• September 3, 2015

6 Top Smartphone Apps to Improve Teaching, Research, and Your Life

Academics describe going mobile to plan lectures, keep up with scholarship, and run classes

6 Top Smartphone Apps to Improve Teaching, Research, and Your Life 1

Leonardo Carrizo for The Chronicle

"I used to use a piece of paper" for taking attendance in class, says David M. Reed, a computer-science professor at Capital U., but he kept losing the sheet. The smartphone app that he wrote to do the job has gained him about $20,000 on the iTunes store.

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close 6 Top Smartphone Apps to Improve Teaching, Research, and Your Life 1

Leonardo Carrizo for The Chronicle

"I used to use a piece of paper" for taking attendance in class, says David M. Reed, a computer-science professor at Capital U., but he kept losing the sheet. The smartphone app that he wrote to do the job has gained him about $20,000 on the iTunes store.

Not long ago, it seemed absurd for aca­demics to carry around a computer, camera, and GPS device every­where they went. Actually, it still seems absurd. But many professors (and administrators) now do just that in the form of all-in-one devices. Smartphones or tablet computers combine many functions in a hand-held gadget, and some users are discovering clever ways to teach and do research with the ubiquitous machines.

For many on campus, checking e-mail on the go is the first killer app of the hand-held world. The downside: Having that ability can mean working more than ever—answering student e-mails while in line at the grocery store, responding to a journal editor during lunch. There can be benefits, though. Some professors say they find that carrying the Inter­net in their pocket helps them collaborate, teach, and collect data in new ways that include e-mail but go far beyond it.

A handful of colleges are running expensive pilot projects in which they give out iPhones or iPads to students and professors to see what happens when everyone goes mobile.

Some of the most innovative applications for hand-held devices, however, have come from professors working on their own. They find ways to adapt popular smartphone software to the classroom setting, or even write their own code.

That's what I discovered when I put out a call on Twitter, as well as to a major e-mail list of college public-relations officers, asking about the areas in which professors and college officials are making the most of their mobile devices. Here are the six scenarios that people mentioned most often. I have highlighted the apps in each category that got users' highest marks.

Taking Attendance

Calling roll may not seem like an activity that needs an upgrade. But David M. Reed, a professor of computer science at Capital University, in Ohio, saw his iPhone as a way to streamline the process and keep a digital backup. "I used to use a piece of paper," he said. "What would happen is invariably I would lose that piece of paper halfway through the semester."

He couldn't find any software to keep those paper check marks on a smartphone, so he wrote his own app about two years ago, in a two-week burst of coding. He called his task-specific app Attendance and put it on the iTunes store for other professors, charging a couple of bucks (and adding features as colleagues suggested them). So far he has earned about $20,000 from the more than 7,500 people who have virtually shouted "Here."

Several professors said their favorite feature of the app (which now sells for $4.99) is a flashcard function that helps them learn the names of their students. It literally puts names to faces, if professors add photos supplied by the college. Some professors take pictures of their students on the first day of class and put them in the app. An iPad version takes advantage of the larger screen of Apple's tablet computer.

Collecting Data

A professor at the University of California at Davis is asking drivers to help him with his research on roadkill by logging any dead squirrel, possum, or other critter they see along the highway. At first he asked people to write down the location and details about the carcass on a scrap of paper and upload the information to a Web site when they got home. Then the research team built an iPhone app to let citizen-scientists participate at the scene. It's more convenient, and it gives the researchers better data, because a phone's GPS feature can send along exact location coordinates (and the app encourages users to take a picture with the phone's camera). The lead researcher at Davis, Fraser Shilling, in the department of environmental science and policy, said the app should hit the iTunes store any day now, though he and his colleagues haven't decided whether the name will be WildlifeObs or simply Roadkill.

That's just one of many research projects adding smartphone interfaces to so-called "crowd science," in which the public is invited to add structured data to an online database. "For crowd science, I think it's definitely the next step," Mr. Shilling told me, although he says he prefers logging roadkill with pen and paper, which he thinks encourages more colorful write-ups than an app. "My kids tell me that I'm a Neanderthal," he jokes.

