Back to School with an iPad? 5 ways to go paperless this term.

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Back to School. The phrase that strikes horror into students (and teachers) of all ages up and down the land. Back in the day, there was the excitement of writing neatly on the first page of your new exercise book, and then slightly less so on the second page which was not quite so nicely padded on all those leaves of fresh paper. Now, many students are just as likely to walk into the classroom with a piece of tech as they are with a pencil case. Here are the top 5 cost effective, paper busting productivity apps for a student going back to school in 2014 armed with an iPad, in no particular order.

1 – iWork: Free/$9.99 for each app


I’m slightly cheating here as iWork is of course 3 different apps, but the iWork suite on the iPad is a must. In terms of doing papers at school, Pages is an excellent option to use as it is a powerful word processor which offers all of the features that you actually would use in a word processor, and it has been carefully crafted by Apple to give you the best touch experience possible. Add into the mix Siri to dictate notes and you have a winning combo. You also have the advantage of iWork in the cloud meaning that you can use a desktop or laptop to continue your work by logging into One bugbear that people seem to raise with Pages is the compatibility with MS Office. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with cross compatibility which is why I would choose Pages over MS Word on an iPad (Word on iPad also requires a paid subscription). To be fair though, I’m not a power user when it comes to word processing and power users might have encountered compatibility issues.

Keynote is Apple’s version of our beloved (I say this with tongue firmly in cheek) presentation software, PowerPoint. I was always a bit sceptical creating presentations on a touch screen until I started Keynote. It really is an easy way to produce slick looking presentations in class and best of all it is fairly distraction free meaning students can concentrate on the content rather than the “ooohhh I like this insanely coloured word art and animations that fall in one letter at a time” stuff. Again, presentations can be accessed on if needed.

The final piece of iWork is Numbers, and to be honest doing a spreadsheet on a tablet is a painful experience at best that no one has really mastered so I can’t recommend this for school as it does eat up your precious memory, although it is free.

2 – Google Apps: Free.


Google Apps, like iWork, is made of different apps. Google Drive is cloud file storage, Google Docs is a word processor, Google Slides is presentation software (out soon) and Google Sheets is the spreadsheet software. Gmail and YouTube apps are also available.

Technically, you can pick any kind of cloud storage, but I’m recommending Google Drive for a few reasons. Firstly, you get 15GB of free storage, or 30GB if your child’s school uses Google Apps for Education. Google Drive is tremendously useful because it can act as your cloud filing system as most apps will have the ability to export to it, including all of the apps in this article. This extends your measly 16GB iPad storage to almost double, freeing up space to download more cool apps (or iTunes collections). Despite Google and Apple not getting on, Google make some amazing apps for iOS, and Google Drive is one of them.

Secondly, as well as the free cloud storage, your Google account gives you access to Gmail, Calendar, where your child can sync their homework and timetable to their iPad and maybe share it with you(!) and YouTube where they can build up playlists of educational videos (or more likely fave songs).

Finally, your Google account will give you access to Google Docs, Slides and Sheets which is Google’s own version of a Word Processor, Presentation software and Spreadsheet software. The Google Office software has been around quite a while now and the suite is extremely feature rich in the browser and syncs really well between this and your iOS device. As we know, young people are excellent at saving their work and it never goes missing come homework time. Luckily for all our sanities sake, everything you do in Google Apps is saved automatically, and every version of a file is backed up, meaning your child doesn’t have to remember to do it. This means that it is pretty impossible to lose a piece of work and I’ve found that excuses are changing from “my dog ate it”, and “I lost it on the bus on the way to hockey” to the simple and elegant “I forgot to do it”. It is worth noting that the iOS apps are less feature rich than the browser experience, but Google have a habit of regular updates and the competition between them, Apple and Microsoft keeps things fresh.

There are, of course, people’s concerns about Google scanning emails and so on, but if your child’s school is running Google Apps for Education, Google do not scan these accounts.

3 – Notability: $1.99.


Notability is a bit like a Swiss Army knife for productivity at school. It syncs very nicely into your chosen cloud storage account for backup which means losing work is actually very difficult. It can also open most types of file, so if you create something in another app there is a good chance Notability will be able to handle it.

The handwriting module in Notability is also as good as it gets on the iPad and if you have a decent stylus the note taking becomes a breeze. Your child can, for example, take a picture of an experiment in science, or the board in other lessons and add their own notes to it in Notability. Notability also gives you the option to add voice recordings which can be useful if you child needs to do a bit of extra explanation where it is quicker to talk rather than write.

There are several good note taking apps on the iPad, but Notability offers excellent usability and features for your money.

4 – PDFpen Scan+ with OCR, PDF text: $6.99.


Despite the slightly insane name for this app, PDFpen kills a couple of birds with one stone. Firstly if your child’s teacher is in the habit of giving out lots of photocopied sheets, this app will scan them into your iPad as a digital document which they can export to cloud services to save for their notes. Secondly this app performs OCR (Optical Character Recognition). This will extract all of the text in the scan and turn it to editable text which can be copied and pasted into other apps. This is a seriously useful feature which can save lots of time when students are putting together notes. OCR is dependent on the quality of picture taken, but the text recognition engine is pretty decent.

5 – FlipBoard: Free.


One of the issues that teachers up and down the land will tell you is that their students are a little sheltered from world affairs. They can solve complex equations but when it comes to understanding their right from left in politics things fall by the wayside. A good news aggregator can go a long way towards solving these issues, especially if it is as tactile as FlipBoard.

FlipBoard allows your child to subscribe to different news feeds and websites. Each article is summarised as a tile and if it is interesting a press will open the full article for reading. Everything updates automatically so your child will be abreast of what is going on in the world at any one time. Your children can also subscribe to their various social feeds through FlipBoard.

One really good feature of the app is that your child can make their own magazines in FlipBoard. Lets say for example they are doing a project on Nelson Mandela. Any articles that appear on FlipBoard relating to him can be ‘Flipped’ into their own personalised magazine about Nelson Mandela. This can then be shared with classmates if need be.

There are, of course many other apps to choose from, but the above list will cover you for most school based eventualities and should go some way to eliminating paper from your life. If you know of any other great apps that you can’t live without in your paperless world, please add them below in the comments.

James Potter

My day job is Director of Technology at one of the UK's leading independent schools. I'm on a daily mission to use, and learn to use technology in the most creative, innovative and transformational ways. The iPad ticks all of these boxes. I'm also an Apple Distinguished Educator, so at least Apple think I know what I'm blathering on about. My geekery also extends to a passion for cricket, amateur astronomy, video gaming and bad guitar playing. You can contact me on Twitter with the link below.

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