When my computer bit the dust in 2016, I had come across some information on the iPad Pro, which seemed to suggest it had interesting potential in the college classroom. None of the reviews I consulted, though, spoke specifically about teaching with it in the college classroom, and none gave me information about how it would measure up to a non-tablet for academic research and writing purposes.
Below, I offer the in-depth review I wish I’d been able to consult when deciding how the iPad Pro would compare to a laptop for higher education pedagogy and scholarship.
Overall, I used iPad Pro exclusively (that is, without any other “computer”) for all my work-related tasks for four months.
The iPad Pro: The Basics
The iPad Pro now comes in 3 sizes: 12.9″, 10.5″, and 9.7″. I have the 12.9″, and really appreciated the large screen (as big as a MacBook!) when it was my only computer. If you plan to teach with it, where you can use it as a mobile whiteboard, I highly recommend the 12.9″ to take advantage of the larger area in splitscreen view. Additionally, to take full advantage of the iPad Pro, you will need an Apple Pencil.
What Makes the iPad Pro Great: The Apple Pencil
The Apple Pencil makes the iPad Pro different from any other tablet experience (even another iPad) you’ve had before. I didn’t quite understand how the Apple Pencil was different from other styluses until I tested it out for myself. Simply put, the iPad Pro uses bluetooth to determine where the Apple Pencil is on the screen, while it uses conduction technology to figure out where your finger is. This means that the iPad Pro can differentiate between your finger touching the screen and the Apple Pencil touching the screen. If you are annotating a document, you can lay your whole hand and arm on the screen, just as you would to write in a paper notebook. The iPad Pro will only make marks where the tip of the Apple Pencil touches the screen and ignores your hand, wrist, arm, etc. Touching the screen with your finger when you are not writing with the Apple Pencil will do whatever this action would normally do: scroll the page, insert the cursor, etc. The Apple Pencil annotates in practically any app (you can add handwritten notes into Evernote or Notes in addition to the traditional PDF/document annotation functions in apps such as PDF Expert, iAnnotate 4, or Word).
It charges by connecting to your iPad pro, or by using a connector that allows you to plug it in to any lightning charging cable. If you’re nervous about losing your pencil cap or converter, I recommend this invaluable accessory.
The most frequent question I am asked about the device relates to the Apple Pencil: can the iPad Pro convert the copious handwritten notes I take to printed text? The short answer is: it depends on which app you are using. Nebo, for instance, does have this functionality. When you write this
Nebo prints “This is an example of how Nebo can transcribe handwriting <into text. It is actually surpris-ingly accurate if you stay on the lines.” Note, though, that it was not able to transcribe my diagonal writing (“If you scribble diagonally, it doesn’t know what to do”) in any comprehensible way: “ble crib. not to If you due, etw diagon now doesnt.” So, you are constrained to horizontal writing.
For this reason (I tend to write all over the place) and for its superior organizational and syncing capabilities, I prefer to use Evernote. Evernote does contain technology that makes handwritten notes searchable, but its ability to do so depends on the neatness of your writing and the straightness of your lines. I plan to review some of the notetaking apps’ advantages and disadvantages soon, so stay tuned.
In the Classroom: A Mobile Whiteboard
With an Apple TV plugged in to your classroom’s projector or smartboard (via an HDMI cable), the iPad Pro becomes a mobile whiteboard that you can write on from anywhere in the room.
In all classes I teach, I frequently move around the room to supervise student activities, or sit with students during seminar-style discussions. Having an iPad Pro in the classroom means that I do not need to return to the front of the classroom to make notes on the whiteboard (or smartboard) to “write” things on the board; rather, the iPad Pro becomes a mobile whiteboard you (and your students) can write on from anywhere in the room. What is more, you can easily save these whiteboards and post them to course websites. (I am still developing my own app and workflow preference for this task, so stay tuned).
Finally, one of the best features in the classroom has to do with the way the PowerPoint App works (so, this is not iPad Pro specific). Any tablet running iOS 10 or later has the ability to enter “splitscreen” view: you can have two apps open at the same time, and each takes up half the screen. Normally, projecting your split screen to a projector wirelessly (using Airplay through an Apple TV connected to the projector) or through cables means that the viewer will see exactly what you see: that is, your split screen. For instance, if you see this (an article open in PDF Expert on the left, and a Scrivener Document open on the right)
PowerPoint works differently. When in presenter mode, PowerPoint only casts the powerpoint presentation, meaning that you can have an additional app open on the right side of your screen that is hidden to your viewer. If you have a PowerPoint presentation open in presenter mode, and the Evernote app sharing the screen, for instance, you will see this:
You can still annotate on your PowerPoint slides from anywhere in the room, but you can also take notes in another app that are not visible to your students. This is what it would look like if you wrote a few verbs on the slide:
I have used this functionality to take notes on students’ language use (grammar, vocabulary, etc.) to address at a later point without interrupting their conversations by visually disrupting what is projected. I have also used it to present at conferences, with the PowerPoint presentation open on the left-hand side, and the text I am presenting on the right.
Annotating Documents: Paperless Grading
For me, any tablet offers a users the possibility of a paperless grading workflow. I always, however, found grading on iPads before the Apple Pencil clunky because
- I could only accept assignments as PDFs (or I had to convert them myself).
- I found keeping my hand on the section to block out your hand on many apps (I used iAnnotate at the time) made my writing unnatural.
