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Attack of the Apps: Helping facilitate online learning with mobile devices

By Naomi McGrath / March 2013

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As an educational developer I am constantly searching for new ways to help aid academic staff in the development of teaching and learning. As technology advances, teachers and instructional designers are seeking new and innovative ways to help enable communication to students, especially those learning fully online. By using plugins and resources within learning management systems (LMS), we can help support students to engage with materials online. But how can we use mobile devices—in this case iPads and their applications—to help facilitate online learning? And the bigger question, will the students like it?

Apple's App Store users can search for hundreds of thousands of free and paid "apps" to download and use on any Apple IOS mobile device. Since the App Store opened in 2008, 40 billion apps have been downloaded and there are now more than 775,000 apps available; 250,000 of these were developed specifically for the iPad [1]. But where does one start? For this article, I have reviewed a handful of iPad apps that I have used to help deliver teaching and learning practices in a new and exciting way for both students and educators. These apps have either been used as a "gadget" to help provide support when teaching, assist with ease of access, or used within an LMS to collaborate information and share with other open source software available online. It should be noted, within the Australian education sector, the number of programs and institutions now providing iPads to students is vastly increasing. As the use of iPads continues to increase amongst students, there is the potential to use this technology in a positive way within teaching and learning.

AirSketch App (Free or $9.99 USD for full features)

Recently, an accounting lecturer within the business school wanted to share what was written on the whiteboard in AFM211 Introductory Accounting 1 to students outside of the classroom. The external student cohort was feeling disadvantaged that they could not see what was being explained to the internal students. He asked for a solution that would allow sharing of the physical whiteboard through the LMS. I explored the world of apps and came across AirSketch a wireless whiteboard for the iPad (I would recommend paying to access the full features). This app allows the user to wirelessly project PDF documents (such as exported PowerPoint) and live drawings and images (either from the photo stream or the Web) to a computer on the same local network, and then annotate them in real time. With the paid version you have five drawing tools: pencil, pen, marker, brush and a highlighter. This gives the user freedom to mark-up a document, highlight important points and draw on their own examples to explain the key concepts. Like any Apple device, you can zoom and pan using two fingers to edit your sketches in small detail while also having the choice to edit any picture that has been uploaded onto the iPad screen.

Figure 1. Key features in the AirSketch App (Paid version) Source:
AirSketch App

(Click here to watch my YouTube clip on the features of the AirSketch App.)

Notice the image below shows that the screen on the iPad mirrors to the URL address on your computer screen wirelessly. By using a stylus you can write on the iPad and explain key points to your class.

Figure 2a. AirSketch screen wirelessly displayed on the computer monitor.
AirSketch App

Figure 2b. What is written on the iPad is now displayed on the screen.
AirSketch App

What is written on the iPad is now displayed on the screen. It is sometimes difficult to get used to writing with a stylus, however, with the new slim line products available today they are a lot easier to use. The other downfall is trying to use the iPad screen to your advantage. The size of the screen makes it hard to explain large equations or detailed calculations, and knowing your limit is difficult to gauge at times. Remember practice makes perfect; you can view AirSketch tips and tricks here.

The use of this app was a great success as the lecture hall was equipped with Camtasia Relay; allowing the computer screen and audio to be recorded. This was then uploaded to the LMS; in this case Moodle. After the lecture was completed, the external cohort was then able to listen and view the lecture and see the explanations via the "wireless whiteboard."

The use of technology such as video solutions and in-class examples, podcasts that you could clearly hear and see what internals students were seeing. No disadvantage to externals due to the use of technology. (From an AFM211 external student unit evaluation on the best aspects of the course; re: AirSketch App Tri 1 2012)

Having scrolled through numerous apps under the education category in the App Store I discovered many applications that could be used in the same way as AirSketch. However, I wanted to find an app that could be used by academic staff that highlights particular topics of interest to students, and do so by only using their iPad and no other software/hardware. I decided to test the ShowMe app.

ShowMe App (Free)

The app ShowMe can be used more for a tutorial-based approach. With ShowMe, anyone can create, share a lesson, tutorial, or presentation, and upload onto the LMS or add content to the ShowMe community online. The app has a record function for recording both screen and audio. This app is convenient for demonstrating examples of specific topics that you would cover in a small tutorial and upload for external cohorts to view. The fact that tutorials can be embedded into the LMS is a great resource for students especially for revisions leading up to an assignment or final exams.

Another function with the ShowMe app is the ability to sign up and connect with other users in the ShowMe online community. Once you create a profile you may save all your "ShowMe's" and share (or keep private) with the community or via Facebook, Twitter, email, or even copy the embed code to place in any HTML including your blog/website/LMS (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Embedded ShowMe lesson in the Moodle LMS.
ShowMe App

The ShowMe online community has thousands of lessons and tutorials created by users and includes categories such as math, science, languages, English, social studies and general (art/sport/music). The lessons can range from K-12 through to higher education and are free to share. There is a group feature ($5.20 USD a month for up to 10 groups) to share the ShowMe lessons to students, also allowing them to share their work with the class. Groups allow teachers to track student progress and comment on other ShowMe lessons created. Depending on how many students own or have access to an iPad the use of this app could be incorporated into assessable tasks or group projects and added into the LMS for peer review.

