Posts Tagged ‘iPad Air 2’

Six months after obtaining an iPad Air 2 with the hopes of digitizing the majority of my workload, I have completed my first semester of nearly all-digital grading. Students still took their exams the old-fashioned way, but I graded every essay, assignment, and final project digitally. Although there were times that I wanted to go back to grading with pen on paper, I think that the benefits generally outweighed the costs.

The Process

I’ve dabbled in electronic assignment submission in the past, but this semester I required students to submit all of their assignments electronically to my institution’s course management program (similar to Blackboard, Moodle, etc.). They were instructed to submit their work in PDF format and most did, but after downloading the assignments I had to spend a few minutes converting the assignments that were submitted in other formats. These few minutes were just the first of the extra time that working electronically added to the grading process.

After ensuring that everything was in the correct format, I uploaded the files to Dropbox, then imported them into Goodnotes 4 on my iPad for grading. Grading itself also took longer because of the need to zoom in for writing legible comments with a stylus. At the end of each assignment I typically used the iPad’s on-screen keyboard to type some longer comments, the speed of which would have been greatly increased with the purchase of a Bluetooth keyboard. After grading, I exported the files back to Dropbox, transferred them to my computer, opened each file to record the grade, and uploaded them back to the course management program so that students could receive my feedback. I know that some course management programs allow electronic grading on PDFs from within their interface, so the ability to do that would help streamline the process.

The Negatives

The biggest drawback was the added time necessary both before, during, and after grading. It was during grading for my largest classes that I often considered just printing the students’ papers and grading them by hand. Aside from the added time commitment, though, I also found that electronic grading interrupted my normal process of handing work back. In the past I have always given assignments back at the end of class, prefaced with an overview of what generally went well and what needed work. Electronic grading prevented me from returning things at the end of class (the course management system provided no option to hold feedback for release at a particular time) and divorced the receipt of my feedback from my contextualizing overview. It also led to at least one class period where students were noticeably disengaged after receiving relatively low grades on an assignment shortly before class started. In the future I’ll probably switch to providing context at the end of class and uploading student assignments immediately afterward.

The Positives

Saving paper was an obvious motivation for changing to digital grading, but it was not the only benefit that I noticed. During grading, the ability to copy and paste some of my end-of-assignment comments allowed me to write a bit more than I might have otherwise (a Bluetooth keyboard will hopefully make this even better). The larger benefit for me, though, and what ultimately made this process worthwhile, was the ability to have a copy of each student’s work with my feedback even after I had given assignments back. If one assignment built on another, for example, I could look back at the student’s previous work to see if they had followed my suggestions. The ability to pull up a student’s previous assignments during office hours was also helpful. Finally, I could also see whether a student’s ability to cite things properly progressed over the course of the semester (unfortunately, the answer was usually “no”).

Another major positive was that students liked it. My comments were not really any less legible than they would have been otherwise and students did not have to worry about misplacing their assignments for future reference since they were always available on the course management page. Whether students saved the files with my feedback for future reference is still undetermined. One worry that I had is that students would not read my feedback if I did not physically hand them an assignment, since they could see their grade online without opening the file with my comments. There is obviously a question of whether students read my feedback when I do physically hand them an assignment, but at least the likelihood seems higher.

Despite the added time and other drawbacks, I consider this semester’s trial run a success. Over the summer I hope to get a Bluetooth keyboard to make typing a little more efficient, and I should probably look into ways to streamline my overall process, but I plan to continue my electronic grading in the future. Maybe with penalties for assignments that are submitted in the wrong format…

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In my previous post about GoodNotes 4 for the iPad, I discussed several changes that would improve the program (sorry, I mean “app”) for academics. One of these was to set the level of zoom used by the zoom box (this is probably not its official name). The rest of my proposed changes stand, but on this point I was an idiot.

It turns out that the zoom box can be easily resized, either by dragging the bottom-right corner of the box that appears over the regular-sized text or by using the same pinch-to-zoom gestures that are used for documents and all over iOS and other mobile operating systems within the zoom box. For a comparison, note the size of the zoom box in this image from last week’s post and then look at the image below:


In this image you can see the size of my writing at various levels of zoom. More importantly, you can see the effects of different levels of zoom on the clarity of my handwriting. Last week I said that I was concerned about my ability to use the iPad for grading because it was difficult to write legibly. For some reason, using the higher zoom settings best approximates my pen-on-paper handwriting, even though the zoom box requires me to write much larger than I would on paper. (The resulting size of the text is probably pretty close to the size of my normal handwriting.) After recognizing this, the legibility of my journal article annotations increased dramatically.

