A Levels with an iPad

When I moved into the L6th last year, I decided to take advantage of the heavily reduced number of subjects and extra free range my teachers afforded me to see if I could rely entirely on my iPad for all my notes for my four A Level subjects (Maths, Physics, English Literature, and Computing). One year later, having tried many different apps and workflows, I've settled on a few that work well for me -- enough that I thought it would be worth writing about, in case other students or teachers wanted to see whether an iPad-only student life is possible, and more efficient than defaulting to pen and paper.

The answer to that question is: yes, it is possible. It was feasible in 2014 with iOS 8, but now with the advent of iOS 9, I would feel comfortable ditching my laptop completely for academic purposes. I keep my laptop around for all my other interests (coding, VectorWorks, SolidWorks, filmmaking etc.), but usually it stays at home on my desk.

I'll break down my workflow into apps. Maths is somewhat of a special case, so I'll mention how I do that at the end.

Evernote

Everything lives in Evernote. I have a Notebook for each subject, and I tag notes in each subject with the A Level module that they're from (e.g. PH4 for Physics, COMP1 for Computing). I type the majority of my notes straight into Evernote using the iPad's software keyboard, which I've found is perfectly fine for short bursts of quick typing, which is what I'm doing when I write notes. In iOS 9, the ability to move the cursor around by swiping on the keyboard is a great benefit.

I tend to do one big note for each topic in each module, for instance "Particles and Forces" or "Parity Checking", and sub-divide them using highlighted text (to make up for Evernote's lack of title presets). This works well because scrolling up and down one note to find a formula from a previous lesson is much faster than trying to find the right note in a notebook.

Evernote Screenshot

Paper by FiftyThree

This is my general purpose drawing app. I use it for Physics diagrams (including writing out formulae), as well as laying out tables and graphs.

Once I've finished a diagram, I'll just take a screenshot of it and insert it into the relevant place in the Evernote note for that topic. Sometimes (if we're working through a derivation, for example), there might be five or six images from Paper in a row in my note.

After having used Paper for a few months or so and figuring out that it was the app for me, I bought the Pencil stylus to make writing easier and less messy. I can just about survive without it for most things, but for Maths (as mentioned below) it's essential.

Scientific Keyboard

Because the majority of the text in my Physics notes are written on a software keyboard, sometimes I have to insert scientific symbols (usually Ω or indices). Instead of Googling the symbol and copying it off Wikipedia (as I used to do), with iOS 8 I installed a Scientific Keyboard app to use alongside the standard one.

Numbers

While we're on the topic of Physics, it's worth mentioning that I now use Numbers a lot to write down experimental data from class practicals, as well as to quickly do calculations to convert units or apply equations to my data. Its graph-drawing capabilities are also pretty good:

Numbers Screenshot

As far as I can tell, there's nothing you can do on Numbers on a Mac that you can't also do on the iOS App - at least nothing I've needed to do.

Penultimate

Penultimate is the app I use for Maths notes, because (unlike Physics or Computing) my notes hardly ever contain text which could be written out in Evernote, so I have to do everything by hand. But, because it's owned by Evernote, it uses Evernote as a syncing engine - meaning that all my notes, whatever the app, are all stored in one big silo in Evernote.

Annoyingly, Penultimate doesn't support the Pencil because Evernote have their own stylus that they want me to buy, but since the Pencil can work as a dumb finger as well as being smart, I can still take notes using it fine. My only wish would be more or better types of highlighting, because at the moment the angle it draws at seems to be entirely random.

Example C3 Note

iBooks

I'm not a fan of using eBooks when studying a novel or play in English Literature when I'm going to need to write essays about it, mainly because the note-writing tools around iBooks (and Kindle) just aren't as good as taking a pen and writing on a physical book. I tried it for Pride and Prejudice at GCSE, but I found it quite difficult to skim backwards and forwards quickly. Also, the editions in iBooks or online either do not match the version we tend to use in class, or do not come with the extensive notes of something like the New Cambridge Shakespeare or Arden editions. Instead, I make notes in the margins, and then take more detailed scene notes in Evernote.

I do, however, use iBooks as a textbook dump - either the legitimate PDF versions (if there exists such a version) or a scanned copy. I also use it as a silo of manuals for bits of gear that I might need to use when offline, like lighting equipment that I've never used before that we're renting for a show.

For my own home use, I much prefer reading books on iBooks, for the obvious reasons that anyone prefers an eBook over the physical version.


I do back up my notes, fairly frequently, although it's still a manual process. I go to Evernote, select All Notes, and then export them into one huge (500MB+) .enex file which I then put into my standard file backup system (a RAID array on a Mac Mini server which is then backed up to Backblaze). This is overkill, and much more than I'd expect anyone else to do, but just exporting your notes and putting them in Google Drive is infinitely better than having no backup at all. At this stage, I find it almost shocking that some people have a single paper copy of something as important as their A Level notes - at least stack them onto a Xerox feed scanner and save them as huge PDFs, as I've seen some at my school do.

I hope this post has been vaguely interesting, and that I've shown that with a bit of effort it is possible to go at least largely paper-free. My back thanks me for it. For what it's worth, this post was written and composed entirely on my iPad with photos from my iPhone - made possible by iOS 9's file picker and upload capabilities.