iPad Notes and Simple Pleasures

If you know me you know I use my iPad quite a bit and have really since the device came out a couple of years ago.  I even gave my laptop up for a month to just focus on understanding how the iPad could fit into my workflow.  I have written several times about what I’ve learned, but wanted to dive into how functional it has become for me all over again in the last few days.

I have stayed away from getting a stylus as I felt like I wasn’t going to go against the intended design of the device — remember Steve hated the idea, so naturally I listened to him.  But, I’ve been watching friends and colleagues switch to working with the iPad with a stylus and felt it might be time.  What pushed me over the edge was a post by my old friend (and still my goto edutech blogger and idea man), D’Arcy Norman who wrote about his own iPad note-taking workflow … and just like I have for nearly a decade, I listened.

My biggest challenge with the iPad has been around its utility as a note taking device.  I have tried to make Evernote my home as well as the built in Notes app.  Neither really worked.  I am not going to switch to one of those keyboard cases that so many people like — I already use an 11″ MacBook Air so I don’t need a setup that looks and works almost just like that.  I am good at typing on the onscreen keyboard, but I find typing to be only a very small part of what I need to do on my iPad.  I need to be able to grab screenshots and quickly annotate them, I need to draw interface ideas, I need to draw graphs and other representations of data, and I need to make sure I can find it at a later date. From D’Arcy’s post …

I had a bit of a holy crap moment the other day, in a vendor demo. I was taking notes, and wanted to capture a diagram that was on the screen. So I grabbed my iPhone and snapped a quick photo of the screen. I waited maybe 5 seconds, and then clicked the “insert image” icon in noteshelf. I went to my iCloud photostream, and there was the photo I had just taken on my phone. I selected it, and it was in my notes. Holy crap. Couldn’t do THAT with my old notebooks…

So when I read D’Arcy’s post I figured it was time to break down and try a new way of interacting with my iPad. Quite frankly, I have been floored by how well it supports a whole new level of my workflow. I bought a super cheap Pogo Sketch pen to see if I would like this approach … and while the “pen” isn’t up to my standards, it was an $11 investment into moving towards a new workflow.  I will probably quickly switch to the well liked Wacom Bamboo Stylus as I move forward.

Here is an example of how I was able to instantly take advantage of this new approach … I am teaching Disruptive Technologies graduate course again this semester with colleague Scott McDonald and we are engaged in a project that I really need to share more broadly called, “Occupy Learning.” The idea is that teams of students go to specific classrooms on campus and occupy them for a couple of weeks to document the overall affordances of the space — what kinds of practice does it support, what are the limitations, how do faculty use it, etc.  The idea is that they will produce an integrated artifact that is published on the web.  Well, yesterday the two teams shared their first efforts … they were good, but the students wanted more guidance on what the actual outcome or artifact should be.


Since the room we were using has a killer Steelcase Mediascape system in it, we can have a whole bunch of machines easily connected to a huge display at the same time. Switching from my laptop, to Scott’s laptop, to a student laptop, to my iPad is a matter of tapping the switching puck.  Well, with my new stylus I was able to show everyone in class what the artifact might look like … easily drawing and highlighting the difference between embedded media and original text.  Being able to effortlessly do that within the flow of sitting around and having a discussion was a serious “ah-ha” moment.  It was in that moment that I realized just how powerful these types of technologies can be to alter and support discourse, engagement, and workflow.

iPad Sketch


While the sketch itself isn’t much, it was an amazingly simple way to make the point in the moment in as natural a way as I could think of.  Moreover, the sketch and the simplicity in which it was produced created a framework for the right kind of conversation around the ideal way to present such dynamic content.  It also pushed us down the path of deeply considering the notions of audience (administration, faculty, students) and purpose (build awareness, help drive decisions, creation of a long term repository of outcomes) in ways that wouldn’t have emerged by trying to draw the picture in their minds with words alone. A simple example.

I have now gone full D’Arcy and started using Noteshelf for note taking and the combination of drawing directly to screen and the ability to insert any picture to annotate now gets me to where I need to be.  If I see something I want to describe I can snap a photo with the iPad and annotate it.  If I have an idea about something we are working on, I can do a quick screen capture and mark it up.  Then I can instantly push it to Evernote for longer term curation, post it to Twitter, or send the old fashioned way via email.  Really simple, but really very powerful and what a joy when our tools actually go beyond just supporting our workflow towards enhancing it.  Thanks, D’Arcy (again).

