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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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.

Teaching from Home (TFH): Hardware

First, to whoever is reading this: I hope this finds you safe, healthy, and (relatively) happy.

While this is very far from the first thing on folks’ minds, I’ve received a lot of feedback on my online teaching setup and online teaching strategy, and thought I should share my ongoing process of adapting to an online environment.

I’m lucky to have some experience teaching online as one of the faculty leads for the Kennedy School’s Public Leadership Credential. In addition, I’m a big advocate of blended learning both in my residential courses and in my work training policymakers abroad. Much of this work is a combination of synchronous and asynchronous content. For now, I’ll be focusing these posts on delivering content synchronously using Zoom.

This first post will be about my tech setup when teaching online, and tips to ensure that it goes smoothly. Subsequent posts will be about pedagogical choices, but I thought it better to break them up rather than publishing an online novel.

My online teaching setup at home

Here’s an image of my current setup:

And here are the details (with lots of links), and why I think they’re important:

  • Ethernet: None of your teaching matters if students can’t see or hear it. Having a stable internet connection is absolutely critical. WiFi can work, but make absolutely sure you have a good connection where you’re sitting. I prefer physically wiring my computer via Ethernet.
  • Two monitors: I connect my laptop to my LG UltraFine display and keep both of them on. For my purposes this is vastly better than a a single screen, simply because there’s a lot going on during a Zoom session: I’m sharing a presentation, I’m looking at my students’ video feeds, I’m monitoring the Participants list for raised hands, and I’m checking in on the chat (I know, this is a lot. More on this in a subsequent post). Luckily, Zoom has a dual monitor mode that lets you make use of both screens to display all of this. I like to keep my shared screen on the smaller laptop screen, and students’ faces/raised hands/chat front and center on the large screen.
  • An iPad: If you’ve read this site before, you know that I really enjoy teaching and recording from my iPad. This is especially true when teaching online. In addition to the annotation capabilities of the iPad, projecting from my iPad instead of sharing a presentation from my computer allows me to keep the shared screen in Zoom confined to a single window; otherwise apps like Keynote or PowerPoint will take over both screens to show you a presenter view. To project I use Zoom’s iOS Screen Sharing function. You can either connect the iPad physically to your computer (easier, more stable) or Airplay to it (more finicky, but lets you keep a “Presenter View” on your iPad while projecting the presentation to students). I tend to use Airplay since I like using Keynote’s presenter capabilities without students seeing them.1
  • Headphones: I cannot stress this enough: use headphones. If you use your computer speakers, there’s the risk of a feedback loop where your voice comes out of the speakers and back into the microphone ad infinitum. Zoom and other applications try to prevent this via software, but you’re better off removing this possibility.
  • Microphone: Your laptop microphone is probably fine (though you should check to make sure that it is). That said, if you happen to have an external microphone it can really help your audio quality which students will appreciate. I use a Blue Yeti which I have mixed feelings about, but which gets the job done.
  • Webcam: Your computer’s built-in one is fine, but I’m putting this here to stress that you should look into the camera as much as possible when teaching (this can be easy to forget when you have a laptop, since the webcam is below eye level. You’ll naturally want to look at your content or somewhere else, but the last thing your students want is to stare at your chin for 75 minutes.
  • Lighting: The general advice is to not have bright lights behind you, and to instead keep a consistent light source in front of you (behind your monitor). Experiment with different positions and see how they look.

Of course, don’t forget your water and espresso:

Phew! That’s enough for today. Please let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions. My  next post will be about my thinking with respect to running online sessions.

Stay safe!


  1. Note that you could also use an iPhone or other device as a secondary remote control for your presentation, but I digress. ↩︎

Producing, Recording, Editing, and Sharing Animated Videos on iPad


A significant part of my pedagogical approach involves the creation of short, animated videos that convey statistical concepts. Students watch these videos and answer a few quiz questions, which I can then use to make better use of the time we have in class together.

Initially, I would record these videos using Keynote on my Mac, edit them on my Mac, and post them online on my Mac. Over the past year or two, I’ve shifted the entire process onto my iPad – recording with an external mic, editing it in its entirety, and uploading it using Safari. I’m documenting that process in this post for my future self and for anyone else that is interested in doing this too.

Recording

Video

Recording a Keynote presentation has become possible since iOS 11 introduced screen recording to Control Center. Now, I can tap record, go through a Keynote presentation, write on slides as I go1, and end up with a high quality recording of my presentation.

One thing to keep in mind is that I always use presentations with a 16:9 (widescreen) aspect ratio. This way the annotation tools don’t show up on the presentation as I go, and when I export the final video in widescreen all the UI is hidden from the viewer (more on that later).

