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In Search of the Digital Red Pen

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English Teacher

Paper is great, and it gives a flexibility that typing doesn’t. I can leaf through a book faster than I can scan a PDF; word processing software isn’t as dynamic as the scrawls of a red pen. And I require students to mark their texts when they read to create “working texts.” Call me old-fashioned, but I have always been skeptical of jumping into the tech revolution with two feet. How was an app supposed to transform my teaching? I quickly learned that I should always begin with my teaching objectives and allow technology to be the tool that enables my students to achieve them. So for the past year, as my school transitions to iPads, I have struggled with how to transfer some of what I deem my “non-negotiables” to the digital world: annotating the text and marking student papers.

I’m also a big fan of hand-written notes. I always squirm a bit when a student asks if he or she can photograph the board, or when I realize a student is typing their notes. Something about both of these feels wide of the mark. As it happens, the science backs me up. Studies have shown that students who type their notes have persistently lower retention rates than students who handwrite them, even after they are allowed to review their notes. I can only imagine what retention rates are for students who merely photograph them. Writing is an interactive experience. Unlike typing, one is almost never tempted to take things down verbatim because it’s impractical. As a result, we make up the deficit by synthesizing information. The extra work our brains do in the note taking process helps us to understand, and retain, what was presented.

The interactive quality of writing is why I require my students to annotate their texts (and, incidentally, why I bleed red ink all over their papers). In the paper world, marking the text is easy. Just grab a pen or a pencil and write, underline, circle, make boxes, or use different colors, as a way to interact with the text. The iBook note taking functions, for example, seemed much less flexible than writing. Summarizing passages is less effective if the notes are obscured, and using non-standard marks, like boxes or circles, a challenge. Though iBooks and e-readers like it can have powerful word search functions, this type of annotation doesn’t account for visual memory or mechanical memory. This was driven home for me over the summer. One of my students was struggling to reference a digital copy of the text we were using in a written assignment. It took so many steps to make notes and to reveal notes that the whole thing became an exercise in frustration. Meanwhile, a student who was using a note-taking app on which she could write with a stylus was accessing her notes more easily, and demonstrated in the long term better knowledge of the text.

Old tricks in new packaging

So, how does a paper and handwriting loving teacher enter the digital world? With handwriting apps that give you the natural experience of writing on paper.

One of the things that separates tablets from (most) laptops and desktops is the ease with which one can deploy the stylus. Last year I learned from one of my colleagues about the potential of note-taking apps like TopNotes (free, or $5 for Pro). I used it and recommended it many times. This year, another teacher has turned me on to Notability ($6), which is a little more muscular. It’s like using living paper. Not only can you write on it like you would with a pen on a blank page, you can also upload PDFs (which can be created by saving a word document as PDF or by using an OCR scanner) and mark them as you would paper. The page menu contains large thumbnails, making it easy to identify individual pages. The program also allows users to sort documents into folders, and use word searches in PDF documents and typed notes. Images, web images, and sound recordings can also be attached to make for truly dynamic note-taking. Students can record lectures (always ask the teacher for permission to do this!), which can be played back while perusing notes.

This is great for students, but how does this help me with marking student papers?

Notability makes it easy to mark any PDF, but the real challenge is the interconnectivity between students and teachers. Notability has an upload feature that connects directly with GoogleDrive. By using the sharing functions in GoogleDrive, students can share their assignments with me, and I can mark them and return them digitally without losing any of the flexibility I have with paper.

Embracing technology doesn’t mean we have to forfeit our tried and true teaching methods. As teachers, we should focus on our objectives more than ever, and allow the right technological tools to enhance our practice. That’s what I call old fashioned with a twist.