Teaching paperless – preparing for the fall

In this post I provide some tips for teaching paperless, or at least what is working for me. It seems that every summer I re-evaluate my teaching workflows in an attempt to make them a bit better. I stick with things that are working, but I’m always on the lookout for something better.



  • Goodreader is still my go-to app for reading PDFs. My Goodreader research workflow remains largely unchanged from the last time I wrote about it.
  • If at all possible, I am doing reading for both classes and research on Kindle paperwhite. It’s portable, easy on the eyes, and works well with my bibliographic database


  • Marking really has three stages: receiving the assignment, marking the assignment, and returning the assignment. I would love to find a solution to nicely automate the receiving and returning. The iPad app ReMarkable aims to make all three steps of the process integrated and easy, but the app really doesn’t have the polish that it needs to for me to spend so much time with it. I am also using auditory feedback, and the interface for voice recording in ReMarkable is horrific.
  • Receiving assignments: Last spring I started using dbinbox for assignment submission. In a nutshell, dbinbox is a web based interface where students upload files to a folder in your Dropbox. I have students submit all assignments in PDF format, so it takes some reminders for students to submit in the format requested. You can take a look at the submitting assignments section of this syllabus to see how I do it.
  • Marking assignments: Goodreader works quite well if all you are doing is making marks on the document. Last spring I began using primarily audio feedback (something worth a try, both to benefit students and to make marking quicker), a feature that Goodreader does not support. I have been using iAnnotate PDF for iPad and it works great. The only limitation is that audio clips must be under one minute, which means that comments either need to be brief or requires multiple recordings (which is easy). I will keep this process through the fall. Note that for students to be able to hear the audio comments, they need to download the free Adobe Reader.
  • Returning assignments: I currently return assignments from my computer, using textexpander snippets to populate the body of the email and a dropbox link to download the file (since my university email system seems to handle attached files quite poorly).


  • I’ve previously written about my search for websites that are easy to edit and easy for students to navigate. I still am using markdown formatted pages served by Dropbox, but now I am using sitebox.io for my website. I was using Pancake.io (and still am for one-off pages), but after trying out sitebox.io for several months, I decided I liked it so much that I have subscribed to the premium plan and moved all but my blog from wordpress to sitebox.

Course notes and writing

  • I do all of my writing (research, course notes, etc) in plaintext or markdown format (if I’m writing an article that needs to get into Word, I do that at the end). I write using the following apps:
  • Editorial: on iOS (iPad and iPod for me), Editorial is by far the best thing out there. If you take the time to add ‘workflows’, it gets even better. It has made me want to do as much writing as possible on the iPad.
  • Scrivener: I often start large projects (course design or research) in Scrivener, due to the ease of moving sections around. You can sync Scrivener to a folder of plain text files, but the sync isn’t as seamless as it should be. There also isn’t markdown syntax highlighting. Aside from setting up projects, I’ve been moving most of my daily work outside of Scrivener.
  • Notebooks: I’m currently trying out using Notebooks as my app to work seamlessly with Editorial on iOS. So far, so good! Syncing is great and fast, and it beats my previous approach of opening individual text flies in Byword.

In class activities

  • There are a number of different tools I have been using for in class activities. Some of them are below:
  • Google docs for collaborative writing
  • Shared google doc for signing up for presentations or for meeting with me
  • This tool for great looking timelines created by adding data to a shared google doc
  • Stand alone web pages filled with markdown or plain text and served by Pancake.io
  • A page where I keep a list of interesting news items relevant to the course. This provides optional reading and shows links between current events and the course material. From wherever I’ve read the piece (usually on an iOS device), I get the link into the Drafts app and use an ‘append to dropbox file’ action to add it the file without having to open it. The file is then turned into a webpage with pancake.io
  • Embedded playlists of music or videos from Rdio or Youtube.

If you have a better or different solution than I do, let me know!

Blogging reboot

My blog has been quiet the past year or so, but I’m planning to get posting again shortly. The past year was kept busy by: moving house, starting a new job, teaching five new courses, finishing my book (which is now out), and staying busy with non work related events including exploring our new locale, taking up mountain biking, and chasing after kids.

