iWork gets LaTeX equation editing

In April of last year, Apple released an update for Pages that supported rendering equations entered using LaTeX or MathML. I was really impressed that Apple chose to support not one but two standards for entering equations1, but was pretty bummed to learn that equation rendering was specific to Pages.

Today that changed. All three iWork apps now support equation rendering (even Numbers!). This is a big, big deal for me; it’ll be a huge timesaver2 and enable for much richer math-based animations in my presentations.

If you combine this with handwriting apps like MyScript Nebo, you can hand draw equations, copy them as LaTeX code, and paste them right into your iWork document.

On a different note, iWork on iOS is really growing up. Keynote now supports the editing and creation of paragraph styles and master slide layouts. I still work with Keynote most efficiently on MacOS, especially when editing animations in bulk, but the iOS apps are becoming more and more self-sufficient with each update.

  1. Especially in comparison to Microsoft’s equation syntax, which is just close enough to LaTeX to be infuriating to use.
  2. I used to create equations in a Pages document, then pasted them into Keynote as images. It worked, but it was kludgy as heck.

My Tech Setup in the Classroom

I’ve talked at length about the technological details of my teaching setup, and I frequently get questions about exactly how it works. This post is an attempt to document my current setup1.

Before reading on, it’s important to note a few things:

  • This is a two screen setup; I’m lucky enough to teach in a room that has a main projector screen and two (identical) side screens, so much of this setup involves controlling two screens as seamlessly as possible;
  • My teaching style involves writing on an iPad that is displaying a PDF that closely mirrors the handout that I give to students. I use handouts that have lots of empty space that gets filled in by students as the class progresses, so my iPad writing is essentially following along with them;
  • The side screens display supplementary content on Keynote slides that reinforces, organizes, enhances, or extends the handout content that we’re working on together. These include section headers, animations, and Poll Everywhere polls.

Alright, enough caveats. Here’s my entire setup in a single diagram:

In short, I wirelessly project my iPad to the main screen via an Apple TV, and control my MacBook (which is projecting the side slides) from my iPad using Keynote for iOS’ remote functionality.

The Tech

Here’s what I use to make this happen:

Hardware

In addition to needing two screens in the classroom with two distinct inputs, I use:

  • An Apple TV2 which is plugged into the main screen;
  • An iPad Pro3 which is AirPlay Mirroring to the Apple TV;
  • A MacBook4 which is plugged into the side screens.

Software

The reason this system works so seamlessly is the software. Here’s what I use:

  • GoodNotes to annotate the handout being projected from the iPad;
  • Keynote running on both my MacBook (to project the side slides) and iPad (to control the MacBook remotely);
  • PollEv Presenter running on my MacBook and Poll Everywhere’s presenter view loaded on Safari on my iPad.

I also keep OmniOutliner running on my iPad with notes that I reference throughout the lecture such as answers to practice problems and information on who to call on.

I could theoretically use other software to get all of this done, but here’s why this particular constellation of apps and services works so well or me:

  • GoodNotes goes into presentation mode when it’s Airplay Mirroring, which hides both UI elements of the app and any other apps that are in Split View or Slide Over on the iPad. This means that all the other apps that I’m using on my iPad are hidden from the students;
  • Keynote’s remote functionality involves magic from a dark dimension that is a big help while teaching. It essentially gives you a presenter view interface on the iPad that can switch to an annotation mode if needed, making it indistinguishable from the experience of running the presentation from the iPad itself. Better still, it connects via peer-to-peer networking, so it doesn’t matter what kind of network you’re connected to. I’ve used this on a university network in the United States, on a captive network in India, and on a shaky network in Nepal, all without problems.
  • Running the Keynote slides from my MacBook allows me to embed polls in Keynote without having to switch apps.
  • Poll Everywhere’s presenter view allows me to view results of polls before I reveal them to the classroom. This means I can choose my next step (which may or may not involve showing the class their responses) based on the distribution of responses. I can also hide/lock/unshare the poll from the presenter view on my iPad, which propagates to the poll displayed on the MacBook.

Adding/Reducing Devices

This setup can get more or less complex depending on your needs and resources.

If I’m stuck using a one screen setup, I usually choose between GoodNotes (if I have a lot of writing to do) or Keynote (if my class plan has lots of animations in it). I could (and do) switch between the two apps occasionally (e.g., if I have mostly handwriting to do but have one animation to show later in the class), but it’s not a particularly smooth transition. For polling, I recommend Perfect Browser pointing to your Poll Everywhere polls, since it has a UI-hiding presentation mode as well.

I’m currently experimenting with  adding another device to this setup in the form of an always-on iPad that only I can see. On this iPad I run my OmniOutliner notes and the Poll Everywhere presenter view in Split View, so that I don’t have to use Slide Over on my main iPad (which can accidentally advance my Keynote slides if I’m not careful). That said, I think I can do more with this additional device; if you have any suggestions, please get in touch.

Stay Focused

This setup has worked very well for me, but only because I genuinely believe that it improves the learning experience for students. Having supplementary animations and interactive polls has well established benefits, but these materials are often accompanied by increased friction as the instructor switches inputs, activates the poll, and troubleshoots errors in the middle of class. The setup in this article minimizes that friction and, once you get the hang of it, maximizes the time in the classroom spent on learning.

That said, my parting advice is to weigh the costs and benefits of complicating your teaching setup before trying out something like this. Hopefully the benefits are clear, but the cost in the form of an increased cognitive load as you teach is nontrivial. Keep your eye on the real goal of improving learning and, if this post helps you get closer to that goal, have fun!

  1. I do mean current; it’s constantly in flux and will likely be a bit different soon after this is published.
  2. Generation 3 Rev A or later, so that Airplay Mirroring happens peer-to-peer, which is a godsend for those of us on university wifi networks.
  3. could be a non-Pro, but the Apple Pencil is swell.
  4. I could project the side slides using an iOS device and the system would still work, but using a Mac allows me to run PollEv Presenter so that polls on the side slides are embedded in Keynote and automatically activate when I switch to that slide.

Mac Power Users #319

This week I was on Mac Power Users to talk about my workflows related to teaching and academic research. I’m a huge fan of MPU so it was quite an honor to be on.

Have a listen – feedback always welcome.

Mac Power Users #319: Teaching Workflows with Teddy Svoronos

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  ↩