Wider Perspective

Let me start by admitting that I care about so many new things these days. Six months ago I was a totally different person who thought only about the world I lived in as Director of ETS. I didn’t think at all about the whole teaching and learning with technology landscape at PSU like I should have. I thought really hard about my little slice of the organization and the things we did on a day to day basis. I knew my peers within my organization had hard jobs, but I didn’t quite appreciate what they were up against. In a lot of ways I had it easy — space to invent, space to engage faculty, and space to take risks. As I appraoch six months in my new role I am struck at how much wider my perspective has gotten in that short period of time. I now care intensely about so many different kinds of things — all still in the context of teaching, learning, research, and technology — but the breadth is unreal and challenges me daily.

I could write pages of stories that support this claim, but I’ll focus on one. When I stepped into the Senior Director role we were in the last weeks of the fall semester. We were also in the final days of working with our previous student response system. We needed to move to a new system for various reasons by the start of summer. What that meant was that we needed to identify, test, implement, assess, and decide on a new system in relative short order so we could do a full installation the minute spring semester classes ended. By the way, we need to do that in 249 classrooms.

Here’s where the perspective changes started to occur. I will freely admit that I was not at all interested in clickers in my old job — as a matter of fact I was convinced they supported bad practice in the classroom. I could make that call because I had talked to a couple of faculty colleagues who said that and I trusted their thoughts without probing. ETS didn’t do the clickers project, that was the Classroom and Lab Computing (CLC) group (also a part of my new organization) so I didn’t have to care. But knowing what I know now, I was dead wrong.

I should have cared then. I care a lot now. I had to take the time to listen to the really smart people in the CLC talk to me about the way faculty were really using clickers and I was stunned at how they were transforming conversations in classrooms. One of the first things I did was ask Brian Young, a colleague and instructional designer in ETS, to join the CLC in the investigation. What Brian did was create a blog and work with Dave Test of the CLC to visit all the classes testing our two evaluation clicker environments throughout the spring semester where he documented various clicker practices being employed. What an eye opener. Through this collaborative work not only did I gain a greater appreciation for the technology, but many of my colleagues in ETS did as well. That is a failure I will not allow to happen again. Our groups need to talk to each other and need to work together to provide the best kinds of solutions in all of our teaching and learning spaces. In the video below you can see one such example of how Brian, Dave, and faculty member, Sam Richards are using clickers to create new forms of conversations.

My perspective was widened further when I was invited to be a part of a social media panel at our Hershey Medical School about a month ago. During the three hour session everyone in the audience was using clickers to respond to framing questions we wrote relative to the cases we were discussing. Amazingly in almost every case, asking the audience to first react to the questions pressed us as panelists in very different directions. I got to see first hand how hard it is to really use and react to clickers well and how much more relevant the resulting discussions were. Based on that interaction, I decided (with lots of Brian’s help) to use clickers as a part of the faculty and student panel at the TLT Symposium. The thought was to turn the questions onto the audience and let the panelists react — an opportunity to create tension and push the conversation into otherwise unexplored territory. It was hard, but created quite the conversation.

One of the things that I am loving about my new position is that this is happening to me on a daily basis. I am gaining new perspectives on the ways our campus works and how much we can do right here within TLT to support it at a high level. I recognize is natural to think only about the pieces you are responsible for, but I think now more than ever we need to demand more. We need to find ways to be more integrated as we make critical decisions to support pieces of the primary mission of our Universities. I know my perspective has changed and it will continue to be changed — and I like that.

Baiting the Hook

This is a wonderful short presentation by Dan Meyer at TedxNYED (I’d love to do one of those events here at PSU). There is so much packed into 12 short minutes just screaming to be discussed and explored. One of his main points is the potential problems of practice related to teaching from and relying strictly on textbooks — not that he doesn’t say textbooks are evil or anything, shows how to better take advantage of them in a 21st century world. Watch it and see if it moves you to take the time to react. I’d love to hear ideas and reactions.

Clickity Clack

One of the things that keeps my energized is knowing that the work we do here in higher education almost always impacts students somewhere along the line. Even though we mostly work with faculty, the fact of the matter is that when we work with faculty to rethink their practice the resulting design ultimately happens to their students. Knowing that leads to a very positive sense as I do my work, but I do wish I had more time to talk directly to students … and I need to figure out how to do that.

Case in point — I had a really interesting morning where I got to spend about 90 minutes in a Communications class with 30 students who want to be journalists talking about the iPad. I was invited by Steven Sampsell to come and answer questions on a relevant technology issue in education while all 30 of the students role-played Collegian writers. Getting a chance like that is at the top of my list of things to do. I always leave feeling amazingly positive and the same thing happened today. One thing I will mention is the sound of 60 hands typing feverishly on keyboards is really disconcerting at first — imagine the silence as a student asks a question and then all 30 of them spring into action clickity-clacking on really loud PC style keyboards. I hadn’t heard that since I was in high school typing class.

