Teaching From Home (TFH): Writing on a Tablet

No matter what we teach, many of us make use of handwriting when in the classroom. We write on a whiteboard/blackboard, or write on handouts using a document camera, or write on slides being project on a screen. Writing helps guide learners toward the ideas that you consider important, and it helps organize thought processes and discussions. Plus, it lets you do something with your hands besides fidget.

When teaching online, there are lots of ways to approximate the benefits of writing without a stylus. Instead of a whiteboard, for example, you could have a Google Doc that learners can follow along with or even contribute to. But many of us need the flexibility of handwritten words and drawn diagrams. For that I suggest using a tablet (in my case, an iPad).

The two main decisions you have to make when using a tablet are:

  1. What app should I use to write?
  2. How should I project?

In this post I’m going to outline these choices and your options. I’ll try to describe the pros and cons of each option, and articulate why I do things the way I do.

Question 1: What app should I use to write?

There is no shortage of apps for the iPad that allow you to write or draw. With the advent of the Apple Pencil (a tool I highly encourage you to use in lieu of a traditional chunky stylus, provided that your iPad supports it), writing on an iPad has reached new levels of ease and comfort. So which app should you use?

When deciding which app is best for you, I prefer apps that have a “presenter mode” – that is to say, when the iPad is projecting onto an external screen, the app’s UI and other apps on the screen are hidden from the external screen (see my old post on Keynote for examples). This is especially useful for teachers, since it (a) ensures that the students only focus on your content and not the details, and (b) allows you to have additional reference material on your iPad that students don’t see.

I’m going to go through the most popular options below. Each of these has its own type of presenter mode that you should experiment with:

  1. PowerPoint (.pptx): The People’s Choice. If you use slides in your class, there’s a very good chance that they’re PowerPoint slides.
  2. Keynote (.key): For the Aesthetically Minded. Keynote has, in my opinion, an unparalleled ability to animate and show context.
  3. GoodNotes (.pdf): Flexibility and Power. If you prefer a blank whiteboard, or use Beamer, or like to zoom in and out, or simply like to write a lot, PDF annotation apps are nimble in ways that more traditional slideshow apps are not. There are many options out there, though the two most popular are GoodNotes and Notability. I used to not recommend Notability for teaching because it lacked a presenter mode, but the developers have finally added it (just a week ago at time of writing). My love for GoodNotes is no secret, so I’ll focus on that in this post, but Notability seems to be roughly the same in terms of features for our purposes.

Let’s take a look at how each performs, both in terms of handwriting and presenter mode.

Writing/Drawing

  • PowerPoint: Not great, but not bad either. A very basic set of colored pens, highlighters, and erasers, with no ability to adjust the thickness or use other colors. The pens aren’t especially “realistic” feeling either. One feature of note: when you exit a presentation that you’ve been writing on, it asks if you want to keep your annotations. If you tap “Keep”, they become embedded in the slides as shapes.
  • Keynote: Truly terrible. A couple of colors, zero ability to adjust thickness. Heck, you can’t even erase (just undo)! Writing on Keynote feels clunky and fragile; if you stop presenting your slideshow, you lose all annotations that you had made. All of that despite the fact that iOS has a built-in handwriting engine that works wonderfully. Sigh.
  • GoodNotes: Exquisite! Infinitely customizable pens and highlighters; a customizable eraser that can automatically snap back to your previous pen after you use it; shape recognition; and a lasso tool to move handwriting around. If you plan on writing a lot and want precision and flexibility, GoodNotes is the way to go.

Presenter mode

For each screenshot, I tried to show as much information as each app’s presenter mode allows:

  • PowerPoint: Solid! Shows your current slide, presenter notes, and thumbnails for your presentation. There’s also a button to black out the screen if needed, and the ability to zoom in and out of slides.
  • Keynote: Lots of customizations in terms of seeing the current and/or next slide, presenter notes, current time/elapsed time, and thumbnails.
  • GoodNotes: In addition to hiding the UI, GoodNotes allows you to either mirror the each full page (similar to a full slide in PowerPoint or Keynote), or zoom in and out of your slides (“Mirror Presenter Page”). You can get to thumbnails etc., but you have to tap the four squares in the top left corner to access a grid of thumbnails.

Question 2: How should I project?

Zoom offers three ways to project from your iPad, two using the Desktop client and one from the iPad itself. I’ll say now that I don’t recommend projecting from the iPad itself. It will turn your iPad into its own “Participant” in your Zoom room, which complicates how you interact with your students (e.g., it’ll get assigned to a Breakout Room if you use those). The stream itself is also of lower quality in my experience. So, onto the Desktop options:

Option 1: Plug your iPad in directly. The advantage of this method is that it’s easy. Plug your iPad directly into your computer, click “Share Screen” in Zoom, and click “iPhone/iPad via cable”. You may have to enter your iPad password the first time, but then you’re all set! Your iPad is being mirrored to your computer and to your students.

Option 2: Airplay to your iPad. The downside to Option 1 is that it doesn’t take advantage of presenter mode. That is to say, whatever is happening on your iPad is being mirrored entirely to your students. Option 2, however, will use the presenter modes that I mentioned earlier in this post. For example, here’s what I see versus what students see in Keynote when using Airplay:

The downside, though, is that projecting is a two step process. After clicking “Share Screen” and “iPhone/iPad via Airplay” in Zoom, you then have to go into your iPad’s control center, select “Screen Mirroring” and connect to your computer:

If you’re comfortable with these steps, I recommend Option 2, but only if presenter mode is especially useful to you.

[UPDATE July 9 2020] Option 3 (Keynote only): Project from your Mac and annotate with your iPad. Keynote has long had the ability to remote control/annotate on slides playing from one device using another device. This means that you can run a Keynote presentation from your Mac then, using your iPad as a remote control, annotate on the slides. I used to not suggest this approach because Keynote on the Mac took over all monitors while a presentation was running. However, as of Keynote version 10.1, you can now choose “Play Slideshow in Window” to have Keynote run as a standalone window on your Mac. If you use Keynote as your primary way of presenting, this is now the setup that I recommend.

What I Use

So what am I using when teaching on Zoom? I use Airplay Mirroring (Option 2) with both GoodNotes and Zoom.

In class, I show two screens to students, one showing a handout in GoodNotes (that they also have) and one showing supplementary screens in Keynote for animations. While online teaching, I’m learning that projecting two screens onto students small laptops is not a great learning experience, so instead I’ll be switching between them manually. iPad makes it easy to quickly switch between apps, and it looks pretty seamless from the student’s perspective as long as I’m using Airplay Mirroring:

There’s of course a lot to consider here, but in the end I suggest you pick the app that you’re most comfortable with and work from there. It’s possible to make any of these combinations work – what matters is that you feel comfortable with the setup you choose so that you can focus on teaching.