I don’t completely understand the technology used in the screens of iPads and other devices, but from my experience with trying to apply my pen-on-paper writing style to stylus-on-glass, it is clear that there are major differences. Some of this is likely the result of software, since these devices are optimized for inputs from fingers. Nevertheless, using the higher levels of zoom solves nearly all of the problems I initially had and makes me confident in my ability to grade student work electronically, as you can see in the areas highlighted with green that I added to my image from last week:

IMG_0019This doesn’t mean that my other suggestions wouldn’t improve my experience, but after some additional time I can confidently say that GoodNotes 4 does allow me to do the basic things I want to do in order to digitize my workload.

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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.

IMG_0005Here 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.

IMG_0006The image above shows the default zoom level when viewing an article in landscape orientation. IMG_0007

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.  IMG_0008Although 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.IMG_0009Similarly, 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.IMG_0010As 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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It is hard to believe that it has been nearly five years since the original iPad was announced. Despite the promise I saw for students, I’ve also been fairly cynical over the years about the viability of tablets and e-readers for the work I do every day. On the day that the iPad was revealed (so long ago that I was still using two spaces after periods), I wrote:

Today, Apple unveiled what they surely hope will carry students further down that road, the iPad …  It seems somewhat pointless to criticize an Apple product (after all, the reveal was preceded by more hype than money can buy and Apple paid no money at all for it) but the hype may have worked against the iPad, resulting in a collective “a big iPod Touch?  That’s it?”  In 2015 I’ll probably look back at this post from my own iPad while my students complete the course readings and take class notes on their own iPads and laugh at how foolish I was.  For now, though, the future doesn’t seem quite as cool as I had hoped.

In addition to digital textbooks, another one of the things I had hoped that the future would bring was mentioned in a post about the Kindle 2, I said, “I’ll really get excited when e-books are a viable option for students looking to save on the cost of textbooks and grad students looking to avoid printing thousands of pages of PDF journal articles.”

It isn’t quite 2015 yet, and the electronic versions of textbooks are barely cheaper than traditional formats, but I’ve seen increasing evidence that people can use tablets to do the things that I use a lot of paper for: grading assignments, reading journal articles, and taking (and, more importantly, storing) notes on meetings and presentations. Combined with a fresh opportunity for start-up funds, I decided it was time to try to digitize my workload but waited until the iPad Air 2 was released in order to make sure that I was starting with the newest model since I plan to be using it for several years – unfortunately, there is no money in my start-up funds for a replacement. What follows are some thoughts on my experience so far. (At no point did I consider an Android tablet, although I’m sure that there are plenty of good ones. Due to my current phone and computer I am tied pretty strongly to Apple’s ecosystem, which makes it easy to share files – and apps, in the case of my phone – between them.)


While I wanted a tablet that would allow me to do my work, I also wanted it to be easily portable. Not having any personal experience using an iPad, and thinking that the original iPad looked huge, I negotiated my start-up funds based on the cost of an iPad Mini but I still wasn’t sure which was the best size so I stopped by an Apple store. In person, I quickly discovered that the iPad was a lot smaller than I thought and the iPad mini seemed like it wouldn’t provide much space for annotating PDF files and commenting on student papers. Several times, I saw an iPad that I thought must have been a Mini but that turned out not to be. The best size comparison for academics may be one of those “Composition” notebooks with the black covers. The iPad Air 2 is a little narrower, a tiny bit shorter, and about half the thickness of one of those. The screen size is 9.7 inches, measured diagonally, and has a 4:3 ratio like pre-HD TVs, which may not be best for watching widescreen movies but provides extra width when reading student papers and journal articles in portrait (tall, rather than wide) orientation. In the image below, you can see the size in relation to an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper and a piece of paper I cut to the size of an iPad Mini:

Size ComparisonI suppose that it is technologically impressive that the newest iPad is less than half the thickness of the original and is even thinner than the already-thin iPhone 6 (6.1 mm vs. 6.9 mm), but I think we have reached the point of diminishing returns for thinness in electronics. Like the iPhone, even though your first impression might be “wow, this is thin!” after a few uses it becomes normal. (Due to the glass front and aluminum back, it feels a bit like holding a pane of glass if you have any experience with that.) Similarly, the weight is less than 1 pound, which I’ve found no more difficult to hold than a hardcover book. Like a hardcover book, I’ve found that I typically rest the iPad on a desk or my legs when using it, which mitigates the impact of the weight. Most importantly, neither the thickness nor the weight get in the way of everyday usage, though it can get a bit slippery if you tend to have sweaty hands.


