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Digital Jotter for the IPad

by Paul Nisbet

on Fri Mar 22, 2013

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A guide to selecting iPad communication apps

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Recently I met a learner in first year in secondary school with a physical disability . She doesn't have the strength to hold books and turn pages, and she gets very tired handwriting. After due assessment and consideration of various devices we all concluded that an iPad was most suitable device for her physically: it's small and light enough for her to handle, and she rests it on her knees and against a desk, so that her hands are in her lap, which reduces fatigue. The iPad on-screen keyboard is just the right size for her to type on without stretching, and since it's touch-sensitive, it seems to require less effort than a physical keyboard.

Essentially, she wants to use the iPad for everything: reading textbooks and resources; completing homework and assessments; taking notes in class; etc etc

So, next questions are:

  • which apps should she use for different tasks and purposes in school?
  • where can she get digital textbooks?
  • how does she receive and send materials to and from teachers?
These seem to be fairly basic and common questions, so I thought I'd share some of my thoughts and findings.

For general note-taking in class ('digital jotters'), I looked at quite a few note-taking apps including the built-in Notes, Daily Notes, EverNote and Note Taker HD, to name but a few, and I  liked the look of Notability, which lets you:

  • Create notes that can contain formatted text, hand writing and drawings (with pencil and pen), sound recordings, photos (either from the camera roll, or taken and inserted directly), clippings from the web, and drawings.
  • Organise your notes into categories and subjects. 
  • Use different paper backgrounds (different colours, lined, square paper).
  • Search your notes.
  • Import and annotate PDFs.
  • Save your notes in cloud service such as DropBox and Google Drive.
  • Send your notes to other apps, and by email, as PDF or RTF. 

It looks ideal for taking notes in class, for gathering and sorting information for topic or research, and for writing short assignments. (In fact, I'm now using it myself for all my note-taking on the iPad.)

There are a few things which could be better with Notability:

  • ‘Speak Selection’ does not work and so you can’t read your notes with text-to-speech.
  • Text cannot be inserted directly on top of a PDF, so you can’t use it very easily to type answers into PDF exams, assessments or homework.
  • It does not have ‘snap to grid’ for easily drawing straight lines. 
  • You cannot easily edit your notes on a desktop or laptop computer: you can only save them as PDF, RTF or text. (For me, if it could share and sync notes with Microsoft OneNote, it would be perfect.)

But of the apps I looked at, and read about, it looks ideal for the secondary school context.

For word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, and particularly for importing and exporting Microsoft Office files, we suggested Apple's own Pages, Numbers and Keynote.

For reading textbooks in PDF (e.g. Hodder Gibson books from us, or scanned books from the Books for All Database), we went for PDF Expert, which has good study and search facilities, and lots of tools for annotation and commenting. It's also good for completing assessments such as the SQA Digital Question Papers. (Why PDF Expert in particular rather than others? While you can read PDFs with iBooks on the iPad, you can't annotate them; the free Adobe Reader app does let you annotate, but PDF Expert has better file management; and I liked PDF Expert's text annotate tool better than iAnnotate's, because you can type directly on the PDF rather than into a separate text field. (iAnnotate has features that PDF Expert doesn't, though, such as voice comments so pupils and staff can record audio notes into the PDF.)

For sharing work with staff, the only practical method in the school at this time is use of email, which is better than nothing but not as good as a file transfer/sharing method such as Edmodo, Dropbox or Google Drive. (The school doesn't use Glow.)

Feedback from the learner about these apps is so far very positive, so we'll see how they work out over time.

How about you? Which apps and techniques have you found helpful in a mainstream secondary context?

Tags: ipad, note-taking

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