Commenting on Papers with iAnnotate

Steve Volk, September 16, 2013

I’m going to step onto some techie turf in today’s “Article of the Week”  – but don’t turn away just yet.

Here’s the question: How would you like to be able to comment on your students’ (or colleagues’) papers right on your iPad? Over the summer, I started experimenting with an app called “iAnnotate,” and am quite happy with it. The key thing for me is that it allows me to do something that I think will improve how I communicate with students on their papers. (By the way, I’m not being paid by Branchfire, the company that came out with the app and there are other applications, like PDF Expert, that do similar things. I’m also not a technology expert and haven’t reviewed many applications – I’m just saying what works for me.)

I’ll hold some of the technical blahblah for later, but consider this:

You open a student’s paper on your iPad (yes, this is for mobile devices only, either Apple or Android). You want to circle a word, highlight some text, underline a passage, add a comment in your handwriting or in type? You can do that. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

(You — or your students, can also use it to take notes on slides)

It gets better. Perhaps you want to insert an image into the paper, say a paper on Chile and you want to call the student’s attention to an iconic image that resonates with, corrects, or adds to what they have. Pictures are worth a 1,000 words they say! Just tap the camera icon and then touch the text where you want to insert the photo (which, of course, needs to be in your library), and boom! there it is.

OK, you can do all of that, and easily. It took me about 30 minutes to try out all the buttons and see which ones worked best for me. But the best is yet to come.

What if you get to a place in the paper and you really just want to say something to the student, where tone conveys more than text? You can do that…easily.  Just tap the little microphone icon at the point on the page where you want the recording to go, and you can record up to a minute. To play back, just hit the “go” arrow and you’ve done it. Is that cool, or what?

And here’s a 4-minute video that shows you how to do it: Using Voice Comments on iAnnotate

There’s lots more you can do with the app (read, manage, search, and share documents, take notes on lecture slides, signing documents, etc.). I have not seen any research to suggest whether students who get comments back via this kind of application pay more attention to them (i.e., learn better), but it does seem to have a lot of potential.

So, here’s the fine print – how you get it to work.

(1) You need an iPad or Android tablet – the point is that you’re “tapping” and “writing” on your device with a stylus or your finger, which you can’t do with a regular computer. (If you don’t have an iPad but would like to try this out, see me and I’ll help you arrange a loaner.)

(2) The app only works on a pdf file, which means you have to convert Word documents into a pdf (pretty simple to do – if you don’t convert on your own computer or ask your students to send you their papers in pdf format, when you tap a .doc file to open on your iPad and begin to work with it (e.g., make a comment), it will ask to save it in a pdf format and you’re good to go.

(3) You need to “transport” documents from your computer (or the student) to your tablet and back again. I use Dropbox, but you can use other cloud storage programs.

(4) It costs $9.99 – which is more than free, but less than $10!!

The very simple “how-to” for grading papers:

(1) A student sends you her paper either as a Word document or a pdf (you can ask them to convert), either directly to you via email attachment or by using Blackboard;

(2) You upload the document into your “cloud” device (e.g. Dropbox) and then open it in iAnnotate.

(3) Read the paper, make your comments, etc, save and return either directly to the student or to your own computer and then to the student with some instructions on how to use it: they don’t have to have an iPad but just double-click on, for example, the “loudspeaker” icon to hear your message or on the “paperclip” icon to see the photo.

I’m quite sure that I’ve got some of the technical details wrong, but, hey, I’m not paid for this and that’s why we have the wonderful folks at OCTET.

Here are links to some reviews of iAnnotate that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Faculty Focus.

Mark Sample, “Making the Most of iAnnotate on the iPad,” ProfHacker, Chronicle of Higher Education,” November 8, 2011;

Doug Ward, “Grading with Voice on an iPad,” June 19, 2012;

Dave Yearwood, “App of the Week Review: iAnnotate PDF,” Faculty Focus, June 8, 2012.

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