Reading Scholarly Articles

Instead of clicking print when saving an article for later reading, many professors now send the document to their phone or tablet computer. Those I talked with cited a range of apps designed for the task, though Dropbox was cited most frequently. The commercial app is available for iPhones, iPads, and for smartphones or tablets running Google's Android operating system. David Parry, an assistant professor of emergent media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he uses Dropbox for both scholarly reading and keeping track of documents for the courses he teaches. "The key for me is I store all my syllabuses there," he told me. "Anytime someone has a question about a syllabus, I have it—anywhere." So when a student e-mails to ask about an assignment deadline while Mr. Parry is at the grocery store, he knows.

Other options for building a personal virtual library are GoodReader and Evernote, both of which allow readers to highlight and take notes on any PDF saved to the system. Students, too, say they find the services useful. Shep McAllister, a junior at Trinity University, in Texas, who writes for the HackCollegeStudent blog about students' use of technology, said he turns to the iPad version of GoodReader for much of his assigned reading, because his university's electronic reserve offers documents in PDF, so he can easily transfer them to the service. "It's like you're holding the actual page in front of you," he told me.

Recording Notes

Just having a camera on hand can sometimes help in the classroom. Aaron Delwiche, an associate professor of communication at Trinity, often uses the camera built into his Android phone to snap a picture of his whiteboard before he erases it. When he breaks the class into groups for a project, the photos remind him who was on each team and what they came up with. High-end whiteboards offer a function to print out or e-mail their contents, but some professors say their phone cameras do just as well.

Mr. McAllister, the student blogger at Trinity, uses his iPhone's camera as a document scanner, with an app called JotNot Pro. After he takes a picture of a page of text, the app (which costs 99 cents), can turn it into a PDF file for easy review later. "If I get a handout from a professor, I'm always afraid I'm going to lose it," he said, noting that he tries to scan any class-related documents with his phone.

Using Textbook Tools

Cellphone screens are tiny compared with textbook pages, but several publishers now offer apps to read their e-textbooks on mobile devices. CourseSmart, a company that sells electronic versions of textbooks from major publishers, offers a free iPhone app to read books purchased through its service. It may not be ideal for long reading sessions, but it could be a handy way for professors to look over the material to remember what their students are reading.

Textbook publishers see the iPad and other tablets as a better medium to one day replace printed textbooks completely. A company named Inkling creates textbooks made for iPads, with interactive features and videos—things that paper volumes cannot do.

Planning Lectures

Brainstorming for classroom talks has gone high-tech with "mind mapping" software that encourages arranging thoughts and ideas in nonlinear diagrams. These programs have been available for years on laptops and desktop computers, but some professors say the touch-screen interface of smartphones or tablet computers enhances the process, letting scholars toss around ideas with a flick of the finger. Gerald C. Gannod, director of mobile learning at Miami University, in Ohio, recommends Thinking Space for Android devices, MindBlowing for the iPhone, and Popplet for the iPad. Mr. Delwiche, of Trinity University, likes MindJet. "It's great when organizing papers or project ideas," he said.

For professors who shift to the app world, there's one gadget they can do without: that messy ballpoint pen.

College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to jeff.young@chronicle.com or @jryoung on Twitter.


1. academicwanderer - January 03, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Please write versions of Attendance for BlackBerry and Android!!!!

2. fred_tuttle - January 03, 2011 at 03:26 pm

There is a free attendance app for Android. Search "attendance" in the marketplace. I haven't used it in a class, but I have it all set up for my spring classes. The whole process was quite easy.

3. dave256 - January 03, 2011 at 04:08 pm

The programming language and user interface toolkits for Blackberry and Android are completely different so it would take me longer to write those than the 6-9 months of full-time work I've spent so far on the iOS Attendance app. My next app is a Mac grading application that may also turn into an iOS app (most likely iPad-only since I think the larger screen is necessary to design a decent interface for that complex an app). The Mac app is mostly done and I expect to complete version 1.0 of it during our mid-semester break in March.

David Reed
Capital University

4. garay - January 03, 2011 at 05:19 pm

Indeed, the opportunities are virtually endless today for facilitating ubiquitous teaching and learning.

