Interview: Live Annotation of Student Work with GoodNotes

I was recently interviewed on ABLConnect, a Harvard-based “online database of active learning efforts in post-secondary classrooms.” I talk about my use of GoodNotes to take pictures of student work in class, embed them into a GoodNotes document, and annotate them without skipping a beat. It’s a great tool to get students to engage with the material in a collaborative way.

Enjoy, and please get in touch if you have any feedback.

In Praise of GoodNotes

Note: I have no affiliation whatsoever with the developers of GoodNotes, nor do I receive any compensation from them. I just really, really like their app. 

I do 99% of my teaching with an iPad that’s projected onto a screen, via an Apple TV or wired connection. I often get asked about the different apps that I use and what they do. Luckily, the list is very short: Keynote and GoodNotes.

I have written about Keynote a whole lot, but the truth is that I use GoodNotes much, much more. In fact, after using every PDF-based handwriting app that I could find[1], I’ve come to believe that GoodNotes is an essential, best in its class app that every student and teacher should own.

Before continuing, two notes:

First, my teaching style revolves around handouts with lots of blank space that I print out and distribute to students. I then annotate a PDF version of the handout on my iPad. This strikes a nice balance between the structure of slides and the freedom of whiteboards, and encourages student participation without forcing them to constantly scribble down notes. While I think GoodNotes is useful for a number of different situations, this is the primary use that I’ll discuss in this post.

Second, there are two ways to annotate a PDF: by selecting and highlighting text (as Adobe Reader or Preview allow on the Mac), and by drawing on PDFs as though they’re images. Here’s an image showing the difference between the two, selecting text on the left using PDF Expert, and drawing a highlight on the right using GoodNotes:

Highlighting vs Drawing
I use the former when reading and annotating articles, since highlighting the actual text allows me to tabulate and share all the text that I highlight (more on this later), and the latter when teaching, since I’m more interested in writing and drawing than selecting text. GoodNotes excels at drawing on PDFs, but doesn’t do highlighting of text and commenting the way Adobe Reader does. For that, I highly recommend PDF Expert.

With all of that said, let’s get into what makes GoodNotes so great.

Presentation View

The single biggest thing I think about when planning to teach is how to keep students focused on the content and not the million distractors that can commandeer their attention. So, if students see this when I’m trying to teach, there’s a problem:

GoodNotes Interface
Which color is he going to use? What do all those icons represent? He’s using an Apple Pencil??

Thankfully, the developer of GoodNotes understands this issue and addresses it very well. In addition to only showing the document that’s being annotated, the “lock” icon in the top right of the screen lets me lock the external display to a portion of the document, allowing me to do whatever I need to do elsewhere. Here’s what the students see versus what I see (the arrow pointing to the lock was added by me):

Projected screen
I can’t count the number of times the lock function has been crucial. It allows me to zoom in to precisely draw a portion of a graph (either by pinching to zoom or using the zoom window) while the students see the whole graph, and it allows me to zoom out and get a sense of where we are in the document while keeping students focused on a particular problem. A well implemented presenter view is sorely lacking in other apps that I’ve tried, and is the biggest reason why I keep coming back to GoodNotes.

Useful Handwriting Recognition

GoodNotes has a handwriting engine powered by MyScript which, in my experience, is incredibly accurate.

Handwriting
But many apps do handwriting recognition, most famously Evernote but also OneNote. In GoodNotes and these other two services, searching for text within the app will give you a list of results that include recognized text. Very handy, but GoodNotes improves on these services in two ways:

  1. Evernote and OneNote do server-side handwriting recognition, which means you need an internet connection and there will be a delay in recognition – something that’s been particularly noticeable with Evernote in my experience. All of GoodNotes’ recognition is local to your machine and almost instantaneous.
  2. You can select a portion of your handwriting and tap “Convert” in the context menu to get just that text, which can then be shared, as shown in the image above.
  3. This is the big one: when exporting a PDF from GoodNotes, your recognized handwriting gets embedded in the shared PDF. This makes your written text not only searchable, but selectable in apps like PDF Expert. Plus, your searchable notes can be quickly shared to any service you’d like – including Evernote and OneNote.

I personally feel that the GoodNotes developer should play up these features more, particularly #3. As services increasingly use proprietary formats to include cool features, GoodNotes is towing the line of openness and exportability.

Thoughtful Details

To me, presenter view and handwriting recognition are the big wins for GoodNotes. But the more I use the app, the more I notice delightful details that make for an exceptional experience. Here are just a few.

  • The eraser can be configured to automatically deselect after being used once. This is a huge time saver, especially when I also set it to erase entire strokes – quickly get rid of mistakes and move on.
  • The shape recognition button turns your strokes into straight lines and shapes; great for creating graph axes and lines on the go.
  • Once you insert an image, you can tap and hold it to crop, rotate, or move it. When students are working on problems together, I’ll often snap a photo of a particularly well done solution, crop it, and insert it onto the PDF.
  • When typing text, the words show up on an external screen in real time, as opposed to when you’ve deselected the text box. When doing stuff on my iPad, it’s important that the students see some visual indication of what’s going on, and this is a big help.

