Surface Pro and the iPad

photo of a man holding a tablet in front of his face, one in his raised left hand, in front of a sky background. A laptop is in the right corner.
Photo by Stokpic on

Microsoft has lately stepped up it’s software game. Even when using MacOS, programs like OneNote are among my favorite. My favorite app for iOS is Seeing AI by Microsoft. So, I was excited to play around with a Microsoft Surface for the first time in a long time. Unfortunately, that’s when I realized why I am so invested into the Apple ecosystem and why I think Apple makes the best software.  Out of the box, the Surface Pro ran through a nice setup process and I was able to sign in with my school Microsoft account.  And then, problems galore. Typical for Windows, I had about 200 updates (yes, I am slightly exaggerating) waiting for me. After sitting around for a couple of hours waiting for updates to install it finally popped up with an error during the last update. It was a feature update and it threw up a typically meaningless error. After researching around on the internet and spending a couple of other frustrating hours trying all kinds of recommendations, I was ready to throw the Surface out a window. I realized that I couldn’t come up with anything else to try to get the annoying update to install so I stumbled upon How to Reset Your Windows 10 PC. So, I proceeded to reset the brand new Surface that after half a day of mucking around I still hadn’t used for anything rather than to run try to run Windows updates. Of course, resetting took another couple of hours after which I was yet again at ground 0: waiting for my 200 updates to install. This time, the feature update worked (why it didn’t the first time is still a mystery), and after a couple of days of really doing nothing productive with the Surface I was ready to use it.

I installed a few apps and used the stylus.  I liked the handwriting recognition training even though I had to write 50 sentences, which again seemed like it took forever, but which improved my handwriting recognition significantly. The Surface itself was fine. It flaked out a few times deciding between tablet mode and computer mode, I couldn’t figure out how to access the desktop in tablet mode, but overall it was an ok experience. The handwriting recognition in OneNote was my favorite aspect.

The jarring realization came when I went back to use my iPad. The experience is so much more polished, the device so much more intuitive and responsive that I’m not sure I can find a reason to use a Surface over the iPad.

What has been your experience? If you’re a Surface person, what do you like about it? Have you tried an iPad? What don’t you like about the iPad?

My Favorite App

Even though I am a Mac user, and heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, my favorite app is one designed by Microsoft: OneNote. I have been using it for a few years now, and it’s the one app that I recommend to everyone: students, faculty, and staff in academia, as well as those in the business world. It has shaped the way that I study, organize and keep track of my professional life.

As a student, I’ve used OneNote to organize and take notes for all my classes. Every time I sign up for a class, I create a notebook with the name of the class. In that notebook, I then create multiple sections. I have a section called “Class Notes” where, because I prefer to type, I type all my notes. Within that section, I have pages titled with the date of each class (e.g., February 1, 2018). If you prefer to handwrite your notes, you have two options. One, you can use an iPad or a Surface Pro and write with the Apple Pencil or the Microsoft Stylus. Two, even if you write notes in a notebook, it’s a good idea to review those notes within 48 hours; otherwise, it becomes re-learning rather than review. What better way to review notes than to type them up in OneNote and fill in what you need to fill in? When in class, if the professor writes something on the board that I want to capture (say a diagram), I take a picture with my phone and with a couple of clicks that picture is inserted into my notes.

Partial screenshot of a OneNote notebook

My second section in the class notebook is for notes that I take from the book. Within that section, I have pages for each of the chapters. In those pages I take the notes I want to take for the book. If it’s a digital book, I can also take screenshots of tables and other diagrams and, with a couple of clicks, insert them into my notes.

screenshot of OneNote notebook

Some professors also provide me with their own notes in PDF. For those classes, I have created a section called “Professor Notes” where I have pages titled for each of the notes I was provided (e.g., Bivariate Regression).

screenshot of OneNote notebook

If it happens to be a class that has quizzes or tests, like my statistics class, I also create a section called “Quiz Study Guides.” There, I take all my notes as I study for the quiz or test.

Lastly, depending on the class, I might have articles or other assignments that I need to work on, so I have sections for those as well. If it’s an article that I have the PDF for, I can easily insert it as a “printout” and then take my accompanying notes.

I also use OneNote as a professional to keep track of meetings and committees. If they are one-off meetings, I have a notebook for meetings, and each section is dedicated to a meeting. For standing committees, I create a notebook just for that committee. Within that notebook, I have three sections: Meetings, Documents, and Minutes.

screenshot of partial of OneNote Notebook

In the Meetings section, just like for the class notebook, I have pages titled with the date of the meeting (e.g., February 1, 2018). There, I take my notes during meetings. In the Documents section, I have pages for whatever documents I collected for that committee. If they are in Word, I just copy and paste the text. If they are PDFs, I insert them as printouts.

In the last section, Minutes, I again have pages titled with the date of the meeting, but there I copy and paste whatever minutes were taken for that meeting.

