Can You Go To School With Just An iPad? We Tried It

On my first day of college, I walked out of my dorm with a North Face full of bricks: several hard-bound textbooks and readers, a laptop, enough pens and highlighters for myself and anyone sitting within 10 feet from me and some peppermint Orbit. This was still an improvement from freshman year of high school, when I transported an academic first-aid kit to every class and school activity. Since starting college, I bought an iPad, and for my first day of senior year, I resolved to transport nothing but that magical device to every class. (Okay, and the gum.)

I gave myself three weeks to develop a workflow entirely based on my iPad: to read every textbook and reading on its 9.7″ screen; capture every note and diagram with my fingers or a stylus; scan and digitize every worksheet like some Star Trek fantasy. So, how did I do? Is the iPad really the killer classroom device?

Physically, it’s a pretty perfect toy for the job. It’s nearly 4X lighter than my laptop, is shaped like a piece of paper, lasts longer and when in use, leaves a clear view of the instructor (unlike open laptops). Because the iPad is an app-driven device, it’s surprisingly good at keeping your attention on one thing. There’s less temptation to switch to Twitter and there’s no way to keep your email hiding beneath whatever you’re doing, begging you to view the latest message. If I didn’t trust myself, I turned on airplane mode as a self-control mechanism.

Outside class

I went to great lengths to find electronic versions of everything I was required to read. Fortunately, I found digital or scanned versions of every book and essay using Amazon, Google Play, file-sharing websites, smart Google searches and teachers’ generous scans. After testing numerous apps, I chose PDF Expert as the best all-around reader and annotator. It syncs beautifully with numerous cloud storage services including Dropbox, so I made subfolders in each of my class folders to contain readings labeled by due date, author and title. No matter how and when I added readings, they appeared in mirrored folders within the app. Genius.

When it came time to read a PDF, I used the annotation features to add notes, highlights, underlines and other obsessive markup as quickly as I could click. When I got lazy, I used Siri to dictate my annotations, so active reading was virtually effortless. During class, I just scrolled through my thoughts in an indexed view to refresh my memory and jump or search to the right spot quicker than anyone else, moving between texts with window tabs. As long as the PDF had been OCRed or was natively text, highlights were pulled out in the annotation view. (For those pesky scanned and unconverted PDFs, I used a yellow overlay.)

For texts purchased from Amazon or Google, I used native apps or found a way to make PDFs out of them. (Just kidding, lawyers!) Since the Kindle app syncs with my actual Kindle, I cheated on my iPad a little to read a longer assignment. They all have their own note-taking powers, but by this point I remembered that I’m a senior and stopped taking notes entirely.

I started writing assignments in the Google Drive app or even the iOS notepad app and picked them up on my other devices anywhere to continue adding in piecemeal.

Inside class

There are a lot of approaches to taking notes in class. Input-wise, you can use your fingers to typetap, a stylus to write and draw or a keyboard accessory to type on actual keys. There are a ton of apps you can store your notes in, but I preferred Evernote for its simplicity, integrations and ubiquity. I separated my classes into virtual notebooks and titled and tagged each entry so I could find the right lecture in the event that one day I decide to – I dunno – study, or something.

When the teacher distributed a handout, I used Scanner Pro to make a digital version of it and folded the paper into an origami whale. (I have so many whales! Does anyone want one?) The scans went into Evernote and any text on the paper was indexed in Evernote’s search. If the teacher made a recommendation or assignment during class, I added a checkbox next to the item in my notes so I knew it needed to be completed.

I tried out hybrid note-taking apps designed for a stylus like Penultimate (by Evernote) and Remarks (by the folks that make PDF Expert), but didn’t see the need to use a stylus in my theory-based classes; this skill requires adjustment, and while it can be fun, most of the time my notes just turned into drawings of Aztec buildings. You may have better luck.

Sound compulsive? Maybe a little. But my notes took no more time to create than anyone else’s, and they’re light years ahead in versatility. If classes start moving quicker, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up with the touch keyboard or my stylus — I’m pretty fast, but I’m nowhere near as proficient as I am with a real keyboard and a mouse, and that’s just how it is for now.

So is the iPad the holy grail of the classroom? All I know is that it’s a great piece of technology. With great technology comes great choice, and that’s not always a good thing. In one class, I couldn’t help but notice some innocent girl whistling beside me with a Hello Kitty notebook, not a care in the world, and think, “Gosh, I miss that.”


    Share Your Thoughts


  1. Katherine Corson says

    I actually bought a tablet for a similar purpose, but I bought Samsung Galaxy Note. It is actually amazing for this purpose because it has built in note-taking software. I put all my professor’s slide decks into the SNote app and write my notes on them. It even turns my handwriting into text. If you’re thinking about tablets for this purpose I love mine and would highly recommend it.

  2. Mat C says

    I think it speaks to more about the environment you created for yourself. If you only had a pen and paper, you’d make that work, too. The only thing that you answered here is that it’s possible – but that your work environment is otherwise distracting when you bring the kitchen sink.

  3. Santan says

    Hi Ben

    I really like your simple and great idea of using the ipad in classroom. I recently got an ipad for this purpose to but still struggling on how to ensure smooth transition from paper to digital world. I just downloaded pdf expert for this purpose. I would really appreciate your help in terms on how do you annotate your pdf files and export your annotations out to other app coz i tested it and realise it doesnt export the pdf with annotations in it but in a separate file…having a problem though to integrate this and share your notes with others.

    I am quite new to this …thank you for your help.

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