It’s 2019 ...why are we talking about visualisers?


Dan Boorman - Jan 2019


I love gadgets and innovation.  Over the years I have bought many useful devices, and in the interests of honesty, several ‘terrible’ gadgets.  I once bought a virtual reality glove that was essentially an over-complicated mouse that involved me waving my hand and flexing my fingers in mid air... all to open a Word file (picture a very low-tech Minority Report).  


I was also an early adopter of the Apple iPad before I even started my teaching career.  The iPad received considerable criticism when it was first released, with some describing it as an oversized smartphone for older people who couldn’t use ordinary computers.  Others said no-one would ever need one!


As it turned out the iPad was a huge success - and its prevalence and versatility are there for everyone to see.  I started teaching with mine around 3 years ago, and would find it very difficult to go back. I use it for a variety of classroom activities, as well as educational activities outside of the class.  Here is a summary:


1)  Presenting anything


The iPad can display any file you care to show your students.  Word documents, Powerpoint presentations, PDF files, web sites, videos, streamed videos from the Internet, photos, student work, animations, interactive periodic tables, scanned text from books.  It has the added advantage of allowing the teacher to zoom in and move quickly around specific content. I have found transitioning between content much smoother than traditional laptops or desktop computers - especially as I can walk around the class taking it wherever I go, and respond to students as and when necessary.  I often sit next to a student who needs support, and everything I write appears on the board at the front for other students to follow if they choose.



2)  Writing on anything


There are a number of apps that allow you to write on the iPad, but I currently use Notability.  It’s what smart boards should be, and at a fraction of the cost.  This has genuinely changed how I teach, and I believe for the better.  I can use it whilst facing the class, and (in combination with the Apple Pencil) I now:


  • Write on my iPad as if it were the whiteboard BUT with unlimited: colours of pens; thicknesses; highlighters; space; background colours; lined backgrounds and squared backgrounds.  I can effectively model any idea, method, calculation, graph, chemical mechanism, exam answer or misconception

  • Photograph student work as they’re writing in their books, and annotate it.  Works well for live marking, showing an excellent answer or just to discuss strategies.  Afterwards, I can save it as a PDF and email it to the student.


  • Import any document (PPT, Doc, PDF, JPG, PNG) and write on it.  I often model answers on the worksheets or exam questions the students are using in class.  This is particularly useful for showing how to answer an exam question clearly and concisely in timed conditions.  An English teacher colleague often writes a 10-minute exam answer ‘live’ while the students attempt it themselves at their desks.






  • Ask a student to write an answer on the iPad from where they are sitting and talk the class through what they are doing as it appears on the board.  In the early days, some observing teachers had no idea how answers were appearing ‘magically’ on the projector screen!


  • Many A-level students email me with photos of questions they have found and are struggling with.  Often they have made a start to the question and got lost. I simply import the photo into Notability, annotate how to move on from where they got to, and email it back.  


It also provides me with a permanent record of anything that has come up during a lesson.  For each class I teach I have a single chronological record of diagrams, models, worked examples, worksheets, photos, memory aids, and quizzes.  For any student who has missed a class, I can email them the whole lot as a PDF. It’s also interesting to note how differently these ‘learning journals’ (sorry) unfold for different classes I’m teaching the same topics to.  It couldn’t be further from the ‘death by powerpoint’ approach adopted by many teachers.  It is also worth pointing out this isn’t a modern twist on a ‘chalk and talk’ approach either.  My lessons are pre-planned with structured elements, but the iPad allows me to quickly modify my approach or change tack completely in response to the students.


3)  Making tutorial videos


There are a number of apps that allow you to record what you are doing and saying, and then provide it to students to watch in their own time.  I currently favour Explain Everything, which has allowed me to:


  • Record small worked example videos for concepts I know my students usually struggle with.  They can pause my explanation, play it back 3 or 4 times. Over time I plan to make a searchable directory for everything I teach.


  • I have done several full exam papers in this style.  Admittedly these are a little ‘dry’ but several of my students found them more informative than just reading through a mark scheme.  I can cover much more in terms of exam technique: timing, ‘best’ answers, key terms to include, simple labelled diagrams, crafting longer form responses and avoiding pitfalls.   




The iPad allows me to do all of this, before even considering the millions of subject-specific apps, many of which are free or cost very little.















So when I observed a flurry of Twitter activity around visualisers, I wondered what the big fuss was about.  Isn’t it simply a camera perched on a long arm? Couldn’t you just rest your smartphone on a pile of textbooks for the same effect?  Are people just feeling nostalgic for the old OHP displays from when they were at school?


Modelling ideas, methods, and live-marking are great teaching methods - but if you’re going to splash out on an expensive visualiser or laptop, consider an iPad instead.  It’s a smart board, visualiser, laptop, entire Paperchase store, and video recorder all in one. In fact, even if you weren’t going to buy a visualiser, persuade your school to buy you an iPad anyway!


Dan is a science teacher, teaching and learning enthusiast and technophile but has no affiliation with Apple.