete with sync between devices and platforms (PC, iOS, Android—you name it) via a free-to-a-point online service. Evernote also has Evernote Peek, a clever app that helps you study (if you have an iPad 2 and a Smart Cover).
- File manager. A feature I love and others hate with the iPad is the lack of a visible file system, meaning that you don’t have to look for files in C:/Documents and settings/User/etc to find a file—they’re all saved within the app itself. Files can be copied between apps with the “open in…” feature in iOS, which is infinitely faster than saving and opening a file on a computer. Sometimes you want an app that can work as a launch platform into other apps though, for instance if you’re transferring files from a computer over WiFi (which most these file managers can do). My favorite is Filer because it’s both clean and has another useful feature: file download capabilities. The latter is useful if you either need to download files from the internet that are in a format that the Safari browser doesn’t understand (e.g. .zip files, as the app can also unzip) or if you need to download huge files that normally makes the browser hang because it tries to open the files while downloading (e.g. huge PDF files, huge Powerpoint presentations). If you opt to buy an AirStash (see accessory list), you should also get iFiles for interacting with the AirStash.
- Time schedule app: iStudiez. iStudiez is an excellent app for both teachers and students and it sets itself apart from normal calendar apps by being specifically tailored for static class schedules rather than appointments that change from week to week. It allows you to create semesters and add courses to those semesters, and then tell the app when the lectures for those courses take place. It’s very advanced down to making exceptions (such as vacations) or just every 2/3/etc weeks/days, which means you can populate the calendar for the entire semester with only half an hour’s worth of plotting data. It also has support for teacher information and contact detals, assignment lists and exam dates. It even syncs between your iOS devices and has a backup feature, and since it can display normal iOS calendar events it won’t split your calendar into two apps.
- Document converter: Save2PDF. It’s great to have apps like Underscore Notify to be able to annotate documents, but sometimes the content comes to you in non-document format, e.g. as web pages, Powerpoint presentations etc. Save2PDF converts all of this into PDF files, which can then be imported into either your note taking app or your document organization app. A printer plugin comes with the app so that you can make PDF files by printing from other apps (somewhat buggy). Converting Powerpoint presentations to PDF normally leads to slides being split across pages (due to the special page sizes of slides), but if you get Keynote and use the “print to PDF” feature you can get around this problem. Save2PDF is also useful for renaming PDF files before archiving in iBooks where that feature doesn’t exist.
- Dictionary. Depending on what subjects you are taking this may or may not be necessary, but since the Merriam-Webster dictionary is now available and free, there’s no reason not to have it installed.
- Office apps. There are tons of office apps out there that give you spreadsheet, typing and presentation capabilities. Personally I use Apple’s own apps; Pages, Numbers, Keynote, however I don’t use either of them enough to have bothered looking for better alternatives. One serious drawback of Apple’s own apps is the lack of the “open in…” feature, meaning you have to email documents to yourself to move them between apps. Documents To Go and Quickoffice are two popular office suits, both of which are cheaper than buying the trio of Apple apps.
- Document scanner: Scanner Pro. I will cover the use of this app in more detail further down, but for now I can just say that I’ve tried pretty much all the scanning applications out there and found this one to be my favorite. One drawback is that you have to open one image at a time when selecting from the photo library. There also isn’t an iPad optimized version.
- Textbooks. Previously a tablet manufacturer, Kno gave up the hardware part of its business to focus on software. Their Textbooks for iPad app allows you to buy digital texbooks on your iPad, which should reduce the weight you have to carry drastically. Unfortunately US only.
- Dropbox. Dropbox is a very useful service for syncing files between devices. On a PC, Dropbox shows up in shape of a folder. Anything you put in that folder will be automatically synced to other PCs where you have it installed as well as the web and portable devices like the iPad, and vice versa. Can therefore be used to sync files from a smartphone to a tablet (ref. scanning).
