This post was updated a little bit and republished at PBS MediaShift on Nov. 14. Thanks to my editors there for the chance to take it to a wider audience!
Because of a couple of my past posts, people often find my blog when they’re looking for information on teaching with the iPad. So I thought I might give an update on the technology tools I’m using in my teaching and personal productivity this semester on various platforms. I’ve mentioned some of these before, but it’s interesting to track which ones have infiltrated my workflow permanently and which have failed to prove their utility (for my purposes, at least).
In the Classroom
- Attendance iPad app. I used its photo-management feature to take photos of all my students on the first day of classes this semester. A great tool for learning names more quickly (always a huge struggle for me) and for tracking attendance accurately. Though its interface is plain – taking roll isn’t sexy – it’s a valuable app.
- Alas, I don’t really do classroom presentations on the iPad. I thought I’d end up using Keynote from the iPad in the classroom, in lieu of toting my laptop to class. Nope. I ran into initial compatibility problems with an old version of Keynote on my laptop, and then realized that my photo- and video-heavy slideshows are difficult to create on the iPad anyway. So I’m still just using my MacBook Pro in class for Keynote.
- However, beyond Keynote: The iPad now projects whatever you show on the screen through the VGA adapter. Hooray! I’ve now been able to demonstrate digital magazines and books to students using the iPad in class.
- Evernote. I create class notes or guest lecture outlines on my laptop in Evernote, then access them on the iPad when needed. Incredibly handy and paper-saving.
- Caffeine (Mac only). A simple plugin that prevents your screen from dimming or turning off during presentations and video viewing. So useful.
- I learned how to use Yahoo! Pipes this semester to aggregate my students’ blog posts and pull them into our class website (a WordPress.org installation on my own domain) as one feed. It was much easier to do than I thought it would be.
- AP Stylebook. I subscribed to the digital/app version so I never have to take the book to class, and I never leave it in the office over the weekend when I need it for grading at home. That happened far too often, and it’s been worth it (yes, worth $24!) to not have to worry about this problem.
Grading and Feedback
- I use two apps for simple grading calculations because I am lazy. The iPad app is called GroovyGrader, and it’s free (with ads). The iPhone app is called EasyGrader and costs 99 cents. (Both work on either device. I like GroovyGrader on the iPad because I don’t have to scroll to see the full list of possible grades.) When you just want to know the grade out of 100 points when a student misses 5 questions on a 40-question exam, and you don’t want to do the math every time or create an Excel spreadsheet…this is your app.
- I used the GradeMark feature of Turnitin in Blackboard for the first time this semester. I have concerns about Turnitin as a company due to its use of its student paper database for a new service that students can purchase prior to turning in their work that alerts them to possible plagiarism. I found GradeMark so easy to use, though (darn it), that I’ve decided to continue to use it this year and then explore other options. The GradeMark system allows the instructor to see Turnitin’s originality report information and also attach comments (both unique to that student or pre-prepared from a customizable database) for a student’s paper. The standard comments come with explanations of writing concepts (e.g., students can immediately be reminded of what a comma splice is when they view that comment). The comments are saved online for the student to access. The grade attached to the paper is automatically posted in Blackboard’s gradebook. The instructor can even see whether a student has viewed the feedback provided. You can download the papers in one zipped file so you always have a backup and a record of what students received from you. In all, I have to admit it’s a pretty cool system.
- What did not work for me: a couple of years ago, I tried using a Wacom Bamboo tablet (a nice little device that I still use when I weary of a mouse or trackpad) to mark up student papers in Adobe Acrobat. This was a hugely time-consuming process that required me to first create PDFs of student papers, attempt to scribble neatly on them with the tablet, and then email the copy with feedback back to students. Ugh. Never again.
Communicating with Students and Colleagues
- I am a Twitter aficionado and use TweetDeck on my MacBook and the official Twitter apps for iPad and iPhone. TweetDeck lets me easily track all the tweets from my current students on their class lists and all the activity around their class hashtags.