Below are some of the topics I plan to write about in the next few months:

  • some of the ideas I engage with in my new book Music and Ethical Responsibility
  • my current research project that deals with philosophy and music (with emphasis on Emmanuel Lévinas and spectralism) in Paris after May 68
  • experiments in project based pedagogy
  • my updated workflows

Two handy mac apps: Popclip and Liquid


I've recently started using two little applications on Mac OS X that I have already found quite helpful: PopClip and Liquid. Both allow you to do different things with selected text, and both are under $5.

When you select text in any application, a pop up menu comes up much like you find in ios. The menu shows different things you can do with the text. There are some options baked in, but where it really shines is when you add popclip extensions. There are options to add reminders, open a link, send an email, and other helpful actions. Between the extensions listed on the popclip website and Brett Terpstra's popclip extensions, there are all sorts of useful things for writing in markdown, like quickly adding the first link google fetches (like I just did with to make the link on the word 'markdown'), making lists, wrapping selected text in quotes or asterisks, or indenting or outdenting the selection.

Liquid duplicates some of what Popclip does, and unless you need the extras you might find Popclip enough for you. Liquid works by selecting text and triggering with cmd-shift-2. Then you can do all sorts of things with that text through easy keyboard shortcuts. You can search for the text in google, or set up custom searches (I have one for google scholar and one for the amazon kindle store). You can also translate the text to/from just about any language, which I use fairly often (despite the inelegance of internet translation). What I think might be top use is for researchers is the 'copy sentences with' option. For example, I could highlight the text of an entire article or book and have Liquid copy all the sentences with a specific word or phrase – very handy. You can also trigger Liquid without selecting anything and pressing option-space and typing your own text. It also functions as a calculator.

There is much more information on the websites of the applications, but I've tried to show a couple ways I have found these apps useful.


Teaching Paperless Pancake.io – Websites with Dropbox and Markdown

This is the first of perhaps a series of posts on teaching paperless. Here I explain a new approach I am taking to course websites.

I think of each new year of teaching as an opportunity to try out new things and refine things I have done in the past. This is my 10th year of university teaching, and my first year in a new position at Quest University Canada. Teaching a whole new set of courses in a different setting provides lots of opportunity for trying new things, which I am looking forward to.

Aside from new pedagogical ideas, I also like to try out new technologies to support what goes on in the classroom. This year I am trying out a new setup for course web sites. I have taught online and mix mode courses in the past, and that led to my general annoyance with moodle and other ‘made for university’ course pages. These tools are usually quite good for forums and other things that need to reside behind a password, but are overly clunky for the more simple tasks I usually use (posting the syllabus, course notes, links, etc.). Last year I used part of my wordpress site as a course site, which worked quite well. This year I think I have found something even easier: pankcake.io Over the past year or so I have moved all my writing to plain text files in the very simple syntax of markdown. Recently I came across a lifehacker page that pointed me to pancake.io. Feel free to check out my current course site done in pancake.io

Here’s how pancake.io works

  • Sign up for an account and then sign into dropbox. A folder is created in your dropbox called ‘pancake.io’
  • Place plaintext files (in markdown or not) into the folder and they show up on the website without needing to press ‘publish’. Pancake sees the changes in the dropbox folder and updates the files.
  • Most files you add to the folder in other formats are also viewable

Why I like it

  • The websites look perfectly fine
  • I can update files really easily on any computer or device (I most often use Byword on ios and mac and I am currently trying out Editorial for ios)
  • Adding a file is as easy as placing a file in a folder
  • With a bit of setup, it makes it really easy to append something to the webpage. On ipad/ipod/iphone I have set up a dropbox action in the app Drafts. This action appends any comments, ideas, or links that I think might be helpful for the students to the main course page. Once set up, it makes it very quick to add something to the page. In the past, I would make myself a note to update the web page and then update the page later. Now the note and update are one and the same. If anyone is interested I can share this action.

Research Workflow with an iPad: Writing 3/3

This is the final instalment detailing my research workflow using an iPad. Previous posts dealt with reading and research/bibliographic database. This post deals with writing workflow.

