iPad Ed


On plenary day I had the opportunity to present to full-time faculty on some of the apps for iPad that do an exceptionally good job at delivering educational content across various disciplines.  Naturally, my ambition far exceeded the limited time we had, and the conversation got sidetracked on using the iPad with a projector, so I didn’t have a chance to make it through the list I wanted to demo.  Afterwards I was asked by a couple of faculty members about the list, so here it is.

iPad screen display and capture

Here’s the scenario: you have connected the iPad to your classroom projector, and want to display your annotations onscreen so your students can see them.  Of course you could just write on the white board, but you actually want to mark up some preexisting content (a map, an anatomical or other detailed drawing, a series of slides that present the steps in a proof, etc.) AND you want to record, along with what you are saying, so your students can access it later.  What app should you use?

There are a number of apps that do this, but the best I have found are Explain Everything ($2.99) and Educreations (free).  If you want a sophisticated toolset that gives you the ability to export your recorded screen video as an mp4 file, Explain Everything is your candidate—at the price of a learning curve, not to mention the $2.99.  If you want a really easy-to-use app with a limited toolset, opt for Educreations, though you have to store resulting videos on their web site.  Related apps in this category are ShowMe and ScreenChomp, thugh both require hosted videos, like Educreations.


Education is still all about the consumption, analysis, and reproduction of text, so my candidate for most useful app is the Kindle app for iPad.  The Kindle app gives the user access to hundreds of thousands of titles available through Amazon and various free and for-pay services, library books, and textbooks for purchase or rent.  During the demo I displayed two textbooks on the Kindle app, one a standard textbook, which displayed beautifully in eBook format, and what are called “Replica” books, which are really just fixed-image page replicas of the physical textbook.  These are difficult to read and quite disappointing, though just this week Amazon has released an update to the Kindle app for iPad making replica books much more effective.

In addition to reading text, the Kindle app allows for an integrated dictionary, annotation of text, integrated note taking, link-outs to Wikipedia and Google, and control over textual presentation (like background/text colors, font sizes, margin and gutter sizes, etc.) and synchronization of all this across devices and platforms.

The Kindle cloud reader for iPad compares favorably with the Kindle app, and it adds a connection to the Kindle store for convenience, though content has to be refreshed each time the browser cache is cleared.

While ebooks are a big improvement over paper and ink books, the offerings at Amazon are still just the text with improvements provided by the app (annotation, bookmarking, dictionary lookup, etc.).   To see a truly impressive vision for the book that incorporates video, interactive illustrations, photo galleries, integrated quizzes and reviews, and a more intuitive integration of highlighting, note taking, and bookmarking you need to see E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth (sample piece or for-pay edition ($1.99)) in the iBook app. Life on Earth is a work in progress, and you will receive updated chapters as they are released until it is completed in spring 2014.

When Apple announced their textbook initiative (and coindicentally released iBooks Author, a free Mac application for creating interactive texts) they had large dreams of improving (and financially dominating) the textbook business.  Since that time, not much has happened.  The offerings in the textbook sections of the iBooks store are still quite limited and restricted almost exclusivley for K-12 education.

The technologies used to create these interactive textbooks, however, have been put to good advantage in several book-like apps (or enhanced books?) that I intended to show off during the demonstration.  These include Al Gore’s Our Choice ($4.99), T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land ($13.99 – still the best literary app I have seen), Jack Kerouac’s On The Road ($16.99), Leonardo da Vinci’s Anatomy notebooks, ($13.99), and a large-scale cultural sampler whose application to a course like Humanities 100 would be compelling, British Library Treasures ($3.99).  While the prices of some of these apps are high, by app store standards, compared to the cost of the physical book they are bargains, and they offer so much more than the physical book that the comparison seems almost beside the point.


The premiere video app on the iPad is Netflix (free, but requires a $7.99/month Netflix streaming account to work).  Many of the documentaries and feature films professors want to show (at least in part) to their classes are available through the Netflix streaming service, and can be projected in the classroom.  Video quality is excellent, filling the projected screen (though not playing simultaneously on the iPad screen).  The professor can cue up the video in Netflix before class, and play the appropriate section.

Many professors use YouTube clips for instructional purposes, and there is an adequate YouTube app for iPad that comes built-in (for the time being), but I prefer the TED videos (free) for instructional purposes, where appropriate.  They are serious, challenging, up-to-date and the video quality is outstanding.

Finally, iTunes U has thousands of videos from lectures on wide-ranging, college level courses that are offered through major Universities and even some community colleges.  Access the catalog through the iTunes U app (free).  Some of the courses are audio only—which also work well on the iPad—but most use video.  The app also includes an integrated assignment manager and notebook, and the courses often have integrated textual materials that download to yoru iPad through the app, and can contain links to texts for purchase through the iBook store.

Science and Math apps

The essential app for science and math is WolframAlpha ($1.99).  There is no reference topic or computational task related STEM subjects that is not easily accessible via WolframAlpha or one of the Wolfram Alpha specialized apps, like the Wolfram Algebra Course Assistant ($1.99), the Wolfram Calculus Course Assistant ($3.99), the Wolfram General Chemistry course assistant ($4.99), or any of dozens of other science and math-related apps developed by Wolfram Alpha.

