How to Use an iPad for Orgo Lectures…and Embarrass Yourself

June 18th, 2014

I am not a fan of chalkboards. Chalk is messy and always ends up somewhere on my clothes by the end of class. I also regularly encounter chalkboards that don’t erase well and become unreadable as more and more dust gets smeared across the slate. When I was in grad school, Andy Myers solved this problem by having his teaching assistants clean the board with water and squeegees *during* class. While I am not afforded the benefit of a squeegee team at SLU, I suppose we could hire some adjuncts.

Though I am not a fan of chalkboards, I am a big proponent of drawing structures and working problems during class. In the fall, there were a couple of times I resorted to using transparency film and colored pens. It worked, but it was clunky. In an effort to step up my game, over winter break, I went on eBay and shelled out some cash so that I could ditch the transparencies and use my iPad instead. My tool kit now includes:

1 iPad
1 tablet stylus
1 Apple lightning-to-VGA adapter
1 VGA switch box
2 VGA cables, 6′ long
1 handsome bag for transporting everything in style


Prior to class, it usually takes me three or four minutes to turn on the projector, load my PowerPoint slide deck on the room computer, and plug my iPad into the projection system. This involves connecting the iPad to the projector through the lightning-to-VGA adapter and a VGA cable. If the room only has one input servicing the projector, you’ll need to use the VGA switch and a second VGA cable so you can toggle between your slides and the tablet.

Writing with the device is pretty simple. I use the app called Notability, which costs $4.99 and is worth every penny. Before class, I’ll upload PDF files of any quizzes or exams I want to review that day onto Google Drive, then download them into Notability on the tablet. Once you’ve done this, you can write/draw on top of the document and screencast everything through the projector. Here’s a screenshot of a typical session:


I love the number of colors to choose from and the fact that you can save the marked PDF and post it for the benefit of the class. I’m still getting the hang of drawing structures as crisply as I would like, and I think part of the problem is the thickness of my stylus. I’m also considering buying a tablet with a wider screen, because things can get kind of cramped on the iPad.

While the overall system was recognized as an improvement by the students in their course evaluations, I should mention one little slip up I had in class. On average, I used the iPad for 5–10 minutes per lecture, and the vast majority of that time, I wasn’t connected to the Internet. On March 7th (the first Friday of Lent), I forgot to load the quiz/exam onto my iPad ahead of time. But the fix was simple: I could just connect to the Internet, download the file off the cloud, and be good to go.

So, that’s exactly what I did. What I forgot to do was to shut off the wireless connection after downloading the document. As I was going over the solution to a problem, the familiar chime of a Facebook message erupted from my iPad along with the following notification:


The full message (which is truncated in the push alert) was:


Funny stuff. One of the many reasons I love my wife is her fantastic sense of humor. But at the time, all I remember seeing was “no meat” as I desperately tried to make the notification go away. The class was laughing pretty hard, but I wasn’t sure if it was at the content of the message or just the fact that a message had unexpectedly interrupted class. My worst fears were confirmed later in the day, when I had Tara re-send the message so I could see exactly how much of it showed up on the screen. I was hoping the worst of it was truncated away. Unfortunately, the worst of it was not.

I was pretty mortified, but I got over it. My main sources of solace were that (i) the students were a pretty cool group, (ii) the statement was a joke, and (iii) it could’ve been much worse considering other subjects Tara and I have discussed by text message.

At least my students were entertained by the exchange. I was able to find the Twitter accounts of a few of them by searching for my name, and sure enough, the incident made their feeds:


Anyway, the take-home message is to put your iPad in “airplane mode” or turn off push alerts (and texts) to avoid disruptions and potential embarrassment during class. Or you can just marry a prude.

Some lessons are learned the hard way.

15 Responses to “How to Use an iPad for Orgo Lectures…and Embarrass Yourself”

  1. Anonymous prof Says:

    Hi Paul,

    That made my day. I definitely laughed out loud.

    I presented youtube videos to a gen chem class showing crystallization using supersaturated NaOAc, and when it was over, it showed still images of similar videos (as youtube does). Unfortunately, one of the images was of a column of solid NaOAc shaped like a Penis with a “WTF” and an arrow pointing to it. I definitely tried to close the screen as fast as possible once I saw it. Curse you youtube.

  2. anon Says:

    I would be mortified! The worst thing that happened to me when I forgot to turn my wifi off during a lecture was getting a skype call from my dad.

  3. mevans Says:

    Notability is my jam! Love it! I never knew you could load PDFs into it. I may start using this setup for office hours (minus the projection, of course). Could be an interesting way to kick interesting questions from office hours back to the class.

  4. Paul Bracher Says:

    Another really nice thing about loading PDFs into Notability is that you can mark up papers and drafts without having to print them out. I prefer this system to reading stuff in Acrobat or Word and leaving comments.

  5. Jan Jensen Says:

    That’s the nice thing about blogging: at least things like this make for amusing blogposts.

