Writing on Screen

For the past academic year, I’ve taught college math. We moved online in March, of course. Since then, I’ve struggled with something I’ve struggled with for years: How to write on screen effectively. I’m looking for tips/solutions.

I hate trying to write on screen with the mouse. I can do it, but it is slow and often illegible.

This spring, I recorded everything in advance. I used a Tablet PC and wrote with a stylus in One Note. It worked ok, but it was frustrating trying to move from that to the TI-84 calculator app and back in a way that was smooth. It wasn’t a big issue since I was recording and could edit, but I’m going to be teaching live online this summer, likely.

Similarly, I used to teach English, and I always wanted a better way to comment on a student’s essay rather than using the limited tools in the learning management system or downloading each essay into Word to type comments. It was far quicker when teaching in person to write comments on a person’s paper, include proofreading symbols, etc. than it was to work with online submissions. Again, being able to write on a screen in an effective way would be helpful.

I tried using a Wacom style tablet years ago, and it didn’t work for me. I could not train myself to write while looking at the screen. Legibility was an issue.

Any advice? Anything that has worked for you?

I use an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil to teach math and computer science and it’s perfect for what you want. I use the goodnotes app.

Been teaching physics so I 100% feel your pain - I don’t even have a tablet so I’ve just been “talking through” pre-written notes for lack of a better option. My “mouse” handwriting is improving but is still pretty atrocious so I can only agree that that’s no solution. I wish I had something more than empathy to give, but suffice it to say I’ll be interested in any advice anyone else has as well.

If this ends up extending into the fall (I’m mercifully not teaching this summer, much sympathy on that front!) I figure I’ll have to break down and get a 2-in-1 but even then I’m not sure what the best way to use it will be.

I tried an Apple Pencil a few years ago, and it didn’t seem to work well for me. I know there have been revisions (I think I was using the first or second gen one). Have they gotten better? This is probably a stupid question–I used by iPad mostly for random stuff nothing serious–how well can I record something on an iPad and edit it? (I am using Camtasia on PC for my editing.)

Pen and paper and a digital overhead projector still works well. You do end up using a lot of paper though.

Trouble is the projectors themselves are quite pricey and, for obvious reasons, hard to get at the moment. I think if it became necessary to do this long term, though, that would have to be my solution. You could always use a small whiteboard in lieu of paper, I guess.

You could convert each page to JPEG, then write on each page with stylus.

But no I don’t think the technology has caught up with your use case yet. Certainly the hardware exists. But the software hasn’t been developed yet.

I teach video classes during the year–we have five sites that courses are broadcast to–and I end up using a document camera a lot. I hate it. There’s not enough space for students to see the big picture. I do have a cheap document camera at home. I tried it at first, but it wouldn’t stay in focus, so I found the Windows tablet a better option for me. I just wish it weren’t quite so clunky.

But thank you for the suggestion!

It has worked better than I first thought it might. I just am hoping there’s something out there that will make things a little smoother.

I honestly love teaching from home, but I just really want to be able to do Khan Academy style videos a little better. ;)

I have an online teaching demo next week for a job at one my dream locations. It’s going to be via WebEx. I would like to be able to impress them with my technological wizardry to make up for my unusual math background. I had some luck trying to join a Zoom meeting as a guest and use my 2-in-1 as a shared screen, but it is something I need to work on more. (I was playing with it in case I needed it for office hours. However, over six-some weeks, I had a total of 1 student in virtual office hours.)

I’m a little surprised anyone is hiring in this environment, but good luck!

That seems like it would be the ideal solution if you could get it working smoothly. I’ve been using Blackboard Collaborate (since that’s my institution’s platform for these things) and am not sure pairing off to another device is even an option there.

Thanks! I’m a bit surprised too, but it’s a new campus. The voters approved the expansion back in November. Actually, site is a better term since there’s no single building. I would be the first (and only) instructor on site (for any field), so I am pretty sure the position will definitely be filled. The bad thing is I’m sure there were probably tons of applicants with the dearth of jobs. The good thing is that I made it to a finalist. :)

I’m not excited about the prospect of moving in the current climate, but the location would make a move worth it should it happen.

I’m a high school physics teacher so I have the same issues. Especially as we stayed synchronous until this week.

I’ve been able to use my classroom so I aim my laptop camera at a white board and use it like normal (live in either Meet or Zoom). I also have access to a projector that hits the same area and if I need to I can project slides or a document on the white board and write “on top” of it.