Beyond the Wolfram apps, there is a terrific chemistry app that takes full advantage of the iPads graphical capabilities (and incidentally has strong WolframAlpah integration) called The Elements ($6.99).  If you ever wondered what Osmium looks like, or how it is used, this is your app.  It even has a gimmicky 3D view (glasses required) but don’t let that discourage you.  The overall app is excellent.  For simple periodic table reference, you cannot do better than the free app from Merck called EMD PTE (free).

My pick for best free earth science app is the NASA Visualization Explorer (or NASA Viz – free), a truly impressive collection of NASA visualizations and videos derived from NASA’s fleet of observational satellites.  The app is regularly updated and the information quality is outstanding.

An app I like a lot because its visualizations help explain complex phenomena simply is Solar Walk ($0.99) and the related Star Walk ($4.99) from Vito Technologies.  Wonder what constellation you might be looking at?  Hold Star Walk up and it will tell you.  That’s  it’s gee whiz feature, but in features much more of solid educational value to astronomy students.

Finally, though this one really belongs in the enhanced books section above, I placed it here because of its strong scientific content.  It is Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe app ($6.99).  The app’s unique interface and breadth of subject makes it an entertaining companion to introductory physical science/astronomy students, with classic scientific charts embedded, lots of video, and a fresh, engaging approach that merges the coffee table book with the documentary and some serious science.  There’s not great depth here, but the easy access to the great discoveries of the sciences makes it fun.


First on my list of art apps is Art Authority ($4.99).  It streams literally tens of thousands of art works from worldwide museums to your iPad, though an easy to understand, categorized and fully searchable exhibit interface.  Since it’s last upgrade for the retina display many of the works are being offered in very high resolution.  The breadth of the collections is fabulous, picture quality is excellent, and museum web sites are integrated.

With respect to art museums, the Musée du Louvre app (free) is great.  It has a lot of extras that give the flavor of what it is like to actually visit the Louvre, in addition to very complete art annotations connected to each work that is displayed.

There are many apps that deal with the works of individual artists, and one of my favorites is Klimt HD ($0.99), but this will vary by taste.  Because the cost of these apps is so low (or nonexistent after the initial purchase of the iPad) an art or humanities teacher can afford to lavishly illustrate their lectures and students can explore the great artists in unprecedented depth.


To illustrate history apps I planned on demonstrating three very different apps to illustrate the divergent approaches taken by app developers.  The first is The United States Constitution (free) from Multieducator, Inc.  There are many, many constitution apps, and this one has a bit of a cheesy interface, but what I like about it are the inline annotations and the inclusion of the Federalist papers and Madison’s notes by date on the 1787 convention, all in one place.  Textual formatting in the document is not good, and the font size is small, but for convenience you can’t beat it.

Secondly I like Docs Teach (free) from the National Archive.  It takes a truly unique approach to using primary documents to teach American History and it can be keyed to in class activities.  The activities may be more appropriate to the K-12 setting, but the exposure to primary documents (e.g., comparing an early Washington hand annotated draft of the constitution to the finished document) is invaluable.

World War II interactive ($4.99) is a timeline based history of WW II that integrates lots of period video with brief textual summaries of grand historical movement and maps where appropriate.  It is like the other “enhanced book” apps reviewed above, except the emphasis is on video rather than text.  For a quick, authentic overview of the large scope events of the war it is great.

 English Language Instruction

Since ESL is a big part of our instructional program, and English usage is by no means universally mastered among all students on campus, I think a couple of apps from Ballpoint, Inc. are really useful.  One is Word Wit ($0.99) which takes English words and their evil, confusing twin (like “perspective” and “prospective”) and explains the difference, uses them in a sentence, and then features a “Master It” section where the user is quizzed on their use in sentences.  The app uses a spin-the-wheel game metaphor that keeps it fun, random enough not to feel like flash cards, and ends up being fun rather than tedious.  The other app from Ballpoint built on the same metaphor is called Phrase Wit ($0.99),  It uses English phrases rather than words (e.g., “vale of tears” vs. “veil of tears”).

For language lovers I could not resist mentioning Wordflex, the “touch dictionary” based on the Oxford English Dictionary.  It is truly a unique reference tool, mapping word meanings, associations, syntax, etymologies and extensions on a unique, expansive canvas.  Sliding the definition and association trees around, and exploring word origins and relationships if endlessly fascinating for word lovers.

Word Flex Definition

Finally, since Wikipedia is linked into many apps, and is the ubiquitous companion of every student, I wanted to show the Wikipanion app (free), which reformats Wikipedia articles for the iPad screen.

Ask someone else what their favorite educational apps are in a few fields and you will get an entirely different list.  There are hundreds of thousands of apps, many purporting to be educational apps.  The problem is, many of them are low quality, or are ad supported and often just a poor excuse for subjecting the user to annoying advertising.  The apps list above are all high quality, and are truly educational in intent and execution.  I would be anxious to hear of others.