Teaching Online with an iPad Pro and Zoom

Never content to leave well enough alone, I’m using a raft of bleeding edge technology this summer as I teach online. I’ve already got the bumps and bruises to prove it, but I’m also so close to distance teaching nirvana I can taste it.

The big (12.9”) iPad Pro is amazing. So much screen real estate and a stylus that really does feel like a pencil on paper with it’s super-low latency and pressure sensitivity. I borrowed one all spring and really enjoyed teaching my in-person classes with it. There was no way I wasn’t going to integrate into my summer work.

Last year the technology worked pretty well. The Zoom video conferencing software was rock solid and my 13” Wacom Cintiq did double duty as an external screen and writing surface. I could see all my students in a big grid on the laptop screen, while I annotated my shared slides and did math problems on the Cintiq. The picture on the Cintiq was good enough and the latency wasn’t bad. Of course the Cintiq was also an expensive beast that didn’t travel well.

Yale Summer Session started last Monday. I subsituted the iPad Pro for the Cintiq, and used the Duet app to extend my Mac’s screen. Unfortunately, the Apple Pencil support with Duet is lousy. Like the first centimeter of most strokes is ignored lousy. Try writing an equation on paper and erasing the first centimeter of every stroke and you’ll find it’s almost unintelligble. To make matters worse, Duet decided to spontaneously log me out of my Mac twice in the middle of the class. I never want to go through that experience again.

On Wednesday morning, I flew to my first economics teaching conference (CTREE 2016, full report coming soon). I landed in Atlanta at 9:30am, made my way to a quiet spot in the International Terminal and proceded to teach my 10am class solely on the iPad Pro. The Pencil support was perfect, ATL Free Wifi was solid, and Zoom’s iOS app is excellent. Phew!

There’s still plenty of room for improvement. First, I want to see my whole class (16 students this term) at the same time as I see the slides I’m sharing. There’s plenty of room on the screen–Zoom just needs to tweak their software. Second, I need to figure out a way to hold the iPad such that I can write clearly AND the camera is pointed at my face so students can see me. Third, the Zoom iPad app doesn’t support breakout rooms! This one kills me as I love this feature of the Mac app.

Friday morning, I taught class from my hotel room before heading back to the airport. The 5Mbps (verified with speedtest.net) Wifi was more than adequate, and I decided to give Duet another shot. Why you say? Am I really that much of a masochist? Is my memory really that short? No! After complaining about Duet on Twitter, their support staff gave me a crash-work-around. Turns out their software doesn’t get along with the Mac’s Expose animations, and if you turn them off, Duet is pretty darn solid. (Side note: It still crashes if you try to drag a window to another desktop using Expose, but I can avoid that while teaching.)

The pencil latency is still annoying, but I’m getting better at writing slower and going over my strokes multiple times as needed. The big payoffs were being able to see everyone again and being able to use breakout rooms. I can give the class a problem, and with two clicks divide them into separate rooms with 3-4 students each. I can easily jump between them, and with another button click bring them all back to the main room. Group work in an online class with hardly any technology friction!

The Duet folks promise “big improvements” are coming soon to their Apple Pencil support and I can’t wait. In the meantime, I’m planning to try out the Astropad app. The Pencil support is excellent, but it only uses the iPad to mirrow (not extend) your Mac’s screen. That means I need my laptop, the iPad, AND an external monitor to see my whole class and my slides simultaneously. This is OK when I’m at my desk but obviously doesn’t travel well.

As I said at the beginning of this post, we’re at the bleeding edge here and things are changing fast. The Astropad folks have cryptically implied they will be able to act as an external screen soon. If that happens, and if Zoom can improve their iPad app, and Duet can improve their Apple Pencil support, I might have three terrific mobile solutions to choose from in the very near future. That would be fantastic, but to be honest, I’d be perfectly happy with any one of them.