So far, I’ve found the iPad to be better for some of my intended tasks (reading and annotating journal articles) than others (note taking and writing legibly enough for students to read), although practice might improve my results. I’ve used it primarily with an app called “GoodNotes” that I will talk more about on another day. Like many others, I have found that it is difficult to type quickly and accurately on a piece of glass. An online typing speed test showed that I type 98 words per minute on my usual keyboard but only 42 words per minute on the iPad, with lots of mistakes. This is surely better than my pathetic phone-typing speed, and is vastly preferable to a phone for sending an e-mail, but I wouldn’t try typing anything longer than a few sentences without a bluetooth keyboard, which I don’t have.

Typing difficulty was expected, but I did not expect to be frustrated by the placement of the volume and power buttons. As you can see in the image below, the side of the iPhone 6 (on top) is curved from front to back, with the buttons placed at the apex of the curve. The apex of an iPad’s edge, however, is very close to the front, curving toward the back, with the buttons perpendicular to the curve near the back.

Edge ComparisonThese buttons are especially hard to press when using an open Smart Cover wrapped around the back (think about the way you might fold the cover of a spiral-bound notebook behind the notebook itself) because the cover sticks out a tiny bit next to the buttons. In the Smart Cover’s defense, it eliminates the need to press the similarly difficult power/sleep/wake button in most circumstances. I’ve found that it is easier to adjust the volume through the control center that appears when swiping up from the bottom of the screen, as shown in the image below.

Volume ControlUnfortunately for academics, Apple eliminated the mute switch that was near the volume controls on previous models. Before classes, meetings, etc., then, you will need to remember to silence the iPad’s speakers either through the control center or by holding the “down” volume button, both of which require the iPad to be awake and unlocked and neither of which allows a quick glance like an external mute switch.

Things aren’t all bad, however, as the addition of Touch ID makes it easy to use a fingerprint to unlock the iPad when waking it up rather than typing in a passcode. This protection is particularly important for academics who need to protect data, student grades, and access to their e-mail and Facebook accounts in case of theft. Battery life is also good. This afternoon I spent an hour and 25 minutes reading for class and used 14% of the battery, suggesting that I could do this for roughly 10 hours on a full charge. Standby time is also good, meaning that if you don’t use your iPad for a few days, it is likely to still have battery life when you need it. New iPads run iOS 8, which will be familiar if you have an iPhone but may take some adjustment if you’re used to Android or, worse, still use a “dumb” phone (or what are sometimes kindly referred to as “feature” phones).


Although I didn’t pay anything for my iPad, most people don’t have start-up funds to draw from, so the cost might be the biggest factor in whether or not you think it is time to digitize your own workload. The base iPad Air 2 costs $479 for educators and the smart cover costs $39. I’ve never used a cover or case on my phone, and the iPad’s glass screen would probably be fine in a bag with some books, but it seems like an expensive gamble so some might see it as a requirement. Even with only 16 GB of storage space and no cellular connectivity, the iPad cost more than the laptop that I bought with my start-up funds at my first job. Luckily, cloud storage like DropBox and Google Drive can help alleviate the storage crunch while providing access to your files (but, of course, depending on your needs that can add an additional cost). Because you’re probably not going to use your finger to comment on student assignments and annotate journal articles, there’s also the cost of a stylus, which can range from a few dollars to over $100. My own search for the right stylus, which I’ll discuss on another day, is still in progress.


Apparently, I like to wait about five years before purchasing a new technology (see also: my first smartphone). So far, my time with the iPad hasn’t provided the same level of amazement as my first smartphone, but that may be due to the difference between gaining the ability to do things that I had never done before (like checking my e-mail wherever I was) and gaining the ability to do things that I have been doing for years in a different way. It has been nice, however, to take notes on class readings electronically and take the iPad to class instead of a pile of papers. I’m also looking forward to having these notes in a single location for future reference rather than printing an article for the seventh time because I can’t find a previous copy with my notes.

I’ll keep you posted.

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