iAnnotate – Disrupting the Sound of Silence

If you didn’t notice, the iAnnotate app has had a major update. And if you’ve not noticed the iAnnotate app, you need to check it out. It’s a fantastic productivity tool that engages users directly with various text documents. This is a great tool for teachers to grade written work, and it’s also a great annotation tool for students to markup up texts, assignments, notes, and presentations.

iAnnotate lets you annotate PDF, Word, PowerPoint, and image files. Students can share their work with instructors through Dropbox, Google Drive, Skydrive, email, and so on. Conversely, teachers can share documents with students. It’s one thing to share an assignment with students, but imagine sharing a presenation with them that they can annotate as you present it in class.

Typically students take notes as the instructor presents content. We know the results of how that model of instruction works. Not so good. Students shouldn’t just be empty vessels when they consume content. Have students interact right on the content that you are presenting. (By the way, it’s all digital. No paper cost.) Additionally, it’s much better if student notes are married up to the actual content. It makes for a much better way to study later on. If you’ve created lessons in PowerPoint, Word, or PDF, you can still present those to class, but send the students the actual documents. Let them take their notes right on top of your content.

Why annotate, though?


Annotating gives readers a deeper understanding of content. Readers who actively engage the text remember the content longer than the casual reader does. It lets the reader get personal with the text by asking questions, clarifying and arguing points, and praising the content creator’s ideas. For educators, this is certainly the goal of what we want students to do with our content–not not just read it, but devour it, and ultimately possess the knowledge and not just remember it for a test.

Keep in mind that highlighting text, while important, is the lowest form of annotation. Highlighting says you’ve identified something important, and you’ve changed its color.  That’s a good start, but often highlighting becomes mindless and does nothing more than mark the trail that you’ve read. iAnnotate has a full customizable annotation toolbox that includes a pen, highlighter, typewriter, and stamp. Users can draw,  underline, strikeout, add photos,  and add voice recordings to documents.

Let’s take a quick look at my four favorite iAnnotate tools.

Why is drawing so important? Using your visual, motor, and cerebral processes together help create new neural pathways in your brain that stick. Drawing comes  naturally to the genius thinkers in their note-taking process. (See Divinci’s notes here.)

You can also create new PDFs right in the app. You can then send that to your students for them to mark up, answer questions, etc.  With technology like this, it will impact the way that you create documents and PowerPoints. Now you would leave margins for students to take notes on or include slides in a PowerPoint specifically for students to add their notes, thoughts, questions, etc.

Let students add images to your documents. Let them connect the content with an image that makes sense to them.

Voice Recording
Okay, far and away my favorite feature. You really need to check out the video below. It gives a good overview of the app, but take special note on how the instructor adds his voice notes to a student’s paper (at the 2 minute mark):


This would certainly be a new, meaningful form of feedback for students. Notes to students in the margins is one thing, but voice notes are really on another level.

Conversely, imagine if students were doing the same to your documents. Students could add notes and respond to your questions by voice or text. That’s being actively engaged with your content.

I recently had a chance to communicate with the iAnnotate team at Branchfire. Here are their notes:

What is your elevator speech? 

The award-winning iAnnotate app, which allows users to read, mark up and share documents and images via an iPad or Android tablet, is simply the highest-quality document reading and annotation experience available on a mobile device.

iAnnotate shows how emerging technology like the iPad combines with innovative advancements in application design to transform the creative and collaborative process in the classroom. iAnnotate is an invaluable tool that over one million people use to connect words, documents and pictures in new ways in order to improve the discovery and sharing of ideas.

What are your app’s best features?

The best features of iAnnotate are continuous scrolling for long documents, auto-syncing with cloud services (so you’ll never lose your work) and a comprehensive, full-text library search that finds text and annotations across all documents in your library. Other features and capabilities include photo and audio notes, customizable toolbars, and the ability to open and work with up to eight documents simultaneously.

Users of iAnnotate also say it’s more intuitive, easy to use, and includes a number of customizable features unavailable from similar applications. For example, iAnnotate is a major step ahead of its competitors when it comes to rendering and working with documents in their original formats. Before iAnnotate, PowerPoint presentations viewed on the iPad would lose crucial design elements. This would result in wrongly-formatted charts and tables with inaccurate colors that affected the user’s ability to confidently work on the go. iAnnotate, on the other hand, easily renders original formatting quickly and accurately, ensuring a user is working with the information the teacher or student intended.

Document navigation is also a major differentiator. For example, with iAnnotate users have the ability to continuously scroll through a long document with two fingers, then stop at an important passage and make annotations with one finger–without needing to switch tools or navigate menus. Teachers love this feature for editing or correcting writing assignments. In addition, the iAnnotate navigation panel is unique in that it provides quick access to common actions like reviewing all the annotations made to a document or emailing it to another person. This allows users to double-check and share documents efficiently without interrupting workflow. Comparable products don’t offer the same capabilities or efficiency.