Not only do smartphones and tablets give us (everyone) the option to check and reply to emails on the go, but we can also participate and nourish class discussion boards, comment on student blogs, journals and wikis, and dive even deeper into our LMS teaching & learning environments with native mobile apps, like Blackboard Mobile Learn, Mobile Moodle and Desire2Learn Mobile apps, some like Blackboard's even available for iPad, iPhone/iPod touch, as well as for Android and Blackberry smart phones and mobile tablets.

Today's mobile Internet-enabled devices let us keep up with with our digital reading needs, comfortably, conveniently throughout our daily digital continuum lifestyle, but what I appreciate the most is the ability to make teaching and learning most engaging and interesting to students. Being able to quickly help a student or have a quick digital dialog anytime and anywhere, asynchronously or in real-time is simply priceless.

Btw, one effective way to take attendance is by osmosis, that is, by running student response system (clicker) activities everydaynin class, for a couple of minutes. Not only will these activities give us (educators) a better sense of where the class is with the material at hand, add some useful interactivity especially to large classes, give shy students a comfortable avenue to voice their opinions, etc. etc. but also implicitly take attendance. We can later synthesize the clicker data and synchronize it with our LMS gradebooks; also, a growing number of clicker systems now have the ability to have people participate on clicker activities without a clicker, that is, by simply using a smartphone or Web page.

Would you like fries with that?

Greetings from Chicago.

5. rickkinsey - January 03, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Inkling is far and away the most interesting iPad application for textbooks that I've seen, but receives woefully little press. I'm glad to see it mentioned here. Honestly, I think it's what makes it clear to me that the iPad a useful tool for learning. Really excited by what they're doing.

6. andycullison - January 04, 2011 at 08:48 am

Android for Academics has a free attendance app on the Android market that syncs up with a Google Docs spreadsheet.

They also have three other apps for academics; Gradebook, Grade Rubric, and Grade Ticker.


7. dave256 - January 04, 2011 at 09:36 am

I agree with garay that if your students have clickers and all you want is a record of who was there, using the clickers is much faster. The real benefit of Attendance and other task-specific apps is that they give you additional capabilities. As the article mentions, having Attendance pick a random student (and showing his/her picture) is one nice feature. Other benefits include creating random groups of various sizes, the ability to email all the students, just the students who were absent, send a full attendance report for a student to the student or dean, recording notes for the class or student, and generating spreadsheet reports of the data are the reasons to use a task-specific app such as Attendance.

David Reed
Capital University

8. daveapostles - January 04, 2011 at 10:15 am

Vendor lock-in and excessive cost - where's the advantage in that?

9. nculmer - January 04, 2011 at 11:55 am

I'm surprised that Mendeley was not mentioned as a useful tool for reading scholarly articles. It syncs with a client on your machine and a cloud-based account and is also the best citation software I have found. The app allows you to maintain the organizational structure as well. I have used a variety of citation tools in my work, but I have liked this one the best.

10. antikraft - January 04, 2011 at 02:09 pm

For a full featured app for teacher, check out Teacher's Attaché. You can manage your course schedules, assignments with grading, take attendance, etc.

11. mvaline - January 04, 2011 at 02:58 pm

I appreciate good technology, but I also appreciate good grammar. How about using "syllabi" vs. "syllabuses?"

12. manitoga - January 04, 2011 at 04:02 pm

Check your OED. Both "syllabi" and "syllabuses" are correct.

13. stachowiak - January 04, 2011 at 04:10 pm

Attendance is a wonderful application that is easy to use, but offers many ways to keep organized. In addition to your mention of the feature that helps you learn your students' names, there are numerous reporting capabilities that allow you to track attendance. You can email students who missed a particular class session, email them their attendance records, or email yourself a file with all the attendance detail to use in Excel in combination with your other grade-related tracking.


14. drgunn - January 04, 2011 at 07:14 pm

I'm surprised no one mentioned Mendeley's iphone app for academic PDFs. We're customizing it for the ipad as well, and the developer community is also working on an Android version.

