Android Academicals 5


I sometimes feel like a second-class citizen being an Android user in education – especially higher education. Apple completely dominate the market and whenever I go to a presentation or app meet-up on mobile devices, at some point I have to meekly raise my hand and ask “Is that available on Android?”, only to met by blank stares. Online it’s not much better, there are thousands of sites dedicated to educational apps for iphones/ipads but very few for Android.

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my Galaxy Note 4 phone and Nexus 9 tablet

Ok, I get it, Apple own the education market. The security of the devices and the app ecosystem, the uniformity of their operating systems and updates, the general useablity and stability of their devices make them an obvious choice despite their wallet-gouging prices. It makes sense why schools, colleges and universities will go with them for any block purchases rather than Google’s rather messy, sprawling ecosystem spread across thousands of different devices running very different versions of the same operating system.

But it’s easy to forget that there are more Android users out there than ios users. A lot more. When I wander round my university, iphones are NOT in the majority; sure, some students and staff have them, but they are luxury items and most people have to settle for something a little cheaper. And this normally means Android. And given that most universities rely on Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) for tech integration rather than one to one programmes, it’s likely that many Android devices are being used for study purposes throughout the world.

For that reason, I wanted to explore the current state of Android within higher education: what apps are available for it, what advantages it has as an OS and how it compares both favourably and unfavourably to iOS. This will be a somewhat rambling journey based on my own experiences with devices and particular areas of interest, but I hope some of it might be of use to those of you out there with Android devices.

Note-taking

A staple of higher education, both Android and iOS seem pretty well catered to here. Most phones and tablets will have some kind of built-in notetaking app, though the built-in one on iOS is probably superior as it allows you to synchronise your notes across all your Apple devices, including macs.

All the key cloud note-taking apps such as Evernote, Google Keep and Microsoft One Note are available on both devices, there may be the odd feature that one version has that another doesn’t but they all seem pretty fully-featured regardless. These are all great apps as you can move between any device and access your notes. Simplenote is another less fussy cross-platform app.

One quick shout out for the unique ‘text grab’ function in the Android version of Google Keep. You can take a picture of a page of text or a powerpoint slide and the app will then convert it into actual text that you can copy, paste or edit. For some reason, iOS doesn’t have this feature yet, though I imagine it will come pretty soon.

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You can see the text grab function of Google Keep here

There are other popular note-taking apps on both platforms. Notability and Penultimate are iOS only and focus on providing a more authentic, paperlike experience for your notes. Lecture Notes does something similar on Android. Audio Note works on both platforms and lets you record audio while taking notes at the same time – so perfect for lectures – and then you can play back the audio and see the notes synchronised with it. Very clever.

Word and text processing

I’m not sure how many people actually write article or essays on their mobile devices, most of us would prefer to use a laptop or desktop I suspect. However, I think we do like the option to be able to access these documents from anywhere and read over them or make quick edits.

Again, I think both iOS and Android are well stocked here, both can access Microsoft Word through Office 365, though you do need a subscription to get all the features. Google Docs can be accessed on both though some features are Android only, such as the ability to research using the internet while writing. Apple has its own flagship app, Pages, that’s not available on Android but can be synced with the Mac app through iCloud and accessed through a web browser via iWork.

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Google Docs on Android has a research feature for searching the web while writing

There are a variety of other free or fremium (free but then pay for additional features) word processing apps that are available on both platforms such as WPS Office, Polaris Office and Docs to Go.

When you get to text editors – basically word processing without the formatting, incredibly useful if you want to be able to move your text seamlessly between various apps or programmes or to write with as little distraction as possible – iOS has far more and better options than Android. Byword, IA Writer, EditorialWrite, 1Writer and Ulysses are all excellent tools for plain, distraction free writing and most of them sync with cloud services such as Dropbox. You’ll pay for most of them, anything up to £8 for fully featured apps such as Editorial and Ulysses but they are valuable to use if you want to focus just on writing and not be distracted by other things. They often have useful tools to help you stay focussed, such as a typewriter mode that only displays one or two lines in the middle of the page while you are writing.

Android is pretty poor when it comes to text editors, the only one I’ve found that even comes close to thos available on iOS is JotterPad. There is a free and a paid version, but I’d recommend the small cost to upgrade as it adds a great bunch of features.

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Jotterpad has a useful typewriter function that focusses on the sentence or paragraph you are writing

Presentation Tools

Again, this is an area where iOS comes out on top with a greater range of apps available. Both platforms have Powerpoint and Google Slides in the same way they have Word and Google Docs. But that’s where it pretty much ends for Android. IOS devices can access Keynote, Apple’s homegrown rival to Powerpoint as well as more recent web-based presentation tools such as Haiku Deck and Canva. Prezi – another popular web-based presentation tool – is available on both platforms but on Android it’s just an app for viewing your presentations whereas on iOS you can do some basic edits as well.

PDF and Article Management

If you’ve got a tablet, it’s a godsend to be able to access and annotate any PDF articles you’ve downloaded from the internet or from your university library. There are loads of PDF reader apps out there on both platforms, some free, some paid, but it’s the specific features you need to look for when choosing one. For example, some of them – especially the free ones – tend to be just PDF readers and you can’t annotate or edit them in any way. You may also want to make sure that they have support for various cloud services, such as Dropbox or Google Drive. This means that any changes or annotations you make on them persist across all your devices.

Mendeley is my go to PDF reader on both platforms. It’s certainly not the best PDF reader by a long shot, but if you use Mendeley as an article and reference manager generally, being able to access and annotate your articles on your tablet and sync them up with your desktop version of the programme is phenomenally useful.

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With Mendeley you can manage articles and make notes on them

If you just need a decent PDF reader, Xodo is both cross-platform and has a decent range of features such as cloud support and the ability to annotate. Foxit is similar. IOS again has a greater choice of PDF apps, and if you’re willing to pay you can get rich featured apps such as iAnnotate or PDF Pen 2.

Sending to a TV or projector

It seems like a small thing, but actually it’s incredibly useful to be able to hook up your device to a computer/projector to show your screen or to beam it wirelessly using some kind of TV box. It means you can run a presentation directly from your mobile or tablet or, if you’re a teacher, you can demonstrate apps and tools you want your students to use.

Apple are much better at this. They have adapters that will connect your device to either an HDMI or VGA cable (the staples of most computers/projectors in higher education) and it works 99% of the time. The only issue is the ridiculous price of the adapters, they generally cost £30–40 