What happened when a chemical engineering professor ditched the chalkboard for an iPad

Stock photo of an Apple iPad. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Steve Lustig is never going back to chalk.

Several years ago, the associate professor of chemical engineering ditched the classroom staple in favor of a writing tablet. It was an “aha” moment, he said.

“When I’d write notes on a blackboard, students would have to wait for me to finish so they could copy the equations,” said Lustig, who teaches math-heavy courses that require a lot of writing. “I was writing equations that were a foot tall, they were copying everything at a quarter inch tall in their notebooks, and I had my back turned to them. It was not an efficient use of class time.”

Now Lustig primarily uses an iPad Pro and the Notability app. “I can see the expressions on my students’  faces,” he said, “so the student feedback is pretty much instantaneous.”

Lustig recently discussed his use of tablets and apps in the classroom at TEXPO, an annual technology in teaching expo hosted by Northeastern Information Technology Services. Here’s what he discovered by trying several different writing tablets as well as his advice for faculty interested in using them to teach.

Hardware and software: Pros and cons

Lustig compared Apple’s iPad Pro to Microsoft’s Surface Pro. Both were sized well and lightweight, had long battery lives, and featured sleek keyboards, he said. But he preferred the iPad Pro because it had less lag time when writing and enabled him to write with better penmanship. He also noted the iPad has cellular service, while the Surface Pro did not.

He preferred Apple’s iPencil to the Microsoft Pen and Bamboo Pen for the Surface Pro. The iPencil, he said, charges quickly using a lightning port, has a natural feel, and features  a tip that doesn’t wear down over time. Pens for the Surface Pro, on the other hand, take AAAA batteries, which aren’t always easy to find.

Lustig examined three apps for the iPad Pro (One Note, Good Notes, and Notability) and two apps for the Surface Pro (One Note and Scrble).

Of the three iPad Pro apps, he favors Notability during lectures because it allows him to continuously scroll through pages. But he also uses Good Notes to compose tests and other assignments for his students. He said Good Notes also makes it easy to resize and rearrange content and offers some geometrical tools.

Lustig noted that both Surface Pro apps—One Note and Scrble—allow users to scroll through pages continuously and import and export PDF files. But neither app enables users to erase individual pixels, so removing a letter or a part of a word is impossible.

Advice for faculty:

“There are many YouTube videos on how to use these tablets and apps,” Lustig said. “My advice is to just jump in and try it.”

University resources to help faculty bring technology into the classroom

Northeastern’s Academic Technology Services and the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning work closely with faculty to identify what tools are best to help them achieve their teaching goals. Given the range of tablets, apps, and other software programs available, both ATS and CATLR offer consultations—often together—with professors.

ATS recommended these software tools:

  •     Microsoft One Note and Microsoft PowerPoint. Both are free, integrated with university Office accounts, and compatible with iPad, Android, and desktop computers.
  •      Tegrity enables professors to record audio, video, and computer screen activity. It is free, integrated with Blackboard, and supported on all devices, though creating and annotating on documents can only be done on desktops.
  •      Explain Everything enables users to design slides, draw pictures, and create text. The software is available for purchase on all devices online and from Apple and Android app stores.

“Being able to annotate and work entire problems in a digital format and send them to the projector is a powerful way to present content that looks modern and is easy to read,” said Lindsey Sudbury, a senior academic instructional technologist at ATS.

ATS recently purchased two Surface Pros for faculty interested in trying them out in the classroom. The tablets will be available later this summer for checkout at the ITS service desk in Snell Library. Faculty can email ats@northeastern.edu for more information.