In the past I have used a Surface Pro with the pen (even earlier I used an Asus windows tablet computer with pen). When I could use Journal I loved it and treated it. OneNote should be nicer but I have found that it is not as smooth writing (currently using Ntrig while the Asus had a Wacom digitizer). The lack of fluid writing (and easy projection of a white board) was enough to keep me from going back to the Surface when we went virtual.

@Dave_Perkins might have some useful input here.

Edit: I think there also are some Apple Pencil calculator apps… might want to search around. A lot of people like putting a “paper” screen cover on the iPad, to make it better for writing and drawing. @fire might have done that recently?

Fingers crossed for you!

We’re going to have to do that too (my job is union and relatively safe as a result but suffice it to say that all of this happened just as we were starting a family, and we can’t stay in this shoebox apartment). How the hell one moves in the middle of all this may be a whole different thread, though!

My wife is a multi-subject tutor (who does LOTS of math, physics, chemistry), and she gets good use from an iPad Pro / Apple Pencil / SideCar on Mac combination. The iPad & pencil works for direct markup, corrections, handwriting notes, etc. When you have to share that you can SideCar to move your handwriting-supporting Mac app to the tablet screen & write on it while AirPlaying the results in real-time to a TV, Internet conference app, etc.

I do some english & history for her and mostly use an iPad Pro / Magic Keyboard / occasional Pencil plus the same remote tools. My side is easier because I don’t have to work out math or physics in real-time with people.

This was challenging to figure out & make work reliably in the first few weeks of the lockdown. Our home Internet is solid (thank the gods), but there’s not much you can do when the student shares a terrible connection with 4-5 screaming family members & has a locked-down low-end device that they can’t install much to.


I used to draw back in the day on a Wacom tablet but in my opinion these screenless devices belong in the dustbin of history; vastly inferior to touchscreen devices that work with styluses. I use a Surface Book which does me well enough for my needs; though I’ll admit I type a lot more than I write these days.

That said, Wacom produce the Cintiq which could be worth a look in for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it’s not as pricey as a Surface or what have have you as it’s not a full blown separate laptop. You should be able to plug it in to most computers you already own as a secondary screen and be good to go. If you’ve not used dual displays before this video may be of use. You could have your drawing area on the Cintiq and your webcam or what have you on your main screen. The right setup here can feel pretty natural.

Secondly, they claim to focus on reducing parallax - that’s the distance that will nearly always exist from the tip of the pen to the ‘true’ screen under the display glass. This parallax is definitely the primary reason for me as to why writing on electronic screens can feel ‘weird’ compared to paper, so anything that reduces this is a plus.

Finally, it’s available in a few sizes and I’d recommend going for as big a screen as you can afford/talk your boss into buying. The bigger the drawing area the easier/better the experience - you’ll suffer less due to jittery penmanship.

So, that’d be your hardware side of things. For software, just make sure you use whatever tools you have to the fullest. Word does offer drawing and writing tools out the box so you should be able to grade things by hand using that with a bit of practice. If you like pottering around the house while grading you’ll be more interested in a tablet or touchscreen laptop rather than the Wacom, though.

For webcasts and such; I’ve not used it but if your org has you on Office 365 it might be worth giving Microsoft Whiteboard a look? It looks like a pretty solid all-in-one solution but don’t be afraid of requiring your students to connect to multiple collaboration tools and asking them to switch as you require.

If you need to show something physical on webcam (OP mentions a TI-84) buy another webcam and rig it up to a stage where you’ll leave the calculator in place. Switch your video feed to use that webcam when you need to demonstrate something on it. This will allow you to control for lighting and what have you a lot easier than winging it all around a single camera.

Practice will make perfect of course, try some dry runs with your setup until you feel comfortable.

I’ll add that we did try a Wacom tablet & she found it super unnatural. I’m sure it’s fine if you’re an artist and are used to the way it works. But for those of us who aren’t, the behavior of the virtual pointer vs a mouse or finger felt very strange.

Thanks @fox.ferro. For the TI-84, I have found that the emulator I bought works infinitely better than using a webcam to try to display it. It was well worth the investment. The only issue is moving it around effectively, especially live. I’ll probably get better at that with practice.

I would say that, in general, I think I would be strongly discouraged from having my students move between tools. Very strongly.

It looks like continuing to use my 2-in-1 remains my best option for now.