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.

Annotating Screenshots in iOS with Mail

Gabe Weatherhead has an awesome post about how he uses the awesome Pixelmator to annotate screenshots. It’s awesome.

Gabe’s discussion of the limitations of all the many different existing iOS apps to annotate screenshots got me thinking about another option: the Markup extension in iOS Mail.

In addition to being built in, the Markup extension has some nice properties:

  • it has excellent shape recognition, including arrows;
  • it’s pressure sensitive using 3D Touch on the iPhone 6s and the Pencil on the iPad Pro;
  • it has a very simple and easy to use interface.

There’s just one big downside to markup: for reasons I cannot fathom, it’s only available in Mail[1]. This is in spite of the fact that it exists in the action extension share sheet in Mail:

Despite this major limitation, the usability of the markup extension makes it worth using by sharing a photo via Mail, then saving the sent image back to your photo library.

First, share an image via Mail and tap on the image to get the Markup option (I sometimes have to tap it more than once):

You can then edit the image to your heart’s content including shapes (notice the nice shape recognition option at the bottom), text, and even a magnifier callout:

Once that’s done, you can either send it to yourself and save/share the image from iOS mail, or you can use this handy dandy IFTTT recipe to email it to IFTTT which saves it back into your photo library, annotated and all. A bit roundabout, but it works.

  1. That’s right, not even Notes or Messages. Maybe in iOS 10?  ↩

Increasingly Irrelevant Distinctions

When I started graduate school a few years ago, I was terribly concerned about my notetaking setup (in retrospect, I should have been more concerned about statistics). I was about to get hammered by information that took a variety of forms: lots of equations and diagrams, but also enough discussion-oriented material to require flexibility in how I took notes. My main candidates, which I used to varying degrees, were:

  • Notes taken on my iPad, a combination of handwritten (with a stylus) and typed[1];
  • Typing notes using MultiMarkdown, to allow for easily formatted text, equations, footnotes, and other wacky content;
  • Going whole hog and taking notes in LaTeX in real time (using TeXpad on Mac or iOS);
  • Handwriting my notes with a pen, in a notebook made of paper. Probably by candlelight or gas lantern.

I ended up with a combination of these, depending on the course and whatever devices I had available. This caused quite a bit of consternation in my workflow-addled brain. What if I needed an equation and couldn’t find it? What if I had different silos of material that adhered to different organizational systems? Won’t somebody please think of the metadata?

Looking back on my 2+ years of notes (which I actually refer to pretty often), I’ve realized how little the input medium mattered. No matter which of the tools I used, everything that I recorded is now either (a) in PDF format in Dropbox, or (b) stashed in Evernote.

Solution (a) should be familiar to you if you’ve made it this far in my post, but it’s worth stressing: keep every bit of digital information that’s important to you in PDF format. It’s standard, it’s viewable on any device, it’s not tied to a large corporation that constantly changes the meaning of file extensions, it’s searchable (especially with solid OCR software on Mac and iOS)…just do it.

Solution (b) is new to me, even though I’ve used Evernote off and on for many years. I’ve only recently started working with Evernote in a way that clicks for me, but I now rely heavily on Evernote’s solid handwriting recognition, which they do automatically once a note is on their servers. These improvements are reliable enough that I can choose to write on my iPad with a stylus and export to Evernote, or handwrite in a notebook and capture it with the Evernote app’s document camera. Here’s an example of some notes I took on my iPad (left) and on paper (right):

Evernote handwriting recognition
Evernote handwriting recognition

As you can see, both notes recognize the word “treat” despite some pretty terrible handwriting.

I’m still working out the kinks of what to keep as a PDF in Dropbox and what to ‘scan’ into Evernote (FYI, Evernote saves these scans as image files). The short answer is that I keep notes that I want to reference in Evernote, and notes that I want to keep working on (including journal articles that I want to highlight) in Dropbox. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m trying my very best not to stress about it. Both are highly searchable, organizable repositories, and Mavericks tags have added the tagging functionality of Evernote to Dropbox.

I’m sure I’ll expound on this in a later post, but hopefully somebody will find this useful.

  1. If you’re interested, I used Noteshelf with a Wacom Bamboo stylus and now use GoodNotes with an Adonit Jot Script. But I digress.  ↩

EZ does it

While discussing research workflows with colleagues, I’ve been surprised to hear that many get the full text of a journal article by coming across an article, navigating to their school library website, searching for the journal under E-Resources, clicking on the journal link, digging down to the article of interest, and downloading it.

It doesn’t have to be this way (usually).

In most cases, links to journal pages through your library’s website are identical to their ordinary link + a suffix (called an EZproxy) that validates your school credentials to check if you have access. Thus, instead of:

Your library’s link will look something like:

Your browser can make this change through what’s called a ‘bookmarklet,’ a bookmark that, when clicked, does something with the existing URL in your browser. For my case, creating a bookmark with the following script as its content will redirect a journal’s site through my school library:


Alternatively, you can simply drag this EZproxy link into your browser bar.

Here’s a list of different schools’ EZproxy URLs. Edit the code above by replacing with your school’s URL.

In practice, this means that if you click this after trying to access a full PDF:


You get this:


Now, the caveat: this will not work for certain journals[1]. This may be because your school accesses that journal through some larger database, in which case you may have to go back to your library website, like an animal. But this works for me most of the time; hope you find it useful.

  1. Note that this may simply be because your school doesn’t have access to that journal. Ugh, I know.  ↩