15. sandwichink - January 04, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Thank you for a very interesting article. I loved the idea of the attendance app combined with photos. As a member of the baby boomer generation, I find that the older I get, the harder it is for me to remember names (Not that I was ever that great at it, I'm afraid :) ). This app sounds perfect for any teacher - whether in the classroom, in a Sunday School class, or in a more informal setting. I was pleased to find that it has a solid 4 star rating with over 180 votes. The next time I am scheduled to teach a class, I'll be downloading this. Thanks again!

16. ahoutman - January 05, 2011 at 11:25 am

Another vote for Mendeley. My students and I also use our cell phones' GPS and iBird for fieldwork. I will be checking out Attendance and look forward to seeing Dr. Reed's other MAC-friendly apps.

17. angelos - January 05, 2011 at 11:49 pm

People still take attendance? Wow...

18. rvdparis - January 06, 2011 at 06:27 am

Reference managers: Sente for iPad and Papers for iPad allow PDF journal articles to be tagged, noted, and catalogued and synced with their desktop versions; Sente then creates your bibliography on your desktop...Papers has an iPhone app, too.

19. mpressley - January 07, 2011 at 09:09 am

Yes, I still take attendance. Around 50% of the material in my class comes from material that is not in the book and may only 3 words in my notes which I expand to 5 minutes of lecture, example, experiential exercise, etc. Moreover, I teach in an engaged manner. It's rather hard for a student to be engaged if they are not in class. How, for instance, does one participate in a group discussion if absent? How does s/he participate in an experiential exercise if still asleep in their dorm room?
If you're still lecturing out of the book and testing on definitions (like most of us "learned" in our prof's classes), you're not doing a very effective job in my humble opinion. If you are, please let me know how your students vary from the research results that show that students forget 85% of the material they memorize in this type of class within 6 weeks after an exam.

20. music_librarian - January 07, 2011 at 09:19 am

Using my Android, I recently uploaded a forgotten-but-necessary document to Blackboard while standing in a parking lot. Saved my neck.

21. sblaisdell - January 07, 2011 at 10:05 am

It looks like Attendance has some great functions, so I will likely add it, but the function emphasized in the article - taking attendance (and not losing the record) can be done in Blackboard or Desire2Learn and is then accessible to the student, along with a means of submitting assignments electronically plus a record of feedback and grades. My students regularly comment on how helpful this is to them, and how they wished more of their faculty used this tool.

22. mikeelrod - January 07, 2011 at 10:50 am

My only issue with any of this is more of a side note to the point of the article. There is a danger in pushing textbooks to a completely digital age in that it could possibly create a tiered system in which those who can't afford digital readers are left without a basic piece of the academic pie. While there are ways around this for such students, I believe that there either has to be a lowering of the price of digital readers as a whole or institutions would have to create tuition fees that cover the cost which would hopefully be at a reduced rate. We can't go completely digital and retain a fair playing field without first addressing the economic abilities of the students.

23. pekein - January 07, 2011 at 01:21 pm

@mikeelrod - point taken. However, considering the cost of textbooks these days- (Cengage being one of the worst offenders, imo)- one could argue that this represents a cost-cutting measure in the long run (i.e. for 4 years of university).

24. rkgrkg - January 07, 2011 at 02:24 pm

Hasn't Profhacker here on the Chronicle been writing about the same apps for months now? Why no links to their posts that have actual directions for how to use them?

25. vlgraf1 - January 07, 2011 at 06:03 pm

Has anyone found a good application for the IPad that allows you to make track changes on documents??

26. jeconnery - January 07, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Waaaaaaaaait a second...

Some of these tools are pretty cool. But I feel the urge to call our attention to the title of the article. Do these apps improve research? Sounds like they certainly help. (I'm particularly fond of the idea of making research accessible to "citizen scientists!) Do they improve your life? They won't stand in for marriage counseling, but they certinaly offer some assistance in managing an ever-growing array of information streams and simplifying certain annoying, but necessary tasks.

Do they improve *teaching*? Didn't see much on that. Essentially nothing, in fact. Can they improve some course/classroom management things? Sure. Are those valuable improvements? You bet. But that's not the same thing as improved teaching.

I realize the author writes the article, not necessarily the headlines. But, editors at The Chronicle ought to know better. Making "teaching" a series of tasks like taking attendance, not loosing your notes, or giving creative thought to a lecture (note, "lecture" not "course design") makes the work of educators seem like little more than buraucracy and/or sales.

