Apple Pencil

Still Looking through a Glass Darkly: Thoughts on Apple’s Education 2018 Event

Let me begin with an unequivocal statement: Anyone wishing to get a sense of the challenges before Apple in the education arena need look no further than Bradley Chamberswell reasoned and well written response on 9 to 5 Mac to the 2018 Apple Education Event. In his article, he clearly lays out the challenges facing Apple, as a hardware and service provider, and teachers as they try to implement solutions offered by Apple and others.[1]

And while I would not change a word, I would add one word to the title (which Chambers may or may not have written). I would argue that “Making the Grade: Why Apple’s Education Strategy is not Based on Reality” should read “Making the Grade: Why Apple’s Education Strategy is not Based on Today’s Reality”.[2]

Let me explain why.

As I wrote earlier, Apple included an interesting subtext in its event. It challenged the hegemony of the keyboard as the primary computing input device. In fact, there are no keyboards used in the entirety of the “Homework” video they produced to showcase the iPad in an educational setting — although the Pencil, I would note, appears on several occasions.

I don’t think this is Apple trying to hard sell the Pencil for the purpose of profit. If that were the case, we would not have seen the less expensive Logitech Crayon. Nor do I think it is an attempt to employ their famed Reality Distortion Field to deny the need for keyboards. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen the Logitech Rugged Combo 2 education-only keyboard.

What I do think is that Apple is trying to get the education market to rethink education’s relationship to technology.

Education, almost always, comes to technology as a tool to solve a known problem: How to we assess more efficiently? How do we maintain records? How do we process students in our systems? How do we crunch data? How to we produce a standard and secure testing environment? How do we make submitting assignments and grading assignment more efficient? How can we afford to deploy enough devices to make a difference?

That we ask these questions is no surprise. These are important questions — critically important questions. If we don’t get answers to them, the educational enterprise begins to unravel. And because of that, it is more than understandable that they form the backbone of Bradley Chambers’ article and the majority of the commentary behind most of the responses I have read or listened to. They are the questions that made Leo LaPorte keep coming back to his wish that Apple had somehow done more in Chicago when the event was being discussed on MacBreak Weekly.

What they are not, however, is the list of questions Apple was positioning itself to answer. As Rene Ritchie pointed out in his response to the event, Apple is focusing on creativity — not tech specs. And from what I have seen from a number of Learning Management Systems and other education technological products, it is an area that is very much underserved and undersupported by ed-tech providers.

Apple is trying to answer the questions: How do you get students to be engaged with the material they are learning? How do I get them to think critically? How do I get them to be creative and see the world in a new way?

Alex Lindsay pointed out in the above-mentioned MacBreak Weekly episode when he said that he was interested in his children (and, by extension, all students) learning as efficiently possible in school. To do that, students have to be engaged and challenged to do something more than the obvious provided in lowest common denominator solutions. Their future will also need them to do more than answer fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice questions on a test. They need to produce the kinds of projects that Apple put on display in Chicago.

Apple is offering the tools to do that.

I don’t think this is an idealized or theoretical response. If Apple wasn’t aware that these things were a challenge, they would not have made the teacher in the “Homework” video a harried individual trying to (barely) keep the attention of a room filled with too many students. Apple has hired too many teachers and gone into too many schools to not know what teachers are facing.

I would also point out that there is something to Apple’s answer. My daughter was in the room with me when I was watching the keynote. Her immediate response was that she wanted her homework to be like what she saw rather than what she did.[3]

Her school, I would point out here, uses Chromebooks. That she would jump that quickly at the chance to change should give anyone considering a Chromebook solution pause and make them look carefully at why they are making the choice they are.[4]

Nevertheless, Apple’s challenge is that it still has to address the questions Bradley Chambers and others have raised or their answers will only be partial solutions for educators.

Because Apple needs to answer these questions, I am very interested in the details of the Schoolwork app once it is released — even if it appears to be targeted at K-12 and not higher education.

