The other day I wrote about my initial thoughts on the iPad Air 2, which I recently purchased with my start-up funds in the hopes of digitizing my workload, including grading assignments, reading journal articles, and taking (and storing) notes on meetings and presentations. The list of apps that can be used to do these things is a bit overwhelming and includes GoodReader, Notability, and the app I ended up trying, GoodNotes 4. It is hard to say how GoodNotes compares to the other options, but I liked that it seemed designed to allow me to do all of the things I wanted and, if nothing else, it is only $5.99 so there wasn’t a big financial risk involved. This post by Polina at Helpful Scribbles was also, um, helpful (see her list of brief reviews here).
In my limited time so far, it has worked fairly well for what I want. It is easy, for example, to set up folders for different types of notes and import files, including Word documents and PDFs, from various cloud storage options. (Unfortunately, Word documents are reformatted to better fit the iPad screen, so it is likely that you will need to convert them to PDF before uploading in order to ensure that they retain the characteristics of the original documents when commenting.) GoodNotes also automatically backs up your changes to the cloud storage platform of your choice. For sharing with others, you can export your files to PDF so that others (such as students) can read them. You can also print files, but that is less relevant for me since my goal is to avoid printing. In the images below, I demonstrate some of features that are most relevant for annotating journal articles and commenting on student papers:
Above is the default view with a paper from the most recent issue of the American Sociological Review. You can see that the options are fairly simple, which could be good or bad depending on your perspective. Included, from left, are the Category menu, a zoomed-out view of the article’s pages, the zoom window, an option to clean up the shapes that you draw, the text box, pen options, highlighter options, the eraser, a selection tool for your writing (but, unfortunately, not writing from the document), a “no writing” tool to prevent inadvertent marking, undo, redo, and the file options. By default, GoodNotes shows the entire page, but you can use your fingers to zoom the image. An option to fit the image to the screen horizontally or vertically, like those in Adobe Acrobat, would make this a lot easier.
Here you can see the two options for writing. You can write on the document as it appears, or you can open a zoom window (either by selecting the option from the toolbar or “long-tapping,” which brings up a menu of options that includes zoom). As you write, the edge of the zoom box turns blue. If you start writing in the blue area, the zoom box moves automatically across the document or, in this case, down to the next “line” so that you can continue writing without manually repositioning the box. You can also move the zoom box by dragging it around or using the options in the upper right of its window. One addition I would like is the ability to write horizontally in the zoom box for a selection that is perpendicular to the document. This would make annotating journal articles easier since there is little room in the margin to write horizontally. I would also like the option for the zoom box to appear automatically when long-tapping instead of having to select “zoom” from the resulting menu.
Finally, options to set the level of zoom used by the zoom box would be nice. As noted in the addendum, it is possible to resize the zoom box, which greatly increases the legibility of my handwriting.
Manually zooming the document to the width of the screen (again, automatic zooming would be nice) in landscape orientation makes the margins slightly bigger than writing in portrait orientation, though you will need to spend more time scrolling since less of the document fits on the screen at once. Although I always underline things when reading journal articles on paper, in GoodNotes the highlighter (shown above) is a better option. This is true because the use of a stylus makes it more difficult to underline without accidentally crossing out the text and because GoodNotes places the highlight behind the text rather than over the top of it (as Polina reports Notability does). You can also choose different colors and sizes for the highlighter.Similarly, GoodNotes also includes various pen sizes and colors (shown above), including custom colors if you need a particular shade of red for grading. Not shown is the ability to choose between “fountain” and “ball point” pen styles. These images use the default “fountain” style but I’ve found that the ball point style is a bit thinner, which makes my sloppy handwriting a bit more legible.As mentioned above, the second option from the left on the menu bar provides an overview of the document pages. Thanks to the sharpness of screens these days, this view allows you to quickly scan the pages looking for a particular section, table, note, etc., just like you would when flipping through the pages of a printed article. Again, though, the ability to control the zoom level of these thumbnails would be nice, especially when using PDFs made from books with two pages next to each other.
Because it would be a huge waste of time, I haven’t timed myself reading the same journal article on paper and on the iPad in order to compare, but my sense is that reading and annotating takes a bit longer on the iPad due to the need to change between pens and highlighters, zoom, and scroll. Saving paper and having these notes available anywhere I go, though, makes this a worthwhile tradeoff. I’ll follow up with a stylus comparison later, but for now I can say that writing with a stylus on glass magnifies the sloppiness of my handwriting. This is particularly an issue because my normal writing is both small and messy, neither of which work well for clarity on the iPad.
This isn’t much of an issue when reading journal articles because I can typically decipher my own writing but I’m concerned about the implications of this for my ability to comment legibly on student papers. Changing the level of zoom, however, makes it much easier to write legibly.
Overall, GoodNotes allows me to do most of the things I want to do on my iPad (I’ll comment on the actual note-taking features in my upcoming stylus comparison), though, as you can see in my comments above, there are a number of features I would add if I were designing a program specifically for academics. Unfortunately, I have no programming skills, but if anybody out there does and wants help designing an app specifically for this purpose, let me know! In the meantime, I’ll just continue thinking “it would be great if…” while I’m working. For now, the tendency to compare what I’m able to do with what I’d like to do might be the biggest difference between reading an article on paper and reading an article on an iPad!
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