Teaching Online with Zoom, Duet Display, and PDF Expert

I’m teaching econometrics online in Yale Summer Session again, and like clockwork, have made major changes to the technology behind the live video sessions. It’s working better than ever, though of course, nothing is perfect.

Last year, my preferred hardware set up was a 13” MacBook Pro, an 12.9” iPad Pro, and a 27” external screen. I wanted something more portable this summer, and I’ve managed to get rid of the external screen by switching from AstroPad (which mirrored one of my Mac displays on the iPad) to Duet Display, which extends my Mac’s desktop to the iPad.

On the Mac’s screen, I’ve got my notes (displayed in Byword) and the grid where the Zoom videoconferencing software displays all my students, Brady Bunch style. Zoom’s video continues to be clear and rock solid.

On the iPad’s screen, I run PDF Expert. It’s fantastic for annotating all sorts of pdf’s and that’s exactly what I do with it during class. I bring up the slides for the day and share the screen with the rest of the class. Keep in mind that the only app actually running on the iPad is Duet Display–I love the iOS version of PDF Expert too, but what’s running here is the Mac version.

Key to this whole set up is the Apple Pencil. I use it to annotate my slides and Duet does a nice job passing my input to macOS which in turn passes it to PDF Expert. The near-non-existent lag between my strokes and the lines appearing on the screen makes me so happy. The palm rejection built into the standard version of Duet is not very good, but the Pro version’s ($19/year) is effective.

Now it’s time to complain a bit:

  • The Zoom student grid will spontaneously resize and move around a few times per class. It’s annoying.
  • The Duet Mac app crashes once or twice per class, but it’s easy to restart.
  • Pretty often I insert blank pages into my pdf’s when I need extra space to answer students’ questions. This requires a few mouse clicks and I’d love the app to add a keyboard shortcut.

Zoom’s iOS app is pretty good, and last summer I used it when I traveled. The performance was excellent, and the built in whiteboard works well. Unfortunately, it won’t show me all my students at once if I’m sharing slides, and I really like seeing all my students. Double unfortunately, you can’t host breakout rooms (which are amazing) from the iOS app. That’s why I prefer to run Zoom on macOS.

This summer I’ve already taught from my campus office, my basement at home, and a Denver hotel room. In the next few weeks, I’ll be teaching from various New Haven locations as well as the Stanford Guest House. I am now 100% productive everywhere with just my laptop, iPad, and a few cables. It’s fun living in the future!