Grading on the iPad: When the Files Get Big

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I'm about half-way through grading the fourth set of assignments for the technical writing course: instruction sets. It's going well, but I've had a couple hiccups I want to share briefly.

So far, I've used the following process for student submission and grading:
1. Students use SugarSync to submit their final work into their own "Turned in" folders.
2. I use my laptop to copy individual files from their individual folders and put the copies into a single folder on my private SugarSync account.
3. I open SugarSync on my iPad and opened the files into iAnnotate PDF.
4. I use iAnnotate to grade them, and then email the files with comments back to the students.

This has worked fairly well so far. With one assignment, which was 12-24 pages each, I felt like it would be burdensome to read and respond to such a long document on the iPad, but once I got the hang of it, it was quite easy. For their job application packages, I added the step of me combining their resumes, cover letters, ads, and memos to me into one PDF file using Preview on my laptop, and that worked quite well.

But I've run into a few snags with the instruction sets. These have not been major, but do point to some of the limitations of the current software on the iPad. Because of liberal use of images in instruction sets, students' files are much larger this time, ranging in size from 200kb to 5.5mb. This has led to a few problems:

1. SugarSync sometimes won't open such a large file, or opens it incredibly slowly. This is especially true if the wireless connection isn't that strong. For instance, sometimes I get a screen like this for minutes, where SugarSync just struggles to download a file:

Not helpful. After waiting forever for a few files to open, or having SugarSync crash multiple times, I decided to email the documents to myself and open them into iAnnotate that way. This worked much more quickly. Clearly some apps are not going to play nice with large files, in part because they are designed for working on and storing smaller files.

2. The iPad seems to not like some forms of PDFs for some reason. While most of my students files are rendering fine, one file does not load most of its images in any application on the iPad: SugarSync, Mail, Papers, or iAnnotate PDF. However, the images load fine on my computer. I'll probably grade this one with either a discursive comment alone, or see if I can use Preview on the Mac to make comments.

3. iAnnotate PDF gets a little glitchy with bigger files. It's more likely to crash when files get large, but this hasn't been a huge problem for me. I've mainly started only having one file open at a time, instead of the maximum six, which seems to limit the crashing. A recent update has also allowed it to work with bigger files than before, I think.

4. iAnnotate PDF also doesn't treat all text in PDFs the same. Early in the term, most documents were written on the iPad and made into PDFs on there, so I could highlight text in iAnnotate quite easily. Now, since students are using a variety of platforms to write and export as PDF (Pages on iPad, Pages on Mac, MS Word (2003, 2007, 2008, 2010) on Mac or PC), text is recognized differently and sometimes iAnnotate PDF won't highlight properly. This has not been a huge problem either, but is somewhat of a nuisance visually: sometimes it will only highlight a few letters in a row, or refuses to highlight only a few words and instead highlights an entire row.

These frustrations, however, have been pretty minor. Since I'm only teaching one course, it's probably only added an hour or two of work to this grading cycle. But if I were teaching multiple courses, this could become a bit of a nightmare — at least until I got used to it more.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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