Audio

iOS’ screen recording feature also allow you to keep the microphone on while recording, so that you can narrate over your slides. However, if you’re in a noisy environment or have a very hot mic (I’m looking at you, Blue Yeti), you might want to add a noise gate and some gain control. Luckily, if you use an app that can send your mic input through your headphones while in the background, iOS screen recording will pick up the processed audio!

I use GarageBand for this. It’s free, it’s reliable, and it integrates with third party apps.

Here’s what my GarageBand file looks like. It’s a single, flat audio track taking in my mic input and feeding it through the monitor (which is set to on). You’ll notice that I keep the gain level pretty low on the left.


Now for the fun part. If you tap the track control buttons on the top left and tap “Plug-ins & EQ”, you can add a noise gate, change the EQ, or utilize any number of third party effects.


One app I highly recommend is Brusfri. Once you record a few seconds of silence, you can let Brusfri listen to your recording and filter out background noise for when you record your video.


Editing

Video

Once your recording is complete, it’s time to edit.

Editing video on the iPad has become pretty easy since the introduction of LumaFusion. To begin with, LumaFusion allows you to create a video in the 16:9 aspect ratio, which immediately gets rid of all UI elements from my video (if you want to use a simpler solution like iMovie, I suggest Video Crop as an inexpensive app that will impose the aspect ratio that you need). Once your video is in LumaFusion, the world’s your oyster. You can create crossfades, add titles, or do whatever chopping and screwing your heart desires.

Audio

Two things worth noting about audio editing. First, iOS apps sometimes take a screen recording video and play it back with no audio at all. After a helpful exchange with the developers of Ferrite, I learned that this is because the video file actually has two tracks: whatever sounds the iPad itself produced via software, and the microphone input. Some apps simply ignore the mic input. I’ve found that using the “Detach” button in LumaFusion fixes this2:


Second, if you didn’t do any noise reduction/voice boosting before recording, you can share your video to Brusfri or Ferrite to clean up the audio, and then drop the audio file into LumaFusion alongside the video.

Uploading

Once this is all done, you’re ready to upload. While LumaFusion integrates with many video services and services, I need an actual file to upload to Kaltura, the video hosting platform that my institution uses, so I choose iCloud Drive and save the video in the Files app. Once I go to my media uploader in Safari, I simply select that file using the Browse option (any website with a standard file uploading interface should let you choose your video file via Browse):


A fully functioning system

At this point, 100% of my needs with respect to this workflow are satisfied by my iPad. This means that I have a fully mobile recording studio, and it’s quite easy to make a high quality video in a relatively short amount of time. Hope others will find this useful and, as always, please let me know if you have questions or thoughts.


  1. Though I really wish Apple would beef up these annotation capabilities ↩︎
  2. I’ve also noticed that any app that compresses the video will mix all the audio to one track, which also fixes the problem. ↩︎

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.

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.

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

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?  ↩

Save files on iOS with Workflow

I like getting work done on my iPhone and iPad. At times it gets impractical (I’m looking at you Stata), but there are lots of simple actions that I can do from my iOS devices, oftentimes faster than I can do on my Mac. One task that I always thought I should be able to quickly do from my iOS device is save a file from Safari, Mail, or any other app to a folder on Dropbox. This has been a pretty clunky process involving using the “Open In…” menu, opening a file in the Dropbox app, choosing a folder, tapping Save, and returning to the original app.

With the release of Workflow, I can finally say that it’s just as easy to save a file on iOS as it is on my Mac.

If you haven’t heard about Workflow, it’s a $2.99 app that lets you build custom actions that you can run from your device. Unlike previous workflow apps like Pythonista and Editorial, Workflow is extremely easy for non-programmers to use. Lots has been written about it since its release in December, ranging from the simple to the extensive to the extremely nerdy. This app can do a million things, but in this post I will focus on an extremely useful, and extremely simple to set up, action to save a file.

The final product

I often come across a PDF in Safari that I’d like to save. With Workflow, I tap “Open In…,” select “Run Workflow,” and choose one of three actions that I’ve set up:

These actions, in increasing order of both complexity and flexibility are:

  1. Save the file to a folder in my Dropbox called “1Read,” where I save PDFs for later reading;
  2. Save the file to an arbitrary folder in Dropbox;
  3. Save the file to a folder in iCloud Drive, Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, or any other third party service that supports document provider extensions in iOS 8.

Here’s a collection of screenshots that show the 1Read workflow (1), the Dropbox workflow (2), and the iCloud Drive (3a) or third party document provider (3b) workflow:

Workflow (1) has zero additional steps; it saves it to the 1Read folder and that’s it. Workflow (2) has the additional step of selecting a Dropbox folder in which to save the file. Workflow (3) involves first choosing a document provider, then choosing a folder[1].

The crazy part

“That’s fine for a PhD student, but setting this up must take a lot of time, energy, and frustration.”

I hear you, dear reader, but fear not.

I give you, in its entirety, the setup for each of these three workflows:

Some notes:

  • As you can see, Workflows (1) and (2) are identical, except for the toggle “Ask Where to Save.”
  • If you have a frequently used “inbox” folder, it’s worth setting up a separate workflow just for that folder.
  • Make sure you specify these workflows as “Action Extensions” so that they show up in the Share Sheet.
  • Workflow (3) is one that I’ve come to rely on quite a bit. Besides the third party providers, iCloud Drive is actually a nice save location, since if you don’t have an internet connection at the time of saving, it’ll save it locally and upload it once you get a connection.

If you check out the @WorkflowHQ twitter page or the Workflow Gallery, you’ll find lots and lots of other Workflows. But this is one that’s easy to set up, easy to use, and fills a real need in my work habits.


  1. You may notice that Dropbox is a document provider that shows up in Workflow (3). Since I use it so much, and since the native document picker will sometimes crash, I made a separate Dropbox-only action.  ↩

Wireless Presenting Just Got a Lot Easier

Much has been said about Apple’s updates to Keynote, Pages, and Numbers last year, and much of that has been pretty negative. However, Apple has been rolling out updates to these apps over the past few months and, as of the latest update, has made a wonderful thing possible: it is now easy to wirelessly present and annotate a Keynote presentation with nothing more than an iPad, iPhone, and adapter.

Doing a wireless presentation on the go has been possible, but even the most well-done setups have required purchasing, bringing, and configuring additional devices (MacSparky’s setup, which I have used until now, requires a $99 Apple TV and a $99 Airport Express). Now, I only need three things which I carry around anyway: my iPad mini, my iPhone, and an adapter to hook an iOS device to a projector.

The Setup

The basic setup is to use your iPad as a remote that you carry around, which controls your iPhone that’s connected to the room projector[1]. Here are my steps for setting up a wireless Keynote presentation:

  1. Connect my iPhone to the projector using the adapter
  2. Pair the Keynote apps so that my iPad serves as a remote for my iPhone
  3. Press Play on my iPad
  4. Don’t be nervous and do a really good presentation

I’ll walk you through steps 1–3; you’re on your own for step 4.

Hardware: Connect your iPhone

This is easy. Both the VGA and HDMI adapters also have a power plug, so you can keep your iPhone charged while you project. As for which adapter to purchase, in my experience overhead projectors use VGA, while flatscreens use HDMI. That said, I work in academia, so you private sector folks with the fancy pants might only need HDMI to function.

Software: Pair the Keynote apps

The pairing process can feel a bit tedious, but only needs to be done the first time (your device is remembered for subsequent presentations). Better still, if you’re pairing iOS-to-iOS you don’t even need to be on the same network. Here are the steps:

  1. Make sure Bluetooth is on for both devices
  2. Open Keynote on both devices
  3. On the iPad, tap the remote button on the main screen and tap Continue
  4. On the iPhone, open a presentation
  5. On the iPhone, tap on the wrench icon on the upper right of the screen and navigate to Presentation Tools > Allow Remote Control and turn Enable Remotes on
  6. After taking a few seconds to pair via Bluetooth, your iPad should appear underneath Enable Remotes; tap Link
  7. A passcode should show up on both devices; confirm that they’re the same number by tapping Confirm on your iPhone
  8. Tap Done on your iPhone

Combined, here’s what it looks like on the iPhone:

and on the iPad:

Presenting

I said I couldn’t help you make an awesome presentation, but here’s a neat tip: as of this week’s Keynote updates, you can use your iPad to draw on your existing slides, and draw attention to parts of your slide using a laser pointer function. Here’s what it looks like in practice:

This means that you can walk around the room with iPad in hand, drawing and pointing to your heart’s content, all while projecting onto the room’s projector through your iPhone.

The best part? This is all I need for my new mobile presentation setup:

Enjoy, and please get in touch if you have ideas or suggestions.


  1. In this post, I’m using the iPad as the remote and connecting the iPhone to the projector; this is because I prefer to use the iPad for annotations and reading notes. Feel free to switch the two if you prefer to have the iPhone in hand.  ↩