I do think that we in education need to listen carefully to Apple’s answer, though. Our questions may be mission critical but they may not be the most important questions to answer. After all, if we are first and foremost not trying to answer “How do we get our students engaged?”, we have ceased to be engaged in education. And while I have a great deal of sympathy for my friends and colleagues in IT (and am grateful for their ongoing support at JCSU), they are there to support my students’ and my work — not the other way around. And every time we take a shortcut to make IT’s job easier,[5] as we have done too often when trying to answer how to assess student learning outcomes, we are decreasing our students’ chances for success.

For those placing long-term bets, however, I would point out one thing: Apple’s positioning itself as the source for solutions for generating curiosity and creativity is a better solution for education than Google’s positioning itself as the solution for how to create a new batch of emails for the next year’s worth of students.


[1] The most important section of the article, incidentally, is this section:

One of the things I’ve become concerned about is the number of items we tend to keep adding to a teacher’s plate. They have to manage a classroom of 15–30 kids, understand all of the material they teach, learn all of the systems their school uses, handle discipline issues, grade papers, and help students learn.

When do we start to take things off of a teacher’s plates? When do we give them more hours in the day? Whatever Apple envisioned in 2012, it’s clear that did not play out.

[2] I wouldn’t run the word today in bold and italics, of course. I am using them here so you can easily find the word.

[3] Or thought she did. When I asked her what stopped her from doing her homework in that manner, she thought and said she didn’t know how she would get it to her teacher. I told her that I could help her with that.

[4] It still might be the best choice, of course. These decisions are a series of trade-offs. But I would point out that if she begins to use an iPad at home to do things her classmates cannot with their Chromebooks and gains a superior education because of her engagement with the material as a result, the argument for deploying Chromebook is significantly weakened.

[5] Making IT’s job easier, I would stress, is significantly different from asking if what is being proposed is technically and practically possible.


Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at Academia.edu.

The Importance of Note Taking Apps

The GoodNotes app published a blog post about how Shirantha Beddag uses the GoodNotes app in her teaching.

While the blog post is worth reading for anyone who teaches music, it is also good reading for the rest of us. GoodNotes (and similar apps like Apple’s Notes and Notability) are foundation-level apps for those of us in education. As such, they run the risk of disappearing into the background. 

But these note taking apps are the kind of things administrators, faculty, staff, and students alike will use day in and day out. For that reason, it’s important to find an app that fits your needs. And, quite frankly, they are one of the biggest reasons to go with an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil combination. We may not all be ready to take advantage of the artistic potential offered by ProCreate. Everyone who has meetings inflicted upon them need a way to take notes.

For me, the reason that I ended up going with GoodNotes is its use of notebooks organizational metaphor rather than a system that hews closer to a computer file system, which is what is found in Notability and Apple’s Notes app. All three are strong, and there are others that are worth looking into. The strength of the App Store is that it provides options that users can weigh. For some students, the ability to record a lecture may be the killer feature, as opposed to GoodNotes’ ability to search handwritten text.

So how will you know, short of downloading them all and playing with them? Fortunately, someone has done that for you already. Serenity Caldwell has a great run-down of several apps on iMore. Also, ask around and see what your colleagues are using. I’ve noticed people who have chosen an app, rather than just going with a default, are happy to show you how their app helps their idiosyncrasies. 


Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at Academia.edu.

My Biases

The most important thing you should know about any reviewer (whether it is an individual reviewer like Roger Ebert or Andy Ihnatko or a corporate reviewer like the Sweet Home or Consumer Reports) are their preferences and biases. If you know these, you can gauge what part of their response to the thing under review you should listen carefully to and which part you should dismiss. I stress the you here because it is absolutely not the generic you. It is you personally. What I should ignore about and focus on in a review is not the same thing as what someone else should ignore and focus in on.

The iPad Pro

My first bias that you should know about is that I really, really like the iPad mini's form factor. I love how small it is, in terms of its portability and use. I don't find the screen too small to type on (because I have fully adjusted to it) and it packs easily into the slim line bag that usually serves as my briefcase.