C'mon, folks.... Say what you mean and mean what you say.

27. ellenhunt - January 08, 2011 at 04:18 pm

I must note here that my experience with clickers is that in larger study sections students run quite a black market in clicker answer attendance. Based on my sampling, the maximum practical number of clickers that one student can handle in an unmonitored class is about 10. In a monitored class the maximum is about 5, with 2.2 the rough average. In monitored classes these enterprising attendance/answer subcontractors generally sit toward te center of an auditorium.

The going rate appears to be about $5 per clicker-class for the subcontractor students. Thus, in a typical quarter, the average clicker contractor for a 3 unit section makes 13x3x5x2.2= $429. The maximum a clicker contractor can reasonably make in a quarter for one class is $1950.

Thus, if it is assumed that the maximum reasonable number of different 3 unit classes per week that an enterprising subcontractor can attend in sciences is 4, then the student subcontractors can make between $7800 (for 10 clickers) and $1980 (for the 2.2 clicker average.) This is for 13 weeks of work. That is a high of $2400 per month and a low average of $609 per month.

Now, since the clickers are electronic WIFI devices with a simple protocol, I am rather sure that somewhere in America today there are student clicker subcontractors who are running a laptop application that can handle larger number of clickers. This could potentially allow a student clicker/attendance subcontractor to attend for considerably more. That puts the tax-free income of clicker subcontractors potentially higher than the gross income of some professors (and certainly the TAs) who run the classes.

Now, I will note here that in several cases, I determined that te subcontracting students were also in attendance, which complicates matters. This suggests that some students appeared to prefer to pay in order to not be distracted by the anxiety of needing to respond to clicker questions. Many of them were pre-med students...

All in all, education is become quite interesting, don't you think?

And I won't start on enterprising CS students hacking into the professor's iPad to get answers or change grades and such stuff.

28. fetkey - January 09, 2011 at 09:27 pm

My college still has students sign a roster and the professor turns it in to the administrative staff person. The staff person codes the attendance in the course and tracks the attendance with the use of excel for financial aid purposes. I keep saying there has to be a more efficient way of keeping track of attendance!

29. gplm2000 - January 10, 2011 at 11:39 am

Gosh who knew! When I am in class with students I turn off the cellphone. If I am eating lunch or dinner, at a basketball game, or participating with my kids, I turn off the cellphone. While driving to an from school, I turn off the cellphone. It sounds like giving my full attention to students and family is the wrong thing to do. But then, I grew up in a society where people looked at each other and talked while in their presence. Ain't technology grand?

30. peachy2417 - January 10, 2011 at 06:00 pm

I love the idea of the smartphones , i phones,ipads, android phones being the new wave in improving teaching and research. I have a blackberry and love the idea of writing a paper, saving it to my e-mail and being able to proof read what i wrote on my smartphone. I think it is the best technology ever and i can't wait until barnes and noble's nook gets the application for e-textbooks which will save college students alot of money.. I say kudos to smartphones, I love it.

31. itchair - January 10, 2011 at 07:35 pm

The convergence of technology (camera, gps, phone, and pda) into one device has empowered both the student and the instructor to be more creative. It enables the instructor to enhance student interactivity and engagement in the classroom. It keeps the student engaged even outside the classroom walls and beyond classroom hours. For example, they can take pictures of real life scenarios and introduce them in the classroom. The smartphone can enhance the cognitive process in endless ways; it is only limited by the attitude and creativity of the course designer and the instructor. Attendance and grading are just two examples of the use of smartphones in the classroom; the applications are unlimited.

32. fetkey - January 16, 2011 at 10:27 am

I agree that digital readers would be a great option for college students. However, as mentioned above for some first generation low income students it will definitely be a challenge. It will be interesting to see where technology takes us in the near future and how institutions decide to react to the trend.

33. fetkey - January 23, 2011 at 08:17 pm

I can't wait to share this article with faculty. They don't tell students to turn the cell off, but to silence it. They are often anooyed if you are typing your notes on the laptop instead of writing them down.

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