Equation image CC License by Placbo https://www.flickr.com/photos/placbo/

Solving the Problem: Paperless Assignments in Maths

Equation - image courtesy Jorge ReynaMathematical equations and formulas are not easy to type on a typical computer keyboard. That is why students have never massively embraced software to write maths. Academics working in this area normally have to use sophisticated software based on LaTex (a mark-up language) to write mathematical formulas – something that has a steep learning curve.

Tablets and styli – a real possibility

The idea of using tablets to write equations and diagrams is not new. The potential was identified even with the earliest versions of tablets such GRIDpad (1989), Apple Newton (1993) and the first Windows tablet (2001). The reasons why these devices fail for the task are often cited as: too expensive, too heavy, too slow, poor user interface design and responsiveness of the styli at that time. With the introduction of the first iPad on April 3rd, 2010 following with their competitors in 2011, and the number of applications available, the idea of paperless assignments in maths is resurging.

In addition, although digital pens or styli have been around for more than a decade, only recently we have seen many that work smoothly. Samsung was one of the first companies to develop an outstanding stylus for writing (S Pen) that works smoothly on the Galaxy Note devices using Wacom’s advanced digital pen sensor system.

The wide range of tablets available on different platforms, sizes, colours, prices, along with styli, is changing the way students write notes, sketch designs and create illustrations on devices.

Best applications for iOS, Android and Windows

A few months ago, Audrey Markowskei, an academic from the Department of Mathematics, embarked on a pilot study to design a paperless assignment workflow for maths supported by the Faculty of Science and the Learning and Teaching Centre. We identified three groups of applications that could be used: (1) Document scanner apps, (2) Handwriting apps, and (3) Marking/annotation apps (see Table 1). We searched and trialed around 200 apps for iOS, Android and Windows devices to come up with a shortlist of possible applications for the students and tutors.

Table: Apps for Paperless Assignments in Maths 

Application Platform Comments
iOS Android Windows
Document scanner
TurboScan $1.99 $1.07 No Multiple page PDF support
Camscanner HD Pro $6.49 $4.99 No Multiple page PDF support
PDF Document Scanner No Free No Multiple page PDF support
Scanner Mini Free No No Multiple page PDF support
Scanny No No $2.99 Multiple page PDF support
Handwriting notes
Noteshelf $7.49 No No Also can mark/annotate PDF’s, palm rejection functionality
Penultimate Free No No Palm rejection fail sometimes
GoodNotes $7.49 No No Also can mark/annotate PDF’s
Lecture Notes No $4.84 No No palm rejection
Inkredible Free Free No Works well in both platforms
Note Anytime Lite No Free No Premium version $4.71
Handwritten Notes No No Free No palm rejection
Marking/annotation
Adobe Reader Free Free Free Export to DropBox for free
iAnnotate PDF $12.99 No No Expensive but great functionality
PDF touch No No $2.99 Supports marking by fingerprint and mouse
GoodNotes $7.49 No No Supports handwriting as well
Neu Annotate + PDF $2.99 No No Wide range of editing/annotating features.


Tips before you start

In this journey, we found some tips we would like to share with you  to consider before you start to recommend apps to your students:

  • Document scanner applications need to offer creation of a single PDF from multiple captured images and output a small file size.
  • Handwriting note applications need to support ‘palm rejection’ functionality to make the task easier for students and academics.
  • Applications that offer dual functionality such as handwriting and marking, handwriting and scanning, etc. have been identified as ideal to recommend to students/academics.
  • What if students don’t have smartphones or tablets?  They can submit their hand-written assignment digitally by scanning it at the Macquarie University Library for free. We tested and the file size is small, students can save it to a USB stick or email it to themselves.

Pilot at Macquarie

We are currently testing this workflow in MATH232, Mathematical Techniques, a second year Mathematics unit at Macquarie University.

Audrey uses the Assignment activity inside iLearn to collect student work.  She then downloads it as a batch (Zip file) and uploads it to her DropBox account. After decompression (using a desktop computer), students’ assignments will be available on Audrey’s iPad where she will choose to open them in GoodNotes. When assignments are marked, they are zipped again and uploaded to Assignments in iLearn for the students to receive feedback on their performance.

This workflow is promising, as it will:

  • Reduce workload from admin staff at the Faculty of Science
  • Improve turnaround time
  • Help the environment (less paper)
  • Improve assignment tracking and security

Questions?  More info? Contact your Faculty’s Educational Designer (email ilearn.help@mq.edu.au).

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