Digital Preservation

Over the past year I have become more concerned with digital preservation. A couple times within the last year I have tried to open something I wrote 10–15 years ago, only to find the files were in a format that I could not open or could only open with some difficulty (RIP Wordperfect!). If all goes well, I plan to be in the same career area for the next 30 years or so, and I want to make sure that I can always access everything I have written. I have made the choice to use plain text as my main file format for everything I do. If I need to work in another program, I make sure that I can export my work into plain text. Why plain text? Simply put, it is hard to imagine computers without it and the files contain no extra ‘junk’ (ever opened a Word file in a text editor?). However, the humanities still rely heavily upon Microsoft Word, so any workflow needs to take that into consideration. In the past year or so I have done my writing primarily on an iPad. I have written several conference presentations, a book chapter, and edited (still editing!) a book manuscript (my Music and Ethical Responsibility, coming out with Cambridge University Press next year). I will go through details in the sections below, but first, here is a list of the main apps I use:

  • Byword (ios and mac)
  • Pages (ios and mac)
  • Scrivener (mac)


Writing on an iPad only works with a decent keyboard. I primarily use an Apple bluetooth keyboard, simply because it is what I use on the computer and I am used to it. I sometimes set up using the Incase Origami case/stand, but sometimes I set up my iPad higher on the desk for better ergonomics. For this post (which I am partly writing on the plane) I am using the Logitech ultrathin keyboard cover, which works fine but has smaller keys. I like the distraction-free setup of writing on an iPad. I usually leave issues of formatting and cleaning up references until the text is complete, as a computer much better suited for these tasks. In the following sections I go through my workflows for three different types of projects: a conference paper, a book chapter / article, and a book manuscript.

Conference Paper

Conference papers are usually under 4000 words, and (depending on the topic) I often write them in a few sittings and edit them in a few more sittings. I do not print presentations anymore and instead present from the iPad. It has really lightened my paper load, which I find helpful.

I write conference papers in plain text using markdown. Markdown is easy to learn (I’ve written this post in markdown and have written both a book chapter and several conference paper with it). With multimarkdown you can also include footnotes. I generate a bibliography with Bookends and insert them into the file.

I use Byword for writing in plain text on Mac and iOS devices. Byword has some clever things to help with writing in markdown, and has worked very well for me. It syncs nicely with Dropbox. If you want, you can set up Byword to sync to the same folder in Dropbox that nvalt also monitors. However, there are many other great plain text editors out there (I also like plaintext for iOS. This process ensures I can write from anywhere, and means there are backups of my work in several places. I also use textexpander, which helps writing speed. For example, I write ‘phen’ and it expands to ‘phenomenology’, ‘levs’ expands to ‘Lévinas’, ‘iow’ expands to ‘In other words,’, etc. When I have completed writing, I export from Byword into the appropriate format and do any layout necessary. When presenting at a conference, I often export a PDF from Byword into Goodreader on the iPad and present from there. I also use this process on a daily basis for lecture notes.

Book Chapter /Article

Book chapters are often more complex than conference presentations. If the chapter is adapted from a conference paper, I might just edit a copy of the single plain text document. Once it has reached the final stage, I can then move it to either Pages, Word, or Open Office, do the formatting and send it off.

If writing a book chapter or article from scratch, I start in Scrivener (Mac and PC). Scrivener has lots of options and extras to work with. For example, you can collect all sorts of research into your Scrivener ‘binder’. Here I’ll just deal with the actual writing. You can outline your paper, and make each section a separate file that syncs with Dropbox and can be opened in Byword on iPad. Reordering is easy, and then each file can be 500 words or so depending upon section length, rather than having one long file. When complete, you can then render the whole thing into one Word document and send it off.

When comments and edits come back (often via Word’s ‘track changes’) you can either make the changes in Scrivener and then render the file again, or use Word or Pages (on iPad or Mac) to make edits (Pages now has redline editing and the ability to accept or reject edits. Pages for ios, however, does not support comments). Last time I wrote a first draft in Scrivener and then did all edits in Pages. I am quite new to Scrivener, so there are more Scrivener tools I still need to learn.