One thing that was interesting was how much I had to think about what I’ve thought about the iPad as a tool to support my workflow the last two weeks and how that might relate to a college student. I was a little surprised that I struggled to answer questions like, “why would a college student want to buy this?” or, “would you buy one of these for your kids?” Those are tough questions that I had to really stop and think about. I was looking at skeptics and I didn’t have answers immediately to address them.

It wasn’t until after the 20 minute interview session was over and we just started talking did it start to become clear why one might want one … and the answers are a bit surprising to me even now. They are the simple things — a really long battery life, the size, and the ability to get on and off the device with a swipe of a finger seemed to really resonate. When the iPad was introduced so many people said this was the killer device and it was going to save newspapers, magezines, television, radio, movies, textbooks, music, and of course education. From where I sit much of those things don’t really need saving and the ones that do maybe they don’t deserve to be. Not a single student asked me about digital textbooks. What finally got the students’ attention were the conversations about those simple things — and the idea that you can actually use the iPad with an iPhone to flip Scrabble letters through the air.

In my own work the past two weeks I have found the iPad to be a smart and very serviceable device for doing much of my work. Is it as killer for my work as my MacBook Pro? No. Can I go for really long stretches without needing to use my MBP now that I have this device? Yes. Simply put, this thing is different from a laptop and it does support a similar set of work tasks well but it is doing it in way that has challenged my traditional patterns of interaction. I do the bulk of my work moving between apps, but they enter and leave so quickly it is a heck of a lot like expose on the MBP. I am struggling with some things because I am learning how to compute all over again — I am still unconvinced that rethinking all of it is a bad thing. Let’s revisit this after tomorrow morning when I give an hour keynote using nothing more than my iPad (I am terrified of that).

As an example, the students were honestly blown away that “documents” don’t go in a folder or on the desktop. They are instead embedded in the application that you would expect them to be accessible from. That made a heck of a lot of sense to them — they are used to just putting pictures “in” facebook and not worrying about where they end up. They don’t need to care where there stuff is “physically” located because it is part of the application that created it. I think this is a fundamental change that bothers a lot of us in the tech space, but thrills those outside it. I want to look at pictures, I open the Photo app. I want to work on a spreadsheet, I open Numbers. I want to work on a presentation, I open Keynote and all of my existing stacks are sitting there. I know lots of people who recreate content over and over again because they have no idea where it is. And let’s get real, more and more of the stuff we create is in the cloud and if that is your workflow an app like Good Reader gives you access to all of it.

I hope you aren’t reading this as a fanboy post, but one that is made after really struggling to find a place for this device over the last two weeks. Have I found a place for it yet? In a word, yes. I’m not sure if that place will be the same in another two weeks, but so far this fits not only my work workflow, but it is now part of my life workflow. It moves more elegantly from my early morning email and feed reading to full day work back to evening browsing and play with the family. When the students and I started to explore their workflow I saw them think about what a device like this could mean for them and when I passed it around I did notice the looks of wonder on many of their faces. They started to see it in a light that wasn’t a distorted reflection of a laptop or a phone — they started to talk about how they work and live and where this could support much of it. And when I showed them Scrabble it was all over.

Disruptive Technologies

Scott McDonald and I are getting set to once again teach our CI597 Disruptive Technologies in Teaching and Learning course again. I love the reaction people give us when they ask us the title of the course. I think so many people walk around with a really negative view of how technology can be used to support learning — way too many folks think we are just shoving technology at students. I don’t think that could be any further from the truth in our course. Our goal is always to help students work to understand the affordances of technologies within the context of designing learning environments. We will once again press our students to explore notions of community, identity, and design as we ask them to participate in lots of mini experiments along the way.

We want them to see not the specific technologies but what can be accomplished along the path of teaching and learning with technology — we want them to recognize how many of the new environments we are all participating in online can create and support a much richer learning experience. We want them to sit up and take some risks and explore. I’ll be sharing more thoughts about where we are and what we are doing as the spring semester gets rolling.

Classroom of the Future

Closing out the month of One Post a Day … its been a crazy experience that was even more complicated this time than when I did it back in August. It was well worth it however and I want to acknowledge those who went along for the challenge with me — Allan, Brad, Erin in ETS and several of the students in the Schreyer Honors College as well. All of the PSU One Post a Days can be seen in a tag aggregation at the Blogs at PSU.

With that said, I’d still like to explore an idea …

My colleague Allan Gyorke is leading a group looking at informal learning spaces on campus and they are doing some interesting work exploring spaces that are outside of our classrooms. With that in mind I wanted to ask what our classrooms should look like in higher education to embrace the future. I have a few ideas, but would love to hear more.

