The Office apps for iPad are really powerful and full-featured, and feel particularly great to use on an iPad Pro. For a far better overview of what they are capable of than I could ever manage, I’d recommend a listen to a recent episode of Canvas. However, I’d like to mention in particular some of the ways I use them in lesson planning.
Excel is probably the app I use least. It’s very useful for referring to school documents which I’ve copied into my OneDrive including timetables and student lists, but I’m not currently doing a lot of creation of spreadsheets (I use Airtable to record student grades). Next up is Word, which I use to view and edit worksheets. Even though the iPad app forces you to update any old Word documents to the latest format, I’ve found it does so with very few issues, even on documents with lots of mathematical notation and diagrams. Although there is no equation editor on the iPad app, it displays worksheets with equations exactly as they appear elsewhere.
The two apps I use the most are PowerPoint and OneNote. PowerPoint I use to create any slides that I use in lessons. I don’t create huge amounts of slides in the way some teachers do since I do like writing on the whiteboard as well, but it’s very useful for starter questions or extension questions that I can display during the lesson. The Apple Pencil has also been incredibly useful when making slides, but more on this in the section below.
Despite having never used it before, I was somewhat surprised to find that OneNote quickly became my favourite of the Office apps for iPad Pro. It has become my home base for lesson planning, and essentially I write all of my lesson plans there. I have one tab for each class I teach, and within each tab I have a page for each topic in the scheme of work. In one of the tabs I keep a template lesson plan, and then simply copy this page to a new tab when I want to create a new sequence of lessons on a particular topic. The strength of OneNote is how many different kinds of things you can put there. Text, headings, lists, images, videos, files, links, equations, and even full page PDF printouts: OneNote copes will all of these with elegance. (It’s puzzling to me though why OneNote has an equation editor when none of the other apps do.)
One of the most useful of these is being able to attach files anywhere within a page. Files can be added from any of the usual document providers, including OneDrive. With this tool I can attach all of the worksheets and PowerPoints directly to my lesson plan. You can even preview them there without leaving the app. The only disadvantage is that once a file is attached, it effectively becomes a copy of the file within the note. You can edit the attached file in PowerPoint, but these changes will not be synced with any changes to the original file in OneDrive. An alternative is to paste a OneDrive link into your note, but this has the annoying feature of opening your file in a browser rather than the relevant app. Microsoft may need to do some work on universal link recognition to fix this.
At my last school, where they had only just been introduced, most teachers found it difficult to see the potential of iPads for their work or their teaching, but this is an issue that I think affects all such deployments. I’ve learnt a lot about the importance of effectively conveying to teachers what an actual lesson involving iPads looks like from Fraser Spiers and Bradley Chambers in their excellent podcast Out of School. (If you want to know more about what a good iPad deployment looks like, I highly recommend their Deployment 2016 series.)
This is a particular issue in mathematics, where the way the subject is currently taught doesn’t seem to be all that compatible with a device that can handle text well, but struggles with mathematical notation. There are some apps (such as the excellent Nebo) that aim to help you input mathematical notation into notes, and there is also the comprehensive but technical mathematical typesetting language LaTeX, but neither is really designed for the process of actually doing mathematics. Sitting down with a pencil and paper remains the fastest and most productive way of working on a problem.
My great revelation has been the Apple Pencil. I didn’t buy one when I originally bought my iPad Pro because I thought it was more suited for artistic purposes than the kind of work I was doing. However, after I started using OneNote for my lesson planning, it dawned on me how useful it would be to be able to quickly jot down a bit of maths as part of one of my lesson plans. Since then, I have used my Apple Pencil every day when doing my lesson planning in OneNote and even more so when creating slides in PowerPoint, where I can quickly write down a question involving a formula or an equation without having to think about it.
All of the Office apps have a draw menu, where you can control the colour and thickness of the stroke, use highlighting and erasing, and select using the lasso tool. Selecting parts of your drawing is easy, though I have sometimes found it difficult to move objects after selecting them. Using the “convert to shapes” tool is useful for drawing simple diagrams, and will detect most basic shapes that you draw. I use the draw menu most often in PowerPoint where I am writing questions or drawing diagrams most often. I also use it to jot down occasional things in OneNote such as a derivation of a formula that I plan to go through at the board. I use it occasionally in Word when creating a worksheet, but never in Excel. I don’t really understand why you would want to draw on top of a spreadsheet, but I’m sure there are people out there who have come up with a reason!
The only frustrating thing about drawing mode is that you are very much drawing on top of the document: you are not creating an inline image. Most of the time this is a good thing since you don’t have to worry about text wrapping, but when you go back and edit some text in a OneNote page, all of the equations you wrote can suddenly be misaligned with your text.
The Office apps, along with the Apple Pencil, have quickly become the main tool I use for planning and teaching my maths lessons. The Apple Pencil has been a revelation to me, and for the first time I have felt completely at home doing mathematics on an iPad. For any school where students use iPads, it’s makes a compelling case to go for the Pro. For any teacher working on iOS with equations or pictures or diagrams, it really is a must-have tool and makes doing this kind of work on an iPad Pro feel incredibly natural.