Book Manuscript

For my next book, I am planning to do most of the writing in Scrivener (I have already started outlining and collecting research in a project file for what may be my next book). My current book is based on my PhD thesis, which was written in one giant Word document (which I will not do again!). Since I started with one Word document, I decided to keep it as one document. I imported it into Pages, and the file syncs between iPad and Mac via iCloud. I emailed a copy to my Kindle (easier reading on the eyes), read and annotated, and then have done one full edit using Pages for iPad. I’ll repeat this process again, and then hopefully be complete! I’ll likely need to do a bit of formatting using Pages on the computer before sending it off.

I hope that this series on workflow with an iPad was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions – I am always open to finding something that works better!

Research Workflow with an iPad: Research and Bibliographic Database 2/3

Last time I wrote about the advantages of using digital texts for research, focussing primarily on reading and annotating digital texts using an iPad/tablet/Kindle. Today I discuss my workflow for storing annotated texts and including them in a research/bibliographic database. What works for me in this workflow is: 1) quick search, 2) quick access, 3) portability, and 4) ability to copy/paste quotes rather than re-type. There are several options available to achieve these benefits. Below I outline the method I use and the reasons why.

Storing Readings

There are a couple of good reasons to get as many of your research sources as possible into electronic format:

  • Easily searchable

  • Portable

  • Easier to find what you are looking for

  • If in PDF format, they should have a long life and will not become obsolete

  • All research sources centrally located

I still have many books that are not in digital format, and I don’t plan to repurchase them or scan them. However, if I am going back to read a text again in its entirety or need to do more detailed searches on texts I have already read, I will get an electronic copy. If I do not have an electronic copy, I make sure that there is an entry in my bibliographical database (more on that below).

At this point, I store my electronic sources in two ‘cloud’ services, as they both offer different benefits (at least at this point). It’s not ideal, and hopefully this will change in the future. Here’s a bit about them:


I have a 100GB subscription to Dropbox. It syncs very well with other apps and services, and the iPad client works very well. It has a good search, and a nice scroll bar for scanning long documents. If I plan to read anything in more detail and annotate it, I just open it in Goodreader.

Google Drive

I tried out a Google Drive subscription. There were a couple drawbacks, the biggest being that the Mac client seemed to take up lots of CPU. Integration with iPad also was not as strong, so that is why I chose the more expensive Dropbox.

I do still place a copy of most of my articles into my free Google Drive account, though, because it offers one things Dropbox does not: OCR on PDFs that are images. This means that you can search for text in PDFs that are images of text. The web interface is very usable and every search is a full text search (in contrast with Dropbox, which is title only).

Currently I get articles on Drive either by drag and drop on the web interface or by temporarily firing up the Drive client on Mac. I really should set up a Mac automator action that automatically copies any new PDFs to both folders, but I’ve not done that yet as it would also require me to continue to run the Google Drive client and eat up CPU.

Research Database / Bibliography Manager

There are lots of decent bibliography managers out there. When choosing a manager, you should ask what you plan to use it for. I use my database for more than generating bibliographies. For each of my sources I also include summaries, comments, and key quotes (exported from the PDF as explained last time). For me, there are four keys to a good bibliography manager:

  1. search speed/flexibility

  2. option for a summary/abstract/review field

  3. ability to export to plaintext/html/latex format for future-proofing

  4. ability to generate bibliographies in many formats.

Some services offer the ability to link a PDF to the citation, and even though I currently can I don’t use this currently because I like my Dropbox process. Several of the online based services do not include #2 and/or #3.

For a while (actually, all the way through my PhD) I used Jabref, a perfectly useable open source database manager. There were, however, three reasons that I eventually found another solution:

  1. The database was slowing down when I started approaching 800 sources (I am significantly over that now).

  2. You can generate any sort of citation style, but to do so often required some fiddling around with code.

  3. The ability to access and search my research database on an iPad was possible, but not straightforward.

Due to these reason I switched to Sonny Software’s Bookends. It does everything that I need and syncs very nicely with the iPad companion app. Often I have moments when I think of a great quote from something I have read, but have absolutely no clue where I read it. Having access to my entire database on iPad, iPod, and computer means that I can more easily track down the source of the quote!

Next time: academic writing on an ipad.