The app is very simple to use thanks to the minimal style approach on the screen. As you can see in Figures 4a and 4b there is a tool bar on the top of the screen highlighting the features. Simply touch to record, then a running timer on the bottom of the screen will appear, pause and select "Save ShowMe." That's it, done! Save to the community or copy the embed code and paste it into your LMS for students to view.

Figure 4a. Simple toolbar of features.
ShowMe App

Figure 4b. Recording function and timer at the bottom of the screen.
ShowMe App

(Click here for an example and explore all the ShowMe lessons created by other users in the online community.)

iTunesU App (free)

Apple's iTunes University content delivery service has been around for a number of years, however, I know a number of academic staff that haven't heard of iTunesU, let alone use it in their teaching.

iTunesU allows you to create a "course" and view it on an iPad though the iTunesU app and iBooks. The course manager allows to you collect materials and collaborate online resources, articles, YouTube clips, apps, Web links, PDFs, documents, and audio together with an overview of the course, posts, and notes created by the user.

Figure 5a. Main course page in iTunesU.
iTunesU App

Figure 5b. Overview of the collection of online resources that can then be shared via iTunesU.
iTunesU App

I am currently working on a postgraduate course in communications management and wanted to collect a comprehensive online audio and video collection to be incorporated into the unit and accessible on the iPad. iTunesU collects and holds this information allowing 20GB of storage space. Each course can be private providing a unique URL sent to students to access, or the course can be kept open to iTunesU community users. Both instructors and the students have the freedom to add and make notes on any of the material added within the course.

The iTunesU application is also the world's largest digital catalog of free educational content with more than 600,000 free lectures from world-renowned universities as well as videos, podcasts and books. I found this app really useful as I could find lectures from other universities and collate them into my course, advertising the work of other academics in their area of expertise. I could then incorporate their work in the unit at our university allowing our students to connect with other educational and cultural institutions across 30 countries.

Using the notes tool (see Figures 6a and 6b) allows the user to view any material added (in this case a lecture) into the course and notate at a precise time during that presentation, save the note, and then share by email, print, tweet, or message with another user. I think this personalized approach to learning is a great way for students to collaborate, think critically, and express their ideas for topics of conversation within the discussion forums in the LMS.

Figure 6a. Play and pause notating function.
iTunesU App

Figure 6b. The notes tab summarizes all resources that have notes/comments attached.
iTunesU App

Adobe Connect Mobile App (free)

One plug-in that is installed in our university LMS is the Adobe Connect Web conferencing platform. This can be used to set up meetings with teaching staff or within groups for peer-to-peer meetings inside the LMS. This synchronous learning activity allows students to participate in a virtual environment and create connections with other students and academic staff.

The Adobe Connect Mobile app can be downloaded on any device, making learning more accessible from anywhere, and allows nearly all capabilities from the desktop to your mobile device. The application allows you to host, attend, present, record, and completely drive collaboration in online meetings or trainings. You can start and manage meetings directly from your device; join multiuser videoconferences with your device's camera; share content with other attendees; and collaborate together using whiteboards, chat, polls, and more.

The layout of the app is simple and easy to use, especially if participating as a student. The "Host" role is far more complex as you can enable/disable audio and video of the participants in the meeting room. The quality of the sound and microphone in the iPad is really clear, and if you are situated in a quiet room no headphones are required. I would defiantly recommend this app to any student if their university or organization has an Adobe Connect account. It's free to download the app and stream via WiFi or 3G connections.

Figure 7a. Main Adobe Connect Mobile App connection page.
Adobe Connect Mobile App

Figure 7b. Figure 7b. Main Interface of the Adobe Connect Mobile App.
Adobe Connect Mobile App


Our mobile devices are being overwhelmed by apps and it can be very daunting when seeking to incorporate apps in teaching and learning. As new apps are developed every day, the idea of looking for apps is challenging. I first became interested in using mobile technology to help facilitate online learning when I was given an iPad for work. I downloaded way too many apps and came to the decision I needed to cull them and start thinking about how I could use them in a smarter way. I wanted to play with the idea of using the iPad for more than just taking notes and writing emails. The only way to know if an app is worth using is by trial and error, not every app will be useful and some features will be better than others. I would recommend you do your research, scroll and search your way through the app store, read the descriptions, and see what apps attract you. Word of mouth is also a great way to compare apps and the way instructors are using them to help teach their students.

I have had positive feedback from both staff and students in regard to incorporating apps into their learning environment. Students enjoyed the extra resources given to them in their courses and staff enjoyed the freedom and technical side of using iPads and apps in their teaching.

I am a gadget queen. I love technology and seeing new devices become available. Knowing that new applications are forever being developed, the idea that we can use these apps to our advantage, especially in education, is a very exciting time.


[1] Ogg, Erica. Apple App Store's Biggest December Ever: 2B iOS apps downloaded, GigaOM, 2013.

About the Author

Naomi McGrath (@Naomi_McGrath) is an Educational Development and Communications Officer at the UNE Business School, University of New England, Australia. With a background in graphic design, communications, and eLearning, she has been involved in many projects within the Business School including developing units involving alternate reality gaming (ARG), using social media as assessment in learning organizations, and developing engaging community sites for business students. McGrath is currently completing her Master of Learning and Development (Online and Distributed Learning).

© 2013 ACM 1535-394X/13/03 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2446514.2457805


  • Sun, 19 May 2013
    Post by Naomi McGrath

    Thank you for the comment .. I hope it helps and encourages using this technology in elearning.

  • Mon, 13 May 2013
    Post by Rad

    thank you for these good information