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Like it or not, it's that time again. Schools across the nation are back in session (or will be soon enough) and it's time for students to get back into the learning, studying and testing mindsets. For some, that may be easier said than done. But for those of you going back to school this semester with a new mobile device, there are several ways you can incorporate your smartphone or tablet into your schooling routine.

Not every campus or professor allows devices in their classrooms, but for those who can get away with using an iPad or smartphone during a lecture, there is a laundry list of practical uses for mobile devices.

Over the years, I have logged many hours with tablets and smartphones in classrooms. My very first experience was way back in high school, where I used a BlackBerry to take my notes – quite effectively, might I add. I "synced" class notes to my computer by emailing them to myself, and since then, I have constantly been in search of more uses for mobile technology in the classroom. Here are some of the most practical uses I have discovered:

 

Note taking

This one is pretty obvious. It's what most people use their tablet or smartphone for in a classroom anyway. But there are several ways you can take your note taking on a tablet from just note taking to something much more seamless and beautiful. By using one of several cloud services, like Google Drive, you can type documents and create spreadsheets from a tablet or phone and have them automatically save to your Google account. For some, Drive works well. Or maybe Evernote is more your speed. Springpad?

I have always preferred Dropbox. And I have recently adopted Notational Velocity on the MacBook and use Simplenote as a backup service for my Dropbox notes. On the iPad, I use iA Writer for plain, markdown notes. But what if I need to draw something which could otherwise be a bit arduous to type, like a mathematical formula? For that, any ol' drawing application will do, like Paper or SketchBook, with a stylus or trained fingertip. You can either export your drawings and send them to Dropbox, or screen capture them and send them to Dropbox. Using the Camera Upload feature, all of this can be synchronized automatically to your Dropbox account.

There are hundreds of little, finishing touches you can put on your note taking style, all of which can make your life easier. I have personally never liked hand writing notes, and I likely never will. I can type much faster than I can write with a pen or pencil, so it only seems logical to type instead.

 

Taking pictures of assignments, diagrams

Has drawing diagrams bogged your down? Never fear. Unlike those flip phones from 1999, modern smartphones and feature phones are fitted with cameras that are decent enough to take pictures of fine text. So save your lead, eraser and frustration for simpler drawings and use your camera for that diagram of a diamond molecule.

Lest we forget that tablets have cameras, too. And diagrams aren't the only things that befuddle our brains or take too much time to jot down. For as long as I can remember, I have been using the camera on my phones to take pictures of homework assignments, project due dates, etc. I not only do this because it's quicker, but it's harder to lose a picture that is automatically backed up to a cloud storage account than a piece of paper.

 

Setting reminders for important dates

Using the various pictures I took, I added project due dates and any other important dates from pictures to my Google calendar. I then set a series of reminders – one a week, two days and a day in advance – so I don't forget an assignment or project.

It's never a bad idea to ask for a tentative test schedule and add "possible" test days in the calendar either.

 

Recording lectures

While I did take my fair share of notes during class, I also spent a great deal of time daydreaming, doing homework for other classes and sleeping. (Hey, working two or three jobs while being a full-time student isn't easy!) Needless to say, I also missed a significant amount of every lecture I ever sat through … at least the first time around.

On lecture days, I would sometimes take my phone out of my pocket, sit it on the edge of the desk and fire up a voice recording app. (Some professor don't take too kindly to recorders, so it may be in your best interest to run this by your instructor or institution before hitting record.) I would then transfer the recordings over to my computer and listen to them if I found myself struggling through a chapter.

 

Textbooks, of course

My very first semester in college, I loaded my laptop up with textbooks and carried it to class with me every day. Once I bought my first tablet, I loaded it up with PDFs of my textbooks, too. And I did the same with my iPad, using an application called GoodReader. Apple even expressed their interest in the textbook realm earlier this year with the announcement of textbooks in iBooks.

For me PDFs and ePUBs have worked quite well for my textbook needs, though not all teachers are fond of electronic books just yet.

The only downside to using digital copies of textbooks rather than the real thing is that it's rather difficult to take notes in the margins in an eBook. However, there's a rather simple workaround that has worked quite well in my experience. Take a screen capture of the page you want to take notes on and open the screenshot in a drawing app like SketchBook to annotate. Presto! You now have margin notes on steroids without the additional weight of a few thousand pages.

 

Further reading

During lectures, I often found myself getting hung-up on specific, interesting topics that the professor seemed to barely graze. Or maybe they referenced something from a lecture on a day I missed. Immediately, I would whip out my iPad and queue up a search for the topic. For lengthier stuff, I would just email it to myself so I could remember to look it up later. Now there are services such as Pocket, which serve as an online dog ear for important pages. (If I had Pocket back then, I would be afraid of what my saves would look like.)

 

Tablets and smartphones, while not wholly accepted by every institute, are great additions to the classroom. And if you use them right, they can greatly add to your learning experience and put an endless amount of additional learning material in the palm of your hand. I have been using mobile devices in all of my classes for several years now (including high school) and I fear how much worse I would have done without them.

If you have found a place for mobile technology in your classroom routine or schooling life, share in the comments below. Feel free to share any applications or services you have found to be useful, too!


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