Research Workflow with an iPad: Reading 1/3

Last summer I began what I hoped would be a ‘series’ of posts on my research workflow. A busier than expected semester (which seems to describe all semesters!) prevented me from continuing this series, so instead I’m doing a three part series on research workflow using the iPad. Part one is on reading, part two on maintaining a bibliographic/research database, and part three on writing.

Over the semester my iPad has become my device of preference for research. I have not even brought my laptop to the university in the past few months. I also use it in meetings, in the classroom for lecturing, for marking, and to update my website. Here I will limit to discussing research workflow. Note that most of this research workflow can be undertaken with an Android tablet, as most apps are also available on that platform. I’ve not used an Android device, so am unable to comment on the specific differences here.


Aside from my applied research (performance/sound installations), my research mostly involves reading and writing. I really like physical books, but my preference now is to do all of my reading in electronic format, ideally with a PDF with embedded text or OCR. My first post on this blog explored the benefits and drawbacks of reading on an iPad. I still agree with most of what I wrote then, so here I’ll talk about specific tools I use for reading and getting notes and highlighted text into my bibliography/research database.


Goodreader is my main tool for reading and annotating PDFs. iAnnotate PDF also works well (I’m going to try it out for paperless grading this semester with its handy stamp tools. UPDATE: tried it out for marking. It works fine, but I went back to Goodreader after a couple days as I like the file management workflow better), but I’ve gotten used to and like the Goodreader interface. I keep a folder in my Dropbox account (shameless referral link) filled with all of my ‘to read’ articles. Goodreader syncs that folder to the iPad.

When I open an article to read, the first thing I do is use the tool to crop the margins so that the text fills the screen. These crops do not change the file itself, but are applied to viewing all pages in the document. Then I turn on the highlight tool. All menus disappear except the top right corner, which provides a box to change tools or to turn pages. To highlight, simply run your finger across the text. If I need to make a note, I just change tools.

Once I have read the article, I choose ‘email summary’ from the menu at the bottom. This scans the document for any text I have highlighted and notes I have made puts it in an email. I usually just email it to myself and then add the text into my bibliographical database later. After that, I move the article out of my ‘to read’ folder and into another folder. When I get the chance, I move it to my main research storage folder. More on storing and organizing PDFs next time.


The Kindle app works very well. It syncs how far you have read across devices and is easy to highlight. To highlight, just hold your finger in place momentarily where you want to begin highlighting and drag to where you want to complete. It is as easy as working with Goodreader. Your annotations can be accessed from your Kindle management website on a page called ‘your highlights’. It updates very quickly. I just copy the text from that page and paste it into my bibliographic database.

Kindle does have a couple downsides:

  • Not enough books have real page numbers. That makes citations more difficult. Too often I find myself having to use google books to track down a real page number.
  • There are too many extra words included when copying your highlights from the website into your database. I put an example of this in another post.
  • Despite paying similar prices to physical books, Amazon has set things up in a way where they are just lending you access to the book. I’m a big proponent of digital legacy, and I think there is little chance I’ll be able to open my Kindle books 25 years from now. That means the book will need to be repurchased, and the highlights will be lost. However, the convenience might be worth it. (And if you look, you can find ways to convert Kindle format to a DRM free PDF for your own digital legacy, bearing in mind that in most places it is prohibited by law to do so).
  • The main drawback of reading with a tablet is that you spend more of your life looking at a backlit screen, which is not ideal. I’m thinking about picking up a Kindle Paperwhite when they become available in Canada so at least some of my reading can be done on an e-ink screen (the light in this one is frontlit, not backlit). This one has a touch screen for (relatively easy) highlighting, whereas the other Kindles are an absolute pain to highlight text with, and competing products like the Kobo are useless for academics. UPDATE: I now have a Paperwhite and have used it on a conference trip, read a couple of books, and started using it to read and markup a book manuscript for editing. Pros: it is easier on the eyes, and is lighter and smaller for long reading sessions and reading on the plane/train. Highlighting is easy enough. Cons: typing notes is not very responsive. I’m just using one letter as a reminder when adding editing notes.

Next time: Research and Bibliographic Database