These features add up fast, especially in a teaching environment where small delays and niggles can throw you off and get in the way of learning.

Tangent: The Apple Pencil

GoodNotes supports every Bluetooth stylus that I’ve ever encountered – and I’ve encountered a lot[2]. The developer also keeps up on all the updated SDKs as these companies develop them, which is more than I can say for most handwriting apps. I’ve tried all of them, and always went back to a passive stylus, until now.

The Apple Pencil on the iPad Pro is a revelation for the kind of work that I do. The level of precision coupled with flawless palm rejection is truly amazing. GoodNotes’ support for the Pencil is perfect, and only furthers my love for the app.

Let Me Count The Ways

In short, GoodNotes has defined my experience as a graduate student and teacher attempting to leverage technology. I’ve been grateful to have it for my entire career as a graduate student, but its progress over the years has been remarkable, and I wish I had it in its current form back when I was starting.

Just go get it, ok?

App Link: GoodNotes


  1. Notability, Noteshelf, UPAD, ZoomNotes, Notes Plus, Note Taker HD, GoodReader, OneNote, PDF Expert, and Noterize, to name only a few.  ↩
  2. At the time writing: styluses by Adonit, styluses by Wacom, the Pogo Connect, and FiftyThree’s Pencil  ↩

A Good Day to Keynote Hard

Keynote on iOS got an update yesterday, with a zillion improvements, the biggest of which are multitasking and Bluetooth keyboard support. These are features that are being added to lots of iOS 9 apps, but on Keynote they enable three fantastic use cases during presentations.

Use a Bluetooth Clicker to Control Your Presentation

The new update brings lots of keyboard shortcuts to Keynote. If you have a Bluetooth keyboard connected, hold the ⌘ key to see a few:

Keyboard shortcuts on Keynote for iOS.

What isn’t as obvious is that keyboard shortcuts work while presenting as well. As far as I can tell, they almost perfectly correspond to the OS X version of Keynote. It occurred to me that most bluetooth clickers just map their buttons onto keyboard keys, so I picked up this bluetooth clicker from Staples to test it out despite the fact that it said Windows/Android only on the box.

IMG_5276
And, lo! I could advance and backtrack slides, and even mute the screen (the equivalent of pressing the “b” key). In the past this has required some wacky workarounds using Accessibility features that broke between versions. This feels much better.

Use (Almost) Any App for Presenter Notes

When using Split View, only the “main” app can use features like the microphone, camera, and, most relevant to this post, video out. This means that if you’re using Keynote as your main app while Airplaying or using a dongle to project your iPad onto an external screen, only the Keynote presentation will be visible to your audience. This means you’re free to keep OmniOutliner (pictured), Notes, or any other Split View-enabled app on the side of your screen while presenting. As someone who prefers to have my full outline available to me rather than slide-specific Presenter Notes, this is huge.

Presenter Notes on Steroids.

Control Two Screens at Once

This may not be relevant to a lot of people, but I’m lucky enough to teach in an environment where I have a main, centered projector and an LCD screen on either side of it. I generally use an Apple TV to project a version of the class handout from my iPad running GoodNotes[1] onto the main screen, and Keynote slides from my iPhone on the side screens (either conceptual slides to provide context or formulas for students to reference).

Traditionally, this has meant controlling both my iPad and iPhone simultaneously, which can get a bit hairy. With Split View, this is no longer an issue.

Since GoodNotes has a video out mode, keeping it as the main app on my screen projects only the handout via Airplay. I can then use Keynote’s remote function as the side app to control my iPhone on the side screens. It sounds a bit complicated, but having it all on one screen makes this feel surprisingly smooth.

Main app: GoodNotes. Side app: Keynote

Better, Faster, Lighter

Over the years, I’ve increasingly preferred my iPad for presentations over my Mac. With these new features[2], my iPad is now capable of creating presentation environments that my Mac simply cannot. Can’t wait to see what’s next.


  1. An amazing, wonderful, great app. I should write a post on it.  ↩
  2. The bluetooth clicker feature is a win for anyone with an iOS device. The other two features require an iPad Air 2, iPad mini 4, or iPad Pro to activate Split View. People with some older devices can still use Slide Over instead, which preserves most of the fluidity of what I’m describing.  ↩

Showing Context with Magic Move

I use Keynote for all of my presentations. It’s a hassle to have to run them off of my own devices instead of using a venue’s PC (though it’s getting easier), but it’s worth it for one reason: making animations is incredibly easy in Keynote.

Fitting In

When I say animations, I don’t mean dissolves and smash cuts. I mean moving objects within a slide in a way that shows them in a new light or reveals more context.