    Wrt stylus: I can really recommend either the Jot Script (my favorite) or Jot Pro (a bit cheaper)

  6. Beth Haas Says:

    You have my sympathy! I used my iPad when interviewing and was a little paranoid about turning off all notifications and alerts for this very reason.

    I use a Bamboo stylus (the mid-range one). You can get replacement tips of two or three stiffnesses. I found the original a little too squishy, but the firmer tips are just about right for me. I assume you know Notability can zoom in quite a lot, and it has a wrist rest (buttons for both in the lower right corner), but if not, you know now. I find that I don’t need a bigger screen because it’s so easy to zoom in and out for details vs big picture.

    I haven’t used Notability with Google Drive, but I know it plays nice with Dropbox: you can import a PDF in Notability or go to Dropbox and send to Notabity from there.

    Another app some folks might like is Notes Plus. For an in-app purchase, you can get (decent) handwriting recognition. It has shape recognition built-in, too. Its erasing paradigm is different (which can make it confiding to switch between Notability and Notes Plus) and it’s not as easy to select your writing, since there’s no separate tool for that, but it has its own advantages at times.

  7. Kritzer Says:

    Excellent use of tablet! I share the dislike for chalkboard (literally stone age technology) and wanted the same experience in Orgo this past fall for a 175-student course, so I researched tablets same as you. A little pricier, but I used a Samsung Galaxy Note because it has better resolution and a more functional stylus. Definitely helped me get the structures cleaner. LectureNotes was the app I used, and it worked so well that I uploaded sparse PDFs for entire lectures and did them completely on the tablet. Sample problems, think-pair-share, it all went on the tablet and students got original and annotated PDFs. I was able to make the connection wireless, and could roam about the class as I wrote out mechanisms and worked out problems. Best part: no loss of momentum or eye contact, like you do when writing on the board. Really helped keep students engaged.

  8. Sean Hickey Says:

    Awesome. I use my macbook pro and adobe pro with markup tools, I use the trackpad to write. I want to use the ipad as an input device so that I can still bring my pdf up on macbook pro (where I screen capture the lecture to post to iTunesU) and just use the ipad as a big wacom tablet.

    need to figure that one out.

    I always disable notification and pause growl on my macbook to avoid those annoying (or embarrasing) posts.

  9. Beth Haas Says:

    @Sean Hickey
    I’ve heard good things about the Reflector app for Mac (, which allows you to mirror your iPad on your Mac. I haven’t used it myself yet, but I will probably try it out this fall.

  10. F. West Says:

    Awesome post, Paul. I am definitely inspired to try Notability next fall. Fortunately, the lecture room will have two projectors, so I can use one for any Powerpoint slides and the other for hand-drawn material.

    Your cautionary note on wifi was hilarious.

  11. Ars Chemia Says:

    I have a similar setup that I have been using for over a decade (well before tablets computers were even thought of). I have a digitizing tablet that I connect to my laptop. I can then notate directly on my PowerPoint slides. I also use OneNote when I want to give problems off the cuff for the students to solve. I think that you can also import PDFs into OneNote and notate them also but I haven’t tried to do that. Again, no loss of eye contact with the students while writing and answering questions. Because I’ve been using the digitizing tablet for so long that I haven’t tried using my tablet computer instead. However, we do have issues with tablet computers connecting to our wifi here (they drop the connection A LOT).

    It’s Gen Chem instead of Orgo but the same ideas apply.

  12. Jennifer Muzyka Says:

    Notability rocks! Like Ars Chemia, I have previously worked with a digitizing tablet connected to a computer. I never became competent at drawing things on the tablet while looking at the screen for visual feedback, so I went back to the chalkboard. Last fall I was assigned to teach in a room with a white board (shudder!), so I looked into other options. One of my colleagues recommended Doceri, which lets you run your computer from an iPad. You can use whatever software you like on the computer, advancing the slides with the iPad. You can also annotate on the slides, like you report doing with Notability. I agree with Beth about how handy it is to zoom with Notability – I’m actually using an iPad mini. I prefer the smaller size, since I carry the device around with me throughout my class period. With Doceri, there is no need to use a cable on the iPad because they communicate via WiFi. You can also capture annotations as videos with sound if you want to share those videos with your students.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    At least she didn’t charge you with assault with a dead weapon. gr

  14. Brenton DeBoef Says:

    I want to second the plug for Doceri. I used it a couple times last semester and plan to use it more next year. The only issue is that you must have an Apple TV to connect to the projector–the issue is pairing your iPad with the AppleTV via the University’s wifi. We have so much security on ours that it was almost impossible. I used my phone as a mobile hotspot and connoted the AppleTV and my iPad through it.

    My drawings still look like a hack-job, but for an example of someone using Doceri well, check out Seann Mulchay:

  15. Tim Johnson Says:

    This is great. I can just imagine last year’s class having a field day with that.

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