What is the benefit of all that? First, It keeps me organized. I don’t like having papers because they end up all over the place and I have a hard time keeping track of them. The worst, are the documents handed out in class or during meetings. I generally lose them somewhere in my bag, at home or in my office. Now, I take a picture of whatever it is with my phone and, with a couple of clicks, I insert it into my notebook. The second benefit is that I can find things easily. OneNote allows me to search within a page, a section, a notebook or all my notebooks. I can’t remember what bivariate is I need to know it for a class? A quick search of my notebook brings up all the locations where the word “bivariate” appears. I can also quickly locate all the documents I need to locate during a meeting, look at any of the past notes or meetings without having to dig around my bag/home/office to find what I’m looking for.

Another advantage of OneNote is that it can be accessed anywhere on any device. I can log in online in any web browser and have instant access to all my notebooks. I can use an iPad, a Surface Pro, a laptop (Mac/PC), a desktop or even my phone. If you’ve never used OneNote, take a look at it. It may, as it did for me, change your life for the better.

What do you use to keep your notes organized? Any other programs out there that you recommend? Any strategies that you recommend?

Online Teaching and Learning

man with hand on temple looking at laptop
Photo by bruce mars on

I teach a couple of assistive technology classes, and lately, I’ve been contemplating the idea of transferring them to online. However, I’ve never been a big fan of asynchronous online classes.  I understand the benefits and the allure: distance education, access at a time that is convenient for the student, no commuting and fighting for parking, possibly lower cost, access to a variety of courses.  However, the need for self-discipline is a huge drawback for a lot of students. I, like many others, have signed up for numerous MOOCs when feeling ambitious only to leave them incomplete in the face of multiple demands on my time. Because we don’t have to go to class and face a professor and classmates, it’s a lot easier to put an online class out of mind. Now that’s not to say that everyone lacks the self-discipline to take an online class. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other factors that have to be considered when judging the success of an online class.  How engaging is the class? How present is the professor? How is the relationship with the other students in the class established and nurtured?

Quite a while ago, I signed up for an online class that sounded interesting on paper. However, upon logging on, I realized that this is a class that I would never be able to finish successfully.  The way this professor envisioned the class would never work for me because of my lack of self-discipline. He expected that we read the book and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. If we didn’t hear back from him, it meant that everything was great and we could move on. Mind you; I doubt that anyone ever heard from this professor. To me, this is not an online class.

So, while I knew what I didn’t want in an online class, I wasn’t quite sure what an online class should look like, so I started doing some research into best practices.  It turns out that there are quite a lot of recommendations out there that would make the online class much more engaging and accessible than what my old professor was suggesting.  It also turns out that if you want to create and run a successful online class, you probably have to put in more work than when running the class on the ground.

You shouldn’t just take the on the ground class and try to transfer it online. While on the ground lectures may take up an hour or more, in online, best practices advise to keep lectures in 15-20 minute chunks.  You have to make sure you’re available and present in the classroom. If a student has a question make sure you establish a reasonable amount of time that you’ll get back to them, best within 24 hours. If you have online discussions, make sure you let your students know that you are present. Encourage them and ask probing questions but do not take over the lecture.  Encourage group work whether it’s an assignment or discussion groups. Make sure that you detail your guidelines and your expectations. Hold virtual office hours. Consider whether you want to incorporate synchronous activities. Make sure your class is accessible to all learners, including those with disabilities.

Preparing and teaching an online class is a huge responsibility. It’s not a way of reducing your workload.  It does offer the same flexibility to professors as it does to students: the ability to work from where you want and when you want, as long as you are engaged and present.

picture of 1800s classroom with blackboard, seats and a teacher's desk.

How We Select Technology

Technology adoption is tricky. What technology should we use and for what purpose? Should we use something just because everyone else is using it? Should there be another reason? What is that reason? What is the technology that fits best in my classroom, with my students, and for what I want to do?

In the field of assistive technology, where IDEA talks about individualized educational programs, we use a great framework developed by Joy Zabala ( It’s called SETT, and it stands for Student, Environment, Tasks, and Tools. It says that rather than starting with the tool (a way too frequent approach), we should first consider the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs; we should consider the environment that the student is operating in; and we should consider the tasks we want the student to accomplish. Once we’ve considered that, identifying the tool becomes much easier and more appropriate.

While it’s hard to consider the strengths, weaknesses, and abilities of every student in a school, there’s nothing stopping us from at least examining the environment (the WiFi, the classrooms, whether the device is going home with the student or not, etc.) and the tasks (what are the educational goals? What are we trying to accomplish in the classroom? What do we want the students to learn?). Once we do that, maybe we can do a better job of selecting the appropriate tools rather than having closets full of technology that once was hot and now it’s not.

Picture of the jump to conclusions mat from the movie office space with insert picture of the movie character Tom Smykowski

The jump to conclusions mat

How do we know what we know? How do we know what we should know? I’ve been in the field of educational technology for almost 20 years. Despite my hesitations, I think that makes me a relative expert in the field, and I always have a hard time gauging whether what I know is general knowledge or not.  However, lately, I’ve been getting the sneaking suspicion that those of us in the field are making too many assumptions about the general technology knowledge of teachers and other educational practitioners whose job does not constantly revolve around thinking about technology. I think we get so wrapped up in the possibilities that we see for technology in education that we jump to conclusions about the steps required to integrate whatever solution we’re talking about. We have the tendency to think that the teachers who will be responsible for the integration of technology understand it as well as we do. We may provide some kind of technical PD, where we tell them to click here and click there but, ultimately, I think we sometimes leave them more confused than they were before we started.

