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Redefining the (digital) Classroom

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pros and Cons of Digital Workbooks

For the past few weeks, our class has been experimenting with digitized versions of our math program's workbooks. After gaining permission from the authors, and having already purchased print materials for each child, we began to create PDF versions of the student lesson pages. Utilizing the free app neu.annotate PDF, kids scribed answers directly onto the page and were able to zoom in to gain extra workspace. Then they emailed the files to me using a generic email address programmed into the iPad. (This way kids do not ever have access to this account aside from within the app; they cannot send other messages or check email from this account.)

After two weeks of experimentation, here are the pros and cons we've experienced:


- More workspace on the page - since students can zoom in, they can complete a lot more calculations in a lot less space.

- Students are able to change colors as they work. This way they can denote fractions more clearly, change colors to represent place value or operation, and are being more cognizant of how color can have a symbolic role in their math communication.

-  I am able to get all of their work via email, give feedback on the same page using neu.annotate PDF and return the work to them via iDisk or Edmodo. This way I don't have to take home STACKS of workbooks / journals to grade at home -- or collect the journals from student bins to stay late and grade at school.

- Students LOVE it.

- Since neu.annotate allows you to add pictures, students can add photos from the web to illustrate real-world mathematics. i.e., In a geometry lesson, students could find examples of concentric circles, etc.

- I can add my own PDF activities to the iPad for students to complete without having to make photocopies! Saving paper!


- As a math teacher, I LOVE to see erasure marks. They tell me a kid is being thoughtful about their math process, checking their work, finding mistakes and fixing them. If I look carefully, I can also see what original mistake they made and how they fixed it. (Or sometimes, they started with the right answer but changed it.) When students use digital tools to write, I lose this step. :( Screencasting on apps like ShowMe can help me see students' thinking, but I won't want to watch each child's entire process of completing a workbook page or activity on a daily basis.

- The turn in system isn't perfect. I have to open 92 emails to see all of their pages. This is A LOT easier than going through 92 100-page workbooks, but it is still cumbersome. I am hoping that I can find a work-around for this (or that publishers just create a digital platform for their curriculum that embeds a sleeker teacher-student interface).

- One can't guarantee that everyone will get permission to do this with their curriculum (due to copyright laws, etc.). However, if that is the case, supplementary materials - especially those teacher-created - are ripe for the iPad and this app!


As we continue to explore, we will share more pros and cons. Until then, please add your comments if you've tried this. How has it worked for you?


  1. Is your school using Everyday Mathematics? How often are the Everyday Math Apps free? Have you seen the algorithm apps? We are in the planning stages of our iPad pilot for 5th grade; hence all of the questions. Do your students use the iPads for math only?

    1. Yes! We love EM. The EM apps are free only sporadically. The kids use iPads for all Math, Science, Social Science in grades 4/5, but we are departmentalized. There are also iPads in K, 3, K-3 SpEd, Music and 6-8 SpEd. Good luck with your pilot!

    2. Ms. M - Thanks for this post. I'm former educator, now in the corporate world. I've been looking around for a product built to fulfil the "digital workbook" function. Sounds like you've come closer than most folks I've queried. I can see how using the pdf tool gets the job done, but it sounds a far cry from a company that actually rethought the workbook model for digital, and built a tool to do it well.

      For example, Adobe, Mag+, and others have made it super simple to create beuatiful, engaging digital magazines for the iPad. Nearly every major mag brand is digital now, and the experience is pretty good. Where is the similar platform/output for educational workbooks?

      I found a company called Rarewire that has a platform that could probably make it easier for an education content company to build upon, but I haven't seen their platform used (yet) for a workbook. Would love to see/touch/download examples of a good workbook app that looks like it was designed for the new mobile world.