With each semester, I find my go-to technology tool is increasingly my iPad rather than my laptop. Although I still prefer my laptop for answering email, writing, and participating in discussion boards, my tablet allows me to be more mobile and efficient when teaching online classes. This is particularly true in terms of reading, grading, and lecture preparation.
One of first uses I found for my iPad was simply as an e-reader to more easily access textbooks. This is helpful not only for easy instant access to current course texts, but in textbook selection. My favorite app for this purpose is CourseSmart, which is also accessible on its website. CourseSmart allows you to request a wide range of textbooks from a number of the major publishers. Rather than waiting for a book to be mailed, I can quickly scan textbook choices to keep an eye on new books, editions, or other resources available. This app is accessible by computer, laptop, or smartphone and allows instant access to textbooks, easily searching by page or keyword.
However, the most useful teaching application of my iPad is the ability to streamline and make grading more efficient. Primarily, my grading involves essays and other writing-intensive assignments. I used to print out all papers from my online students, grade and comment, then later type in those grades and comments to send to students. This method proved inefficient and doubled the amount of time I spent per student. This resulted in a longer turnover time to return feedback and grades to students. It also wasted piles and piles of paper every semester. Moreover, in trying to give feedback as quickly as possible, the result tended to be more impersonal notes and an inability to offer editing advice in needed detail.
My iPad has entirely changed how I approach grading. Now when I receive a set of class essays, I download them individually on my laptop, saving each as a pdf, and then save to Dropbox. Dropbox is a marvelous free app to easily transfer files between my laptop, iPad, and smart phone, allowing me to circumvent the concern of the comparably minimal amount storage on a tablet. To organize multiple classes, I create folders within Dropbox for separate courses. Once I have the files on my iPad, I use a pdf markup program (I prefer iAnnotate or GoodReader) to grade individual papers by handwriting on them with a stylus. In the case of a general message that I wish to include in all papers, there is also an option of pasting text into a separate comment page or even to create voice messages. When commented and graded, I simply save a new “flattened” copy back to Dropbox, moving to a “Graded” folder. If I am editing an individual student’s essay, then I have the option of emailing it directly to the student from my iPad. For entire class sets, I use my laptop to post grades on Blackboard, attaching the commented pdf to each student’s grade. This process allows me to significantly streamline my grading, and comment on essays efficiently and individually. Students enjoy the personalized comments, as well as the quicker response in receiving feedback. I enjoy the ability to still handwrite my comments, which is perhaps old-fashioned. Step by step documentation of this process is here.
This technology has also changed my preparation of lectures. For in-class lectures, I can carry notes with me without any paper needed. It also works well to create lectures for online courses. Although there are many lecture recording apps available, my favorite is Explain Everything. For this app, I first write a basic PowerPoint lecture and transfer it to my iPad via Dropbox. After uploading into Explain Everything, I can customize the presentation however I would like and create a voice-over recording as I proceed through the PowerPoint. The app has pointer and drawing tools to highlight information, similar to the capabilities of Collaborate although without the live connection. My favorite feature of Explain Everything is that it lets you record slide by slide, and within those slides it is quite simple to delete and re-record as needed. Thus, if I make a mistake when recording or simply want to edit a section, I can do so easily without needing to redo the entire lecture. In addition, Explain Everything offers the option to divide slides into different configurations before creating the movie files. I am hesitant to ever post long lectures, as I am concerned that they would rarely be used by students. Instead, I break a long presentation into small movie clips, aiming to never exceed ten minutes. This allows students the flexibility to watch the lecture in sections, giving them the freedom to choose how much they want to cover in one sitting. Once these movie clips are ready, I simply transfer them by Dropbox to a folder in Google Drive (documented here), and link to the recordings from Blackboard.
It will certainly be a long time before I can retire my laptop as outdated technology. For writing as well as file storage and organization, computers are still essential. Yet, it is quickly becoming second place in priority to my iPad. Rather than lugging around mountains of papers and books, all of these materials can be replaced by my tablet. This allows me to be mobile, better organized, and more responsive to students, as well as saving a few trees in the process.