It has been a long time since I had a stack of 100 student papers sloshing around in my backpack. Even before I used Blackboard, Moodle, or Canvas to collect and comment on student work, I experimented with the comment feature in MS-Word and audio comments. While these solutions worked, nothing was ever as efficient as a pen writing on paper. I dreamed of the day that I would be able to write on student papers using some type of stylus.
Over the last 20 years, I have been continually disappointed by the progress we have made on this front. Early efforts were clunky, laggy, or required lots of steps to get the papers back to students. I could take all sorts of notes and doodle during meetings, but I could never easily give students feedback on a paper. And then Canvas made my dream come true.
In case you were not aware, the Canvas app works amazingly well with an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil 2. Commenting on student work using this combination feels almost like writing on paper using an ink pen. Teachers are not restricted on where they can write, there is no perceptible lag, and no additional software or steps are needed to return a paper—everything happens from within the app.
If you search the internet for information on this, you often find discussions about the limitations of using other devices or using a stylus through the web interface. As of today, those assessments are mostly accurate. Using a stylus through a web interface can be a laggy and miserable experience that does not compare in any way to the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil 2 experience in the Canvas app.
Admittedly, there are some limitations to keep in mind:
The 2020 iPad Pro 12.9” and Apple Pencil 2 is the largest and fastest combination available, which makes it more expensive that other options. I have not confirmed the user experience on older or smaller devices that use the first generation Apple Pencil. Please comment below if you have experience with this.
The iPad Pro screen is a bit slippery. I installed a screen protector with some texture to make writing feel more natural. This reduced glare and did not compromise viewing quality much. Still, some users report being bothered by light diffraction.
The iPad Pro 12.9” is larger and heavier than other tablets. It takes some time to get used to the bulk. However, the size makes reading easier and provides enough space for one’s hand to rest on the screen while writing.
One major downside is that there is a flaw in the Canvas app that does not allow a paper to be maximized on the screen—in other words the grading/comment box cannot be minimized as it can on other smaller screened Apple devices. So, grading in landscape mode is preferable to the more natural portrait mode. I hope that someone corrects this problem.
After using the device to grade several batches of papers this summer, I would not go back to typing comments using a keyboard. In fact, my new workflow is to provide students with written comments using the Apple Pencil 2, score papers with grading rubrics, and leave conversational audio comments to explain concepts and encourage students. Using this trifecta, I feel like I am able to provide students with even more feedback than I could in a hard copy scenario.
If you would like to see this in action, I provide a short demonstration at the end of this video about grading in Canvas. I hope you like puppets.