I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at The University of Alabama. After the need for social distancing due to COVID-19, I had to transition my face to face classes to an online format. My teaching style relies crucially on the use of a whiteboard to provide handwritten notes. I believe the use of handwritten notes allows students time to process the information as the instructor is writing, and reiterates the information when students actively copy the content down in their own notes.
Chemistry is a very visual subject: chemical structures must be drawn out, problems worked through, equations presented. Handwritten notes are critical to accomplishing those goals. Yet this need is not unique to chemistry: many other disciplines taught on this campus have such requirements, spanning from math and physics all the way to textile design.
Annotating on iPad with Apple Pencil
To provide handwritten notes digitally and online, the key pieces of equipment I use are an iPad and an Apple Pencil. The Apple Pencil is a pressure-sensitive Bluetooth stylus that allows you to annotate on your iPad. The Apple Pencil provides an experience very close to physical paper and pen.
Apps with an Annotation Feature: Explain Edu, Microsoft Whiteboard, PowerPoint, Word, etc.
I pair these with a whiteboard iOS app called Explain EDU ($14 one-time fee). This app provides a multipage infinite whiteboard that allows me to annotate continuously and fluidly, scrolling content down or to the side as needed and zooming as desired. In this environment, I can work on a problem, pull in external contents (slides, images, videos) and never worry about running out of space. Other apps with annotation capability, such as PowerPoint, Keynote, Word, Pages, Microsoft Whiteboard, will also work with the Apple Pencil.
The Explain EDU app can import PowerPoint slides, PDF documents, images, videos, and more. It pairs well with the Apple Pencil (or another stylus) to provide writing tools (pen, pencil, highlighter, eraser), all with multiple colors, thickness, and levels of opacity; a “laser pointer” tool; page backgrounds and styles (graph pages, white pages, musical staves). These tools are always accessible to the writer on the side of the screen, but they are not projected externally, so the students do not see them and their screens are not cluttered unnecessarily.
My notes are saved electronically on my iPad. The app can also record the lecture (audio and video, if desired) and synchronize it with my handwriting, to provide a complete mobile lecture capture toolset. The captured lectures are fully editable. They can be exported to multiple common formats, for instance as documents (e.g., PDF, without the interactive features) or as videos (e.g., MP4) to post and share with students through Panopto. You can also edit the lecture after to cut clips or even add clips in between.
Sharing iPad Screen with Laptop: Mirroring Software
I then use mirroring software to share the live content on the iPad’s screen to my computer. There are a few options out there; after trying a few of them out, I chose AirServer, available for Mac or Windows ($12 for an educational perpetual license). The iPad and the computer must be on the same network to allow AirServer to mirror my iPad onto the laptop. Once I get a live display of my iPad’s screen on the computer, I can then share that application with an audience through any meeting tool, such as Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.
Indeed, Zoom has its own iPad mirroring tool; however, I no longer use it because it suffers from random disconnections. As an aside, Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra both have a whiteboard feature, but their tool options are much more limited (few pen colors, styles), and they would only be useful on a touchscreen laptop where I could use a stylus (I could not write legibly or quickly with a mouse).
Sharing iPad Screen with Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra Participants
With this toolchain, I have been able to provide handwritten lecture notes live on Zoom or on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to my large classes (100-200 students) in summer 2020, and I am continuing with the same methods this Fall 2020. Students can hear my voice and see my notes as I write them. I typically double-record the lectures, to provide a backup: I set the Explain EDU app on the iPad to record while I also record the meeting in Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. After class, I post the lecture video to Blackboard for students to review afterward if they desire.