Saturday, November 24, 2012

Annotating PDF documents on the iPad

One of the biggest benefits to using iPads in the classroom is moving toward a paperless classroom. In order to do this, we must find an alternative to having students write on paper worksheets or other graphic organizers. One of the easiest ways to do this is to have students annotate a PDF (Portable Document Format), then save that revised version on their iPad.

In most classrooms it looks something like this: 

1. Teacher makes a PDF of the worksheet/handout/graphic organizer. This can  be done by scanning the paper copy and saving it as a PDF file. If the handout is made in Microsoft Word, the file can be saved as a PDF file. (All of my class handouts are converted in this way.)

2. The PDF handout is made available to students. This can be done in numerous ways. Read our blog post on iPad workflow for more information on how to do this.

3. The student uses the "Open in..." function on the iPad to open the PDF document in an a particular app that lets them annotate and save the document. The most popular app being used for this purpose is Notability.

However, unlike most people, I am not a huge fan Notability. I gave it a shot earlier in the year and quickly began the search for alternatives. Notability does have more bells and whistles compared to other apps. However, the most important features I need my students to have is the ability annotate text (highlight, underline, cross out, etc.) and add both "hand written" and text notes. I'm not saying Notability can't do these, it's just not as easy. So, two possible alternatives to check out are Adobe Reader and PDF Expert.

Alternatives to Notability...

Adobe Reader (Free)

Adobe now offers an Adobe Reader mobile app for Android and iOS devices. It looks and acts much like the desktop version. 

File Management: 
All annotated files are saved in your main "Documents" folder. You can create additional folders (for different subjects) and subfolders (different units?) for your documents. You can also sign up for an account at that lets you sync files between different devices. 

Press down on a word, and you have the option to copy, highlight, strikeout, underline, or define the word. Once you highlight, strikeout, or underline, you can then change the color and opacity of your mark. 

Adding notes: 
Press down on an empty spot, and you have the option to add a note, typed text, freehand, or a signature. The "note" creates a sticky note, but all other types of notes can then be modified. You can delete the note or change the thickness, color, and opacity. Also, when you press on it a second time, a text box is created that can easily be resized or moved anywhere on the page. 

I know this may not sound any easier than Notability, but I have about ten students with iPads this year who also found Notability difficult to use. I had them use the Adobe Reader app, and they like it much more. Again, they aren't doing anything fancy, just adding text to my science handouts.

PDF Expert ($9.99 but was on sale this week for $4.99)

I sent an email recently about Readdle having a sale for many of their apps. One of their apps, PDF Expert, is my absolute favorite app for editing PDFs. It has a lot of advanced features that justify the price.

File Management: 
Like Adobe Reader, files are saved in your "Documents", and you can create folders and subfolders. Files can be sorted by name, date, and size. PDF Expert has some pretty cool syncing features as well. ou can add servers that give you access to documents in Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, and more. There is also a two-way syncing feature so whatever changes you make in the app can be saved to your cloud storage account.  

Press down on a word, and you have the same options as Adobe Reader, plus the option to leave a sticky note with your highlight. Once you highlight, strikeout, or underline, you can then change the color (lots of options) but not the opacity of your mark. 

Adding notes: 
Press down on an empty spot to have the same features as Adobe Reader. Additional options include a "stamp", image, or sound note. The stamp is digital stamp feature such as "Approved" or "Completed" which could come in handy for grading. The image note lets you add a picture using the iPad camera or Photo Library. The sound note is my favorite feature. Notability also has an audio feature at the top of the note, but PDF Expert creates an audio file anywhere on the page. How could this be handy? Imagine you have a student who is allowed to take tests orally, but with 30 kids in a class you just don't have time to sit down with them. You could have them take the test on an iPad and record their answers orally by leaving an audio note for each question. It also includes an impressive suite of drawing tools that includes lines, arrows, and shapes. You can also change the pen color, thickness, and opacity.   

Other features:
Another cool feature in PDF Expert is the ability to have multiple tabs open for different documents. This makes it much easier and quicker to go back and forth between documents.

I know $10 is a lot to shell out for an app, but it really is worth it. Obviously, the district is not going to pay for all students to have this so I envision this being used by teachers while students use Notability or Adobe Reader. If you would like to experiment with it on my iPad, just let me know!


Adobe Reader: Getting Started Guide

PDF Expert Guide

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Refine your Search (Engines)

This past week, we had the pleasure to attend MassCUE over at Gillette Stadium (it felt a bit odd to be there without a grill, lobsters, and other tailgate accessories, but that's not important here)...

So, over the next few weeks, we'll share some of our key learnings in these posts.

This week's topic: search engines.

For many of us, when we search it's a reflex movement towards Google, or perhaps Bing -- but these represent only a very small slice of the options available.  Depending on the task at hand, and your target group of students, there are a wide range of options available.  Here are a few (followed by a site where you can find all of the engines in one tidy spot).

Duck Duck Go has several things going for it, including:

  • it does not use cookies / track you - sites like Google use what's called a "filter bubble" - they build a profile of your tendencies, and give you search results based on what they know about your habits.  DDG gives a fresh search every time
  • The interface is clean - ad free.  

When you look at the results, there are a couple other cool features, too:
  • If the site has an icon, it appears next to the entry.
  • There are add-ons under the "More" menu - click on Goodies and you get math and science tools, specialized searches and helpful little items sorted by subjects.

Carrot2 is a nifty little "clustering engine."  Basically, it takes results and groups them into visual folders, which you can look at in several formats...

Results can be shown as a color wheel, with the size of the slice representing the number of links.

The little dots to the right represent each page in the results -- when you select a title, the corresponding dots darken, and summaries of their content are give to the right.

You can also choose what they call a "foam tree" - same concept as above, with the size of the box representing the relative number of hits for that item.

Note: right now, the site is flash based, meaning it won't work on IPad browsers (except for those that have a workaround - more on that in future posts)... but they are converting over to HTML 5.

This next tool - Twurdy -  is an interesting one (in spite of a name that sounds vaguely obscene) - it returns search results, color coded according to the required reading level.  It takes the site a little while to run its lexile algorithm, so be patient waiting for results, but the results can be well worth it...
As you can see, the entries are shaded different colors, which correspond to the color codes you see on the chart to the right.

This is a bit more specific than the results you get from one of my favorite search engines, which I detailed in an earlier post - instagrok.

Search Cube  is another interesting way to see results - it gives you little images of each site, on a cube you can rotate...

This can be very useful with images and videos, and also is kind of fun to spin around...
This last one is perhaps the most useful, from a teacher standpoint.  Put in a search term, and get results sorted by category - lesson plan, text book, quiz / test, etc.  Just go to 

Each column is a different resource type - interactive activities, websites, tests, videos, lessons, slide shows... this can save a lot of time in planning - don't reinvent the wheel!

Looking for even more search engines?  Hop on over to this symbaloo site: - it has links to a couple dozen different ones, there's bound to be something you'll find useful.

Until next week!