- I have used Jing a number of times this semester and in previous years to create screencast tutorials for various online activities students need to complete (such as creating a blog on WordPress.com). These tutorials save me untold hours of demonstrating in person and writing directions in emails. I also have used Jing for providing feedback to students on online work that is difficult to comment upon otherwise. I can narrate what I see in their work (e.g., a blog post), point at and highlight things with the mouse cursor, type into their documents, and then send them a secure link to the online video, which is quickly uploaded to Screencast.com through the Jing software. One caution: my students watched the screencasts so many times this semester that I had to upgrade my Screencast.com account to a pro account ($9.99/month) to ensure that the necessary bandwidth was available. That was a bummer, and I’ll be re-evaluating my use of Jing+Screencast.com for tutorials. For individual feedback, though, I think this is a great combination. Students responded positively to it as well.
- I learned about Unsubscribe.com this fall, and have been using it to aggressively reduce the amount of automated email I receive. I use Apple Mail and have installed the Unsubscribe plugin. When I receive automated mail I no longer want, I just select the message and click the Unsubscribe button in my toolbar. The service then automagically unsubscribes me. It’s pretty awesome. There are plugins available for other email apps as well. (Incidentally, I think I’m also saving money by not getting so many shopping-related emails!)
- Although many to-do lists are available out there, I’ve stuck with Toodledo. It’s simple, has a clean web interface, works with my iPhone and iPad, and is reliable.
- Google Calendar is wonderful and allows me to have not only my personal calendar, but also calendars for my individual classes that can be embedded on my class websites (like this). It’s helpful for me to see all my upcoming events and deadlines – and theirs – in one place.
- Dropbox and SugarSync are cloud storage services that I appreciate very much. Dropbox works with many iPad/iPhone apps, making it a central point for storing file I might need to access elsewhere. SugarSync is similar, but is configured to automatically back up key folders on my laptop ($59/year, but the peace of mind is worth it). I can also access anything in those key folders anywhere I have Internet access, which has been helpful on a couple of occasions.
- TextExpander. My students may suspect this by now, but every time they get an email from me that ends with “Please let me know if you have more questions,” I’ve actually only typed “ppl” – and TextExpander has done the rest. I have used this tool for numerous grading and writing purposes over the time I’ve had it installed. (All those Texas Monthlys in my dissertation, with their annoying italics? I typed only “TM” every time.) The software reports that it has saved me over 30 hours of typing during our wonderful time together.
- FocusBooster is a great Pomodoro Technique app that – when the going (read: grading) gets tough – allows me to work for 20 minutes, then
knittake a 5-minute break (or whatever intervals I need). When you just can’t bring yourself to work, sometimes settling into just 20 minutes of work (at first) seems much more doable.
Reading and Writing
- I use Reeder for reading RSS feeds on the iPad (after trying many other RSS readers for the iPad). I use Google Reader pretty much solely as a subscription manager at this point, and just sync my account with Reeder for more comfortable reading away from the computer on the iPad or iPhone.
- I use Readability to reformat websites for easier reading, and I use Instapaper (on the iPad and soon on a new Kindle) to save long stories to read later. Interesting stuff gets saved to my Pinboard account for later reference. (Pinboard also automatically saves any tweet I send that includes a link, so I never have to wonder, “What was that article I tweeted the other day?”) Pinboard is worth every penny of the $9-something lifetime membership fee I spent on it. Readability, Instapaper, and Pinboard all work via bookmarklets in my browser. Instapaper and Reeder both work with Twitter and Pinboard, too.
- I enjoy using Outliner on the iPad to develop writing projects. Though it does much the same things as Inspiration, which I have used on the MacBook for a long time, I find it fun and thought-provoking to literally move my ideas around on the screen.
- I have taken up photography as a hobby and have been enjoying using Snapseed and TiltShift Generator to edit photos and upload them to my Flickr account. I also have a lot of fun using FlickStackr to look through photos in Explore on Flickr, which is inspiring and educational for a new photographer! Guardian Eyewitness is also a great iPad app that highlights an amazing work of photojournalism every day. I have more apps I could include in this category, but they’re not strictly teaching-related tools, so…
If you like these kinds of tools and want to keep learning more, I highly recommend that you regularly read the ProfHacker blog and follow it on Twitter as well. Many of these ideas came from ProfHacker initially. I also learned of others from the fabulous folks I follow on Twitter. The community of technology-minded academics there has been an amazing resource for me.
Do you have other technology tools that have made your teaching life easier or more enjoyable? Please share in the comments!