Focus on Tech | iAnnotate and Why I Finally Bought an iPad

iAnnote is changing how I grade and comment on papers-- also making
the whole process a lot less painful (screen shot from my iPad)
I know, I know, to call a software application a revolution is a bit sensational, but I seldom get excited by technology like back in the good old days when these sorts of things were a lot fewer and farther in between. Flashback to the early 2000’s when I first got my hands on the bibliographic software EndNote and completely transformed the way I tracked and did my research. iAnnotate is right up there in that category and is essentially moving me to a near 100% paperless relationship with my students while enabling me to mark up and interact with my drafts, research documents, and other essential paperwork in more dynamic and intuitive ways.

What is iAnnotate exactly? Well, according to their own website description, “iAnnotate's intuitive interface and comprehensive, customizable set of features let you annotate, manage, and share documents from your iPad. People use iAnnotate as their "go-to app" for taking notes on lecture slides, annotating important business documents, revising screenplays, grading papers, and much more.” In short, the application allows you to do with a tablet computer what you would normally do with a pen and paper, only you can manage the task more efficiently, back up all your edits, and keep all of your documents in one virtual place.

iAnnotate was also the reason I purchased an iPad. For all of my railing against Steve Jobs and his closed Apple ecosystem, I was unable to resist the lure of the device and this app when I first encountered a grad student at a conference at NYU earlier this year marking up a document on his iPad while he sat next to me. What immediately caught my attention was how quickly he was adding comments and circling material while scrolling through a long document with very little effort. At the break, he gave me a demonstration and revealed to me that he was in fact marking an undergrad paper (yes during a conference, it happens) and that he was carrying 20+ more on his device to turn around by the end of the weekend.  From my perspective, I was immediately intrigued. I cannot tell you how many times I have lugged student papers and other assorted documents for review on and off airplanes and back and forth to university campuses over the years. Once I came back home, I decided to make the transition over to the paperless system for the fall semester.

Hundreds of papers all at my fingertips. That cool
stylus is also magnetic and sticks to your iPad cover.
Flash forward to three weeks ago, when I finally made my peace with RIM and gave up my Blackberry Torch and Playbook tablet for an iPhone 5 and iPad (that is a whole other long story—if you know me, you know that this was a very difficult decision to make). The very first application I purchased was iAnnotate, and I have now spent the past several weeks marking up my first batch of student assignments. One of the first things I did to figure out a quick workflow for the app was to consult a post that another professor using iAnnotate had created, linking the capabilities of the app with the cloud based storage system Dropbox. In that tutorial, I learned how to back up the files and manage a virtual archive of student work for quick access in the future (this is also a very useful thing to have on hand when students come asking for references and you need to be reminded of their written work for the best possible letter on their behalf).   

I have produced here as well a few screen shots from my iPad to show just how I use the tools on a sample document. Notice that you can mark up using both hand written notations (I recently purchased this stylus to do this more precisely, but you can use your finger as well); highlight and add more extensive comments via virtual sticky pads; scroll through the document quickly with the touch of a tab; add stamp annotations of a letter grade or your own personally created annotations; and (here is my very favourite feature) voice record comments! This last feature has literally saved me hours in terms of writing out comments by hand and also allowing me to offer far more detailed and specific feedback to students. Now, each of the papers I grade has a small speaker icon next to it which directs students to a personal voice message from me. Research shows that students nearly always ignore the handwritten corrections on papers and value the professor’s comments at the conclusion of the assignment. Now, I can actually offer far more in that respect than ever before.

Notice all the ways you can mark up, comment, and grade a paper.
I am also using voice recorded comments to enrich and personalize further the final feedback.

For students and others looking to use this app, I have found that the editing and annotating functions work beautifully for marking up assigned readings, distributed notes, and drafts of documents (both your own and others). I am also finding ways to use iAnnotate in meetings where I add in comments and reminders while working through an agenda. The uses are quite limitless really (it could also work well to edit docs in groups for example), and I will be curious to hear back over time from others how they are utilizing this kind of software tool.

iAnnotate is available for both the iPad and Android tablets and costs $9.99. For me, the iPad’s size (roughly that of an actual piece of standard letter paper) makes it ideal for the purposes of marking. Hopefully the novelty effect of this will not wear off any time soon!

P.S. As of October 24th, iAnnotate has updated the software to a new version supporting WordDocs and PowerPoint (to date, I just convert mine to PDFS): “Version 2.3 introduces several new features including the highest-quality reading and annotating experience for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint documents on an iPad. Just tap on a document and Branchfire’s new cloud-based processing ensures the document is presented exactly as it was meant to be seen. In order to take advantage of this exclusive feature, you’ll need to register for a FREE Branchfire account at “