For example, here’s a graph showing changes in global surface temperatures over the past thirteen ears (which looks flat), which I then frame in terms of a much longer timescale (which shows temperatures rising at an increasing rate):

Here’s another example from my dissertation work. My research involves taking randomized trials and analyzing them as an interrupted time series analysis. This can be a little difficult to understand conceptually, so I use an animation to visually show the difference between the two analytic strategies:

To me, these animations are useful because the objects of interest never disappear from the screen. They are simply reframed in a different context, allowing the audience to make the leap from one setting to another.

I’m sure there’s some great literature on why this is more compelling, but all I can say is that it has worked very well in my experience. Better still, the time cost of making these is much lower than you might think.

From Transitions to Animations

I made a toy example that builds a diagram using three methods: a simple dissolve transition, an animation, and an animation with an additional delay that I find appealing. Here they in sequence:

And here they are next to one another (I timed it so that the actual length of transitions is the same for all three):

Here’s a link to the Keynote file, if you’d like to play with it further.

From Dissolve to Magic Move

Going from the dissolve transitions to the animated transitions is as simple as changing the transition between slides from “Dissolve” to “Magic Move”. Magic Move is a Keynote-specific transition that detects identical objects between two slides, then transitions between the slides by having those objects move from their place in Slide 1 to their place in Slide 2. The easiest way to make this happen is as follows:

  1. Duplicate Slide 1 and change its transition to “Magic Move”;
  2. Move around the objects in the duplicated slide as you’d like;
  3. Profit.

It can be a little finicky at times, especially if you have lots of similar objects (I’ve had this problem when there were lots of arrows on a slide – more on that later), but for most situations it works.

From Magic Move to Delayed Transitions

The jump in quality from Dissolve to Magic Move is enormous; now let’s talk add some frills. I often like to have the objects in Slide 2 that are brand new to fade in after the initial movement has taken place, as opposed to during. Doing this requires a few more steps:

  1. Select all the objects in Slide 2 that aren’t part of the Magic Move transition;
  2. Give them each a “Fade In” animation (I tend to use Dissolve with a short duration);
  3. Click on Build Order;
  4. Decide if you want these objects to fade all at once or one at a time, and make the appropriate adjustment;
  5. Make sure that the first animation in Build Order is set to start “After Transition”.

This may seem like a lot of steps for a small change, but there’s an added benefit: by having objects fade in after the transition, you remove them from Magic Move’s detection algorithm. So, if you’re noticing that Magic Move is choosing the wrong objects to move, you can remove them from the equation by having them fade in afterwards. Bingo!

From Slides to Videos

In my opinion, these animations make presentations a much more valuable tool to convey complex information in a comprehensible way. So valuable, in fact, that I’ve taken the additional step of making them full fledged videos. Almost all of the materials in the Teaching section of my website were made using Keynote. After setting up animations to my liking, I use the “Record Slideshow” function to add a voiceover and export it as a video file. But that’s for another post.

MOOC Money

Caroline M. Hoxby recently published a NBER working paper on the role of MOOCs in the future business models of both “selective” and “non-selective” postsecondary institutions. The bulk of the paper would be interesting only to an economist, but the end is where things get interesting.

Hoxby argues that the current way that MOOCs are run (make your courses available publicly) could align with the business of non-selective institutions, in that students would pay to enroll in a course just like they would at a brick and mortar school. For “Highly Selective Postsecondary Education” (HSPE) Institutions (schools that rely heavily on alumni donations), though, Hoxby presents an alterative:

Viable online education for HSPE must deal with two problems: (i) the selectivity necessary for offering advanced education and (ii) the experiences that build the beliefs and adherence that sustain the venture capital-like financial model.

Consider a system in which HSPE institutions created online versions of their courses that could be traded with other institutions whose students had similarly high aptitude and preparation. The exporting institution could maintain the advanced nature of the course by limiting enrollment to those outside students who were best prepared, by disallowing outside students whose home institutions had previously sent students who underperformed, or by insisting that the outside students receive support (interactions and assessment) from an instructor at their home institution who is trusted by the exporting faculty member. Exporting institutions might offer such courses at a sustainable cost.18 A student’s home HSPE institution would continue to set his degree requirements, grant his degree, and be responsible for all other aspects of his PE experience.

I haven’t thought enough about this model to consider its implications, but this is one of the more novel pieces I’ve come across that speaks directly to how higher education business models can incorporate these new modes of teaching. If you’re aware of others, please do let me know!

Link: The Economics of Online Postsecondary Education: MOOCs, Nonselective Education, and Highly Selective Education

Teaching Regression Discontinuity

A very enjoyable post on the regression discontinuity study design over at the must-read Development Impact blog. I was lucky enough to introduce this design to a room full of policy master’s students this semester, and I agree completely with all of Evans’ points. In addition to being a conceptually interesting design, RD is a great way to introduce students to the rationale behind quasi-experimental studies.