- Switching between “annotating” and zooming/scrolling modes was cumbersome. I frequently made stray marks as I was trying to scroll the page.
- My handwriting never looked natural, especially when I “wrote” with my finger.
The Apple Pencil solves all of these problems. Because the iPad Pro can differentiate between your finger and the Apple Pencil, this setup allows you to:
- Accept Word or PDF documents, and annotate (and then flatten) these to send them back to your students.
- Rest your hand and forearm on the screen just as you would on a paper notebook without fear of marking the page at all. It only marks the page where you touch the Apple Pencil to the screen.
- Never have to switch between “annotating” and zooming/scrolling modes. If you want to zoom or scroll, simply use your fingers as you normally would. If you want to annotate, simply use the Apple Pencil.
- Produce annotations that look exactly like your handwriting.
What about Research and Scholarship?
We are not just teachers; we write, read and annotate documents, and take notes at conferences and talks. In most of these areas, the iPad Pro is all I need. I use Scrivener and Word to compose documents, PDF Expert to annotate PDFs, and EndNote to keep track of my sources. The iPad Pro replaces a computer about 90% of the time. The two areas in which the iPad Pro does not suffice, and where I really do wish I had a computer (with a non-mobile OS) are:
1) No app is ever as robust as the full program version, and the EndNote app is one of the main apps in which I experience this limitation on a regular basis. While I can do most of the same things (import citations, add PDFs and notes, etc.) in the EndNote app, the app will not compile bibliographies or format citations in Word. If you are used to relying on EndNote (the program), you will likely need access to a computer with EndNote to format your citations and bibliography.
2) There is no way to have two documents open in any app at the same time. So, if you want to copy from one Word document to another, you have to open the first Word Document, copy the text, close the document, open the destination document, and then paste the text. The same is true for PowerPoint (and in the PowerPoint app, at the time of this writing, there is no way to select more than one slide at a time to copy!). There are creative workarounds I have developed, however, “making it work” takes valuable mental energy you could otherwise spend actually “doing the work.”
The Annoying Bits
I have discovered a few frustrations in the iPad Pro-as-only-computer experiment. These are frustrations that I experienced a lot in the beginning; now I would say I experience them very infrequently. They are:
- Apps are not the same as programs. I had not fully understood this before the experiment. You will likely find some features you relied heavily upon in the full-fledged program versions stripped away from the app.
- There is currently no way to have multiple instances of the same app open at once (see above). So, for instance, you can’t have two Word documents open at once to copy and paste text from one to the other. To do so, you must first open one document, copy the text, close it, open the other document, and paste the text. Possible, but inefficient.
- File management and no local central storage. I think this might be more psychological, since I grew up in an operating system environment where most everything started by locating the file on the hard disk. Double clicking the file opened it in whichever was the default program for that filetype. In essence, working on iOS is the opposite: there is no central storage, and all of your actions begin within the app, rather than on the hard drive. [Update: This has been somewhat addressed with the new iOS11, where you now have a “Files” folder].
- App-specific quirks. This one is not the fault of the iPad Pro per se, but rather bound up in moving to a purely mobile operating system domain, where, as I said above, apps, unlike their fully-fledged program counterparts, are necessarily limited. For instance, while accent shortcuts (option+letters) work universally, other keyboard shortcuts (command+C and the like; shift clicking or holding down shift and arrow keys) do not. Two frustrating examples illustrate my point: 1) clicking on the URL bar in the Safari app and pressing “Command+A” –> “Command+C” copies the URL. You can paste it into another app (unless, like Evernote, the app does not support pasting text copied from other apps). In the Chrome app, by contrast, I have found these keystrokes do not work. Instead, I must tap and hold on the URL bar with my finger, click “Select All” from the menu that appears, and then manually click “Copy.” If I instead use “Command+C” and switch to another app and click “Command+P,” I will paste not my URL, but rather the last thing I copied before that. 2) in the Powerpoint app, I have not yet no way to select multiple slides at once, for bulk moving and/or copying.
The “Mouse” in the Room (or, what about not having a mouse?)
The first thing most people asked me when I said I was considering an iPad Pro as my primary “computer” was how I would manage without a mouse. Most thought it would be a frustrating experience. Honestly, I have very little trouble navigating without a mouse. Even before I went computer-free, I trained myself to navigate and highlight using a combination of the arrow keys, plus shift (to highlight), control (move to beginning or end of the line, top or bottom of the page), and control shift (highlight to the beginning of the line, end of the line and up or down one line). For me, it is quicker than using PC “home” and “end” keys (which Macs do not have), and I regularly used this way of navigating over a mouse. I have yet to be bothered in any app I use to do my writing. I suspect, though, that if you are used to PCs, and are not already used to this type of mouseless navigation, the learning curve will be moderately uncomfortable.
Ultimately, the iPad Pro successfully functioned as my only “computer” for four months. It’s a great device for people looking to operate in a paperless environment. Yes, it does take time to develop your own “workflows” and “workarounds.” I have since purchased a desktop to have access to the expanded versions of software (Canva, EndNote), but I can do everything I need to do on a daily basis on this machine. For me, the iPad Pro’s portability, and pedagogical and notetaking benefits make it superior to a laptop, though the software is notably inferior to the full versions laptop and desktop OSs can run.
Have questions about how to use the iPad Pro in the college classroom? Ask in the comments below or email me!