One thing I really think we should do is design a classroom that can project two sources to two different screens. This would allow faculty to teach with supporting content as they do now (typically PowerPoint, Keynote, or a web page), but would also engage in bringing the back channel to the front. I’ve done presentations and taught with a Twitter stream of a specific hashtag running behind me and it completely changes the dynamic of the room. For the most part our students have technology at their fingertips, why not work to engage them.

I see it at conferences all the time, why not classrooms? (credit, bjoern)

I see it at conferences all the time, why not classrooms? (credit, bjoern)

I’d have no problem working to socialize a tool like Twitter or the Harvard Live Question tool over the course of the first couple weeks of class. I think by doing that we’d see some really interesting things emerge. Twitter is becoming a powerful platform to do just about anything on, not sure why we aren’t seeing more teaching with it … it seems ideal as a place to engage in lots of good backchannel conversation. I think the students are ready … if you walk past any modern classroom there is technology everywhere.

Why not engage this? (credit, justin)

Why not engage this? (credit, justin)

An additional thing I’ve been thinking about is using a blog as a real time reflective environment. Invite students to comment on a post during class and see how things emerge. When we teach too many times we ask questions and get really very little verbal engagement … would that change if the conversation was seeded by blog comments? I am guessing yes.

To do any of this stuff you need a room to support it. I think a room that can project meaningful teaching materials as well as the backchannel is key to exploring this new way of teaching. What do you think?

Constructed Meaning

Many of you who have spent anytime around me in the last six months or so know that I taught (what I thought to be) an interesting course with my friend and colleague Scott McDonald last spring. Our course was a graduate seminar offered in the College of Education’s Curriculum and Development department under the working title of Disruptive Technologies for Teaching and Learning. Scott and I both felt the course was a bit of a grand experiment — one where we worked hard to mix the “down in the trenches” application of potentially disruptive social technologies with the best of the rigor associated with a graduate level course. We focused all of our activities, discussions, and readings around our three themes — community, identity, and design.

In many ways, we hoped that the design would emerge throughout the semester — we did quite a bit of planning, but didn’t prescribe everything. Scott and I had a really solid notion of what we were going to do and really understood what we wanted the students to come away with, but we did stop short of producing a full 15 week syllabus. Instead opting for a more flexible approach in which we broke the course into thirds — faculty driven, student exploration, student driven. Each third had about 5 weeks assigned to it. It worked fairly well.

The constructivist nature of the course was very comfortable to me, but I could tell that there were some students who were uncomfortable with it. I just got my SRTE (student rating of teaching effectiveness) results — nothing like timely feedback — and while solid, they express the fact that students were agitated/uncomfortable/uptight/confused with the open nature of the course. SRTE scores are out of 7 and I received a score lower than 6 on only 2 of the 15 items … both make me wonder about our approach and students’ readiness for it.

For the item, “Rate the organization of the course material” I received a 5.82 … while I believe this is still strong I would like to dig into that a little further. Scott and I did not organize the course in a traditional way at all — we did not use ANGEL (our course management system) to post assignemnts, instead opting to have a course blog that he and I could post to. The syllabus was there as were the links to the calendar, readings, and assignments. Much of the content of the course was created by the students in their own blogs and then aggregated together into a social ratings site we set up. So the question I have is related to student expectations with regard to material findability. Here’s the thing, are students so comfortable with the ability to log into ANGEL that they feel a course is disorganized if the majority of the material exist openly on the web? If this is the case, what does it say about our ability to move beyond the CMS and into the open web for course materials?

The other item I got tagged on was, “Rate the clarity of the syllabus in stating course objectives, course outline, and criteria for grades.” I got a 5.36 on that one … again, relatively high, but below the 6 level. This is another one that worries me a bit — but I am torn. As an instructional designer I am keenly aware of the need to clarify all expectations, but as someone who is interested in a more agile approach to teaching and learning I cringe at programmed instruction. The syllabus we posted went through the end of the 4th week … after that, the students were to help co-create the course. And they did! They kicked ass throughout the semester, but really came alive when much of the conversation was left up to them. It is tough to understand how one can be both clear with expectations via a course outline and maintain an open flow to the learning opportunities. So with this I am left wondering how comfortable our learners are with the ideas that they must be (at least) partially responsible for making the learning space come alive. Furthermore I am left wondering how this would play out in an undergraduate course — low structure, but big opportunities to adjust the flow of the course based on how the students are moving through the learning process?

At the end of the day there are things I would change and Scott and I have discussed some of them. We plan to teach the course again with a few minor tweaks to see what happens. But when, on the first day of class, you walk in and announce to the students that the next 15 weeks will be a grand experiment you have to be ready to deal with the unknown. I can’t think of a better compliment than to be dinged on the two items I discussed — they indicate we made the experience slightly uncomfortable and off-balance. That in and of itself in indicative of disruption.