Software for teachers
- ReplayNote. Anyone who has ever tried to explain things like math, physics etc using plain text in an email knows how frustrating it can be to try to draw formulas and diagrams with only text. ReplayNote is a brilliant app that solves this problem by giving you a drawing application with recording functionality. You prepare your slides/pages (if needed), hit record, and start drawing/writing out explanations while you narrate verbally. When done (max 10 minutes) the recording is uploaded to YouTube (privacy settings are possible) and you get the option to send a link to the video via email. This way you can receive a question from a student, record the explanation and the student can then see the work you did as it progresses, pause, rewind etc. I’ve used it several times myself to help a friend of mine with math, and it’s infinitely better than normal emails.
- AirSketch and SyncPad.AirSketch is the original, SyncPad the copycat. They both let you draw on your tablet and wirelessly beam the screen output to a computer (preferably hooked up to a projector), giving you a digital whiteboard anywhere you have a computer connected big screen. If your iPad is on the same WiFi network as the computer in question, get AirSketch, if not, use SyncPad as it connects over the internet. Pair these with something like a Pad Strap and you can walk around the classroom and show things on the virtual whiteboard without having to go back up there.
- AirScanner. Another app from the AirSketch people, AirScanner turns your iOS device into a document camera. Best suited for an iPhone 4 as far as image quality is concerned, this app basically beams the output from your camera to a computer connected screen. useful to show documents on the big screen without using an overhead projector.
- AirProjector. You guessed it, yet another app from the same guys. AirProjector beams documents to the big screen, so you can leave you VGA/HDMI dongle at home.
- Splashtop Whiteboard.
Using the equipment
The move from paper to iPad is largely a question of learning how to use everything correctly and efficiently. If it takes you 10 times longer to do something, it’s not worth it. It’s therefore important that you learn the ropes for all the tasks before you head to your first lecture, or you will quickly get stressed from trying to figure everything out on the spot. If you’re not used to technology at all, you may have to take a less digital route, e.g. by writing on paper and scanning afterwards rather than writing on the screen with a stylus (the difference between a capacitive stylus and a pen is after all big). Still, if you put your mind to it, you will learn how to do everything quickly, and you will be rewarded by being able to replace 10 pounds worth of paper with a 600 gram iPad.
This is one of the things I do in class that has most people baffled. Everyone is so used to document scanning being a tedious process requiring a big flatbed scanner that when I sit there with a scanned version of a handout ready before everyone has had a chance to get the paper version from the teacher, many people simply don’t make the connection between paper version and digital version, thinking that I downloaded the file from the internet before class.
Doing it fast requires practice though, and a certain knowledge of what you’re doing. If you’re using a smartphone, you will have to take pictures of the page(s), run them through the scanning app’s optimization routine (fixes contrast, orientation etc so it looks like a properly scanned document) and then transfer the final file over to your iPad. If you use a digital camera like me, you have to transfer the files before running them through the app, using a camera connection kit (SD card reader for the iPad). Whenever I explain it or show it to people it seems like such a complicated process, but whenever I do it “for real” it’s much faster. So to show you how fast the process is when you’re used to doing it, here’s a video.
In the video, it took me 3 minutes to scan 3 pages, even when operating the Scanner Pro app at a 90 degree angle. Whenever a lecturer hands something out it normally takes a few minutes for everyone to get the handout and start using it, giving you enough time to digitize it if you get your hands on it fast. Longer documents will take longer, but it’s not a 1 page/minute deal—1 page takes almost as long and 5 pages doesn’t take much longer. Still, scanning a 30 page document in the middle of a lecture is not a good idea, but you’re not likely to use all those 30 pages right away either. The point of scanning documents is to leave the class with both your notes and documents on the iPad, so scan when you can.
As I mentioned above, scanning can also be used to digitize analog annotations—i.e. take notes with a pencil/pen and then scan the final document. The reason I always scan first is that anything made of paper magically disappears from my bag by the time I need to find the document again. I can also insert extra pages and merge documents togeth