I think that we need to take a step back and re-evaluate the technological knowledge of the teachers we’re asking to implement the solution and provide professional development that is appropriate for the level of knowledge they have. We are never going to be successful if the ed tech people are being much more high level than the audience we’re trying to reach. We need to do what we always talk about doing with our students: we need to meet them where they are rather than force them to be where we are.

image of connected white puzzle pieces with one missing in the middle

Privacy Lost

It seems that every week that goes by we hear something else horrifying about the Facebook data breach (what’s the best word to use here: breach, leak, theft, or just plain use?). First, according to Cambridge Analytica, it was data from 50 million users, then, according to Facebook, it was 87 million. Then we find out that 2.7 million EU customers also had their data shared with Cambridge Analytica.  Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica. Then, it was another firm, a Canadian one this time, AggregateIQ, that was suspended by Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify before Congress this week. Have we heard the last of the revelations in this scandal? I think not. But the bigger question is should we be surprised that this happened?

This whole scandal begets a bigger question: who are Facebook’s customers? (and for that matter who are Google’s customers?) Are the 2.something billion users the customers? You would think, but those customers don’t pay anything for the privilege of using the intellectual property developed by Facebook, Inc. They don’t pay for the servers required to hold all their pictures, videos, and musings. How does Facebook pay for all that and make Mark Zuckerberg worth almost $70 billion? Why it’s the advertisers who pay for it all, the advertisers who flood to Facebook because the data they get from Facebook allows them to target users much better than any other medium (with the exception of maybe Google).  Those advertisers pay Facebook to learn all about the users: what they like and don’t like, what their beliefs are (political and otherwise), when they go online and what they buy, who their friends are and what their friends think, do and buy. The users are Facebook’s and Google’s product. They are not their customers. It’s easy for Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, a company that’s sitting on a cash reserve of $285 billion, to wax poetically about how he wouldn’t be in Mark Zuckerberg’s place. Yes, Apple could monetize their user’s information, but they don’t need to. They manufacture products they can sell to consumers and have more cash than they know what to do with it. So hopefully it’s easier to trust Apple that they won’t breach our privacy but we had no reason ever to believe that Facebook or Google won’t.

Facebook hides from the users behind “terms of use” that run in the tens, if not hundreds, of pages of legalese. They “opt the user in” by default and then hide the options to “opt out” behind multiple, hard to find and understand menus.

We have to trust Facebook and Google with all the most private information about us. People did; until they found out that it was a lot easier to sell your data to a third party or a political campaign, or a fake news generator than they ever thought possible. Is this a watershed moment for privacy? It has the potential to be, but do people care enough about it to do something about it or is this, just like the government data theft “use,” a blip in the news cycle before things go back to business as usual?

The iPad Revolution

Last week, during an education-focused session held in Chicago, Apple released its new iteration of the iPad.  Since it was first released in 2010, the iPad has struggled to find its niche in education. With the release of the 6th generation, Apple is taking another stab at trying to figure out how to stem the Chrome revolution in education and explain the relevance of the iPad to a market that, after an initial overdone enthusiasm, has cooled significantly towards Apple’s offerings. Partly, Apple has suffered from the economic downturn, with many school districts cutting technology budgets and looking for less expensive solutions, and partly Apple has suffered from a lack of understanding of how to best integrate the iPad in education.

One of the main problems with technology in education is down to technology selection issues. Too often the tool wags the dog and not vice-versa. We decide on the tool and then try to fit our educational goals around the technology. Once we bought the tool, we have to use it because we spent all that money on the tool, so we end up contriving uses for it. That may work in the short term, but it’s not a good long term strategy. We need to start with the educational goals and then identify the tool that supports those goals.

When the iPad first came out, schools were excited. Educators contrived uses for it, but it did not lead to any educational strides. When budgets became tight, it became harder to justify the iPad since we weren’t seeing results. Chromebooks were the perfect tool to step into that gap: they were cheap, they had a keyboard, and we could easily use them as a substitute for previously used methods: typing rather than handwriting, PowerPoint rather than writing on the blackboard, etc. That’s not to say that this is not important. Add a marketplace of apps that can approximate other activities and you have a solution that’s easy to understand. However, that’s not the niche that the iPad fills.

The iPad has the potential of being a transformative tool. Unfortunately, Apple has not done a good job of explaining that. While they have the ability to be technology substitution tools, they are too expensive to only fill that role. With the release of the new iPad, Apple has added the pencil to a device that’s moderately expensive. It changes the way we can interact with the devices and provides a full complement to the touch and keyboard that already existed. Beyond the variety of access methods the new iPad can bring in transformative activities using alternative reality, it can creatively engage the students on a level that is hard to do with a traditional screen&keyboard device, and it can open the imagination of students and teachers alike. Now only if Apple can match the device with the learning goals and do a better job of explaining how the iPad can be a revolutionary device.