How does iAnnotate impact either the classroom, school, district, or community?

iAnnotate is a tool to help teachers and students work more productively, dynamically, and flexibly. A gap currently exists between what digital capabilities educators wish would develop in the classroom and what they’re actually using—often because the available tools fall short of expectations. As reported in Edutopia, a recent national survey of teachers and administrators by Harris Interactive for Common Sense Media reveals that 86% of teachers believe using apps, computer games, websites, digital planning tools and digital curricula in the classroom is “important” or “absolutely essential.” Combine this trend with the increasing ubiquity of iPads in classrooms: as of late February, Apple had sold over 4.5 million iPads directly to US-based educational institutions. Many of those sales have been recent, as the IDC reported in May of this year that tablet shipments to the US education sector skyrocketed 103% since 2012. As teachers and students increase tablet usage, they will seek apps that bridge the productivity gap.

As a result of these trends, there’s a tremendous opportunity for iAnnotate to help power the next generation of classroom learning. For many teachers and students, it already has. We received a recent email from a grad student that, “The idea of going paperless and using the iPad mini came to me in a class when I actually saw someone annotating on their iPad using iAnnotate. I decided right then and there that I was going to buy an iPad and start using the app (best decision I have made).” When students at Stanford and Boston University use the app, it cuts down on wasted paper and increases student productivity, allowing them to find relevant class notes or review readings without photocopying. Both grade school teachers and college professors find iAnnotate a crucial tool in the “paperless classroom,” helping them move toward a more agile, technologically robust learning environment.

What results has iAnnotate produced?

Currently, over one million people worldwide use iAnnotate to read, edit and share documents on the go. This includes nearly 300,000 students and teachers who rely on iAnnotate in the classroom.  iAnnotate has an average iTunes ranking of 4.5 stars and is consistently ranked among the Top 15 Paid Productivity Apps for the iPad.

Even the Stanford School of Medicine includes iAnnotate on its list of highly recommended apps and Boston University School of Management highlighted it for students’ use as well.

iAnnotate is also an essential tool in leading government organizations that require a higher level of security. It’s popular in the creative industry, too. Paul Feig, director of “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Arrested Development” and creator of “Freaks & Geeks,” uses iAnnotate to review and mark up scripts. Emmy-award winning television director Greg Yaitanes (“Banshee,” “Lost,” “House M.D.,” “Heroes,” “Damages,” and many others), is also a big fan.

Recognition comes from the tech world, too. At the recent Moxie Awards, presented by Built In Chicago, iAnnotate won “Mobile App of the Year”. But this isn’t its first award win. iAnnotate took home the TabTimes Tabby Awards for “Best Productivity App” and “Best Collaboration App” in 2012.

What grade levels are appropriate for iAnnotate?

iAnnotate is a valuable tool across grade levels. For example, it is popular with middle school teachers grading a large number of papers or worksheets. It’s also used at other grade levels to illustrate concepts during class presentations, using an iPad with a projector. iAnnotate works well for students in upper grade levels and in college, too, who take notes alongside reading assignments or during lectures.

What subject areas are appropriate for iAnnotate?

Given iAnnotate’s ability to accurately render virtually any file format, students and teachers can easily mark up work in a variety of subjects. For example, a language teacher can grade and highlight a student’s presentation; a chemistry student can draw the Krebs Cycle beside lecture notes; or the yearbook committee can annotate page layouts and images.

Who are some of your users?

iAnnotate is widely used across various grade levels by students, teachers and professors. Universities, including the previously mentioned Stanford School of Medicine and Boston University School of Management, include iAnnotate on their list of recommended apps for incoming students. College professors are increasingly using it to grade papers, as exemplified by Judith Currano, Chemistry Librarian at UPenn.

Doug Ward, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas also works toward paperless grading with iAnnotate. His video demonstrating the integration of voice comments in grading is particularly interesting.

iAnnotate was recently mentioned among favorite apps for homeschooled students, and English teachers abroad.

What technology is behind iAnnotate?

iAnnotate is available for the iPad. A lite version is available for Android tablets.

What is your customer service like?

Customer support is also unmatched. A self-guided FAQ support center is available at support.branchfire.com and a Quick Reference Guide is included within the app. Any questions or issues users have are quickly fielded via the @Branchfire Twitter handle or website support email form. Additional user information and helpful tips are provided via the Branchfire Facebook page. Developers are responsive to user feedback, routinely incorporating suggestions and bug fixes within hours.

What is your pricing model?

iAnnotate for iPad is $9.99 in the App Store. The lite Android version is available for free on Google Play.


Do you have any featured videos? 

Check out Kansas professor Doug Ward demonstrating the integration of voice comments in grading: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ieFqPYCO0sc

Our homepage includes screenshots and a complete listing of iAnnotate’s superior features set: http://www.branchfire.com/iannotate/

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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