As a result, the iPad Pro feels, even after several weeks of use, too big.

I freely admit that the size provides some great advantages. When editing text, a lot of screen real estate is nice -- especially when the iPad Pro is in portrait mode. The difference between using a note taking app like Notability or working with a PDF in an app like iAnnotate is the difference between using a steno pad and a legal pad.

If you travel economy, the screen size can be an issue -- as I will discuss in more detail in a later post. Once it is set up with the keyboard, it gets crowded. It is possible to use the onscreen keyboard lying flat on the fold-down table, but the angle is less than ideal.

And yet, as I type this and look at the screen, it still feels too big. I don't like that I am carrying around my old notebook backpack again (although its larger capacity is more than a little useful -- especially when traveling.) I had thought that I would have adjusted to both

the size and the bag more by now. Since I haven't, you should know that I appear to remain biased against the size.

The Apple Pencil

The Apple Pencil is a game changing device. I was not prepared for how much of a difference it makes even when compared to some very good styluses.

From the moment I figured out how to get a paper onto my iPad for marking, I have been using a stylus and I have found two that are -- at least for me -- worth using.

One is Adonit's Jot Pro. The illusion that the clear Precision Disk creates means that I feel like I can be much more precise in my lines. The first generation does have a problem, in that the nibs do eventually wear out and, once that happens, it quickly becomes unusable. The company does offer replacement nibs for purchase and the second generation of the stylus, it is said, has improved reliability (I haven't used it, so I can't comment on whether this is true or not.). Still, it is well worth using and I still have a Jot Mini in my bag.

The other is Applydea's Maglus stylus. I initially backed this as a :fund:it project (an Irish crowdfunding site) and have not regretted it. Before the Apple Pencil came in, I replaced my original, which had developed a small tear in the nib after many years of use, with a next generation model. The replaceable nibs are a nice feature and I am really impressed with how much of an improvement the microfiber nib makes, in terms of the feel. I would like to tell you about the graphite nib, but it was on back order. Whatever happens with this test, I expect that the graphite tip may mean the Maglus is in my bag even if I have access to an Apple Pencil. As I am not an artist, I am not quite sure what to do with the brush nib -- although it is cool to look at and fun to play with.

Even though I still recommend these two styluses, I am amazed by the feel of the Apple Pencil. When I now electronically sign a PDF, I no longer zoom in on the signature line -- as I do even with the high-quality Adonit Jot and Maglus. I can just sign like I would if I was working with paper. The same is true with note taking using Notability. I used to use the magnified area at the bottom of the screen to write my notes (Incidentally, cursive is much easier to write in than printing on a glass screen. Given the choice, I tend to print when taking notes on paper. On the screen, I almost exclusively write in cursive for the speed and for the fewer clicks it produces as the stylus hits the screen.) For an art app like Paper by 53, it is stunning.

I mention this because I did not expect to be overwhelmed by the Pencil. It, more than any other single thing, is what has made me think I should conduct this test.

The Apple Keyboard

I am troubled by the keyboard.

I am not troubled by its design or its keys. I know that internationally beloved technology columnist Andy Ihnatko does not like the feel of the keys. Like iMore's Rene Ritchie, I find them very usable.

Indeed, I think they may be too usable.

I cannot shake the feeling that all external keyboards are legacy input devices. It is something that watching those who use their mobile phones to text and search brings home. And while the individual user choice is, and should be, a matter of personal preference, it is something that educators need to consider. What should we use, model, and expect students to use as they are positioned for a future that not only includes next year but ten years from now. I cannot shake the feeling that in ten years, when my daughter heads off to university, she will not be using an external keyboard. And while it is true that I want her to have every advantage possible, it is equally true that my current students will eventually be her competition in the workplace. And if they are wedded to legacy devices, they will be at a clear disadvantage.


Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at Academia.edu.