Image is Creative Commons licensed to Flickr user leondel

I love my iPad.

I bought it this summer, and it’s still new enough that sometimes I just sit there, stroking the burnished metal of the back, and marveling about how neat it is to live in the future. One of the most awesome things about this tech, for me, is the fundamental ways it has infiltrated my teaching style. When I teach, I use my iPad pretty exclusively, from lesson planning to classroom management to grading, and it has done a serious number on the way I think about being a teacher in the dawning age of ubiquitous digital technology. This post offers a brief defense for teaching with tablet technology and hacks for getting the most out of your tablets as an instructor.

I present this post with a two caveats: first, this post is written with iPads in mind (particularly as I discuss apps), because that’s what I use, but the basic principles hold for any tablet, including the neat-o Microsoft Surface. Secondly, I recognize that tablets can be prohibitively expensive for graduate students. However, new advances in tech are bringing down prices, and some schools may provide a tech budget for students. Check what kinds of devices are available to you! Although the cost can be high, I find the flexibility and utility of an iPad to be well worth the investment.

Why use tablets to teach?

I mentioned in an earlier article that tablets hit the sweet spot between a computer and a piece of paper, which is the biggest reason it has become a staple in my classroom. I no longer have to move between a computer screen and printed documents; my iPad takes care of both. There are a number of reasons why tablets have changed my teaching:

Tablets are mobile within the classroom. Not only are tablets easy to bring to the classroom, they are extremely mobile within it. I can carry my lesson plan around as I move between discussion groups, lecture from notes anywhere in the room, and refer to course readings held in one hand. I have found that this mobility enables me to remove myself from the front of the room and decenter the classroom in physical ways: I can be with the students as they learn, while still keeping my readings and notes at hand.

Tablets remove the barrier of the screen from between me and my students. When reading lesson plans, taking notes on presentations, or engaging course materials, I can hold the tablet like a piece of paper, removing the physical barrier of the screen. This helps to open up the classroom, and I have found that it significantly changes the dynamic of the room.

Tablets save paper and keep notes organized in one place. Things that I would typically print off, like grading forms, lesson plans, and course readings can be viewed and annotated on the tablet. I don’t worry about losing sheets of paper, and I can create documents that are easily shared with the swipe of a finger. I can also use digital versions of textbooks, which support robust annotation and external linking. I can store all of my notes in one place, and access what we did the day before with the touch of a button. Finally, I can take attendance and keep track of grades quickly and easily on the iPad.

Tablets support digital conversations. For example, I use Twitter in my class to promote discussion, and tablets make it easy for me to quickly type out a tweet to my students (using our class hashtag) from anywhere in the room.

Tablets allow me to work anywhere. I can grade on the bus, creating handwritten or typed feedback that is immediately shareable, and I can jot down ideas for class activities whenever I think of them.

Tablets can replace multiple kinds of tech. Tablets support streaming video as well as image projection, so instead of lugging my laptop around, I can still show my class videos, presentations, or images right from my iPad. Tablets can use polling and clicker technology, whiteboard projection, and more. A single tablet has the potential to replace a suite of technologies, and is perfect for classrooms without much technology support.

Now what?

So now that I’ve convinced you to try using a tablet to teach in your classroom, you should think about what hardware and software you might need.

As I mentioned in “Working on the Go,” one of the keys to successfully using tablets is to make sure you have the right accessories, hardware, and apps. Having multiple ways to enter information into your tablet is key to maximizing the flexibility of the tech, so I advise both a bluetooth enabled keyboard and a stylus. As well, you should look into peripherals which allow you to hook your tablet up to a projector.

The first app that you need to put on your tablet is Dropbox (and in fact, you should sign up even if you don’t have a tablet!). This cloud-based storage application is the best way to transfer your files between devices. Sign-up and the first 2GB are free, and many programs provide support for Dropbox, allowing you to import/export your files. I have my students submit all of their projects into a shared Dropbox folder. Students can see each others work, which makes collaboration easier, and I can access their work from anywhere, which makes it easier for me to grade. If Dropbox doesn’t float your boat, try SugarSync or Box for your cloud storage.

The second thing you need is an app for annotation and writing. My top pick is Notability, which is full of fantastic features. You can type, handwrite, or highlight in this app, either on a blank note or as annotations for another document. You can import https://www.gradhacker.org/files/2012/11/05/many types of documents, webclips, and photos, you can use sticky notes, draw figures, or take pictures, as well as record audio files with timestamps within the note itself. i am particularly fond of using this app to grade presentations in class; I can handwrite right on the rubric while creating a complex, easily shareable digital document. I also use Notability for all my grading; as it supports Dropbox, GoogleDrive, Box, and email, importing and exporting my documents is simple. At only $0.99, it’s a steal. Another excellent annotation and notetaking app is GoodNotes, but at $4.99, the pricetag might be too steep for some. The free app Evernote is still ever-popular, and a great note taking option. Skitch and iAnnotate are great markup tools for images and PDFs.

For lesson plans specifically, Notability works great, or try Paper Fifty Three, which has a gorgeous interface for creating pictures and text, or Moleskine, for interesting, dynamic virtual notebooks. Pages is my pick for word processor although Textilus is another great option for Microsoft Office documents. You can also try listmaking or organizational apps like Outliner, which make creating lesson plans a breeze.

Finally, there are lots of dedicated apps for teachers, including gradebook and attendance software like Paperless Teacher and TeacherKit or the student behavior tracker Teacher’s Assistant Pro. There are dozens of attendance and grading apps out there, so take a look around and see which one suits your needs.

Whiteboard and projection apps are also great for teachers. Air Sketch allows you to project live sketches to a local computer or broadcast to all of your students at once! Imagine sketching the answer to a complex math program right on each individual students machine while walking around the room! As well, polling apps are great for increasing student interaction. eClicker turns your iPad into a polling tool, sending a signal to all wi-fi enabled devices in the room. Use students phones to conduct pop quizzes or quickly gauge student responses to the readings.

Whew! Okay, there is a lot of information here, but the possibilities for teaching with tablets are fun and exciting! Hopefully, with this guide, you’re prepared to grab that tablet and get teaching!

Do you have any tips for using tablets as a teacher? Share them in the comments below!


2 Responses to Teaching with Tablets

  1. Sarah says:

    Great tips. I am not usually a very tech savvy person, but I am looking at using twitter int he classroom next year to promote discussion and interaction with students. Do you already have a post with some information on how you go about doing that, or some strategies? I would be interested to know your experiences doing this. Perhaps you could share a class hashtag so I can go and see how it has worked for you?

  2. Krista says:

    Really great information! I was wondering, do you use a keyboard attached to your tablet? I’ve been thinking of getting one for my commute (I teach online) but I need to be able to write detailed feedback. I’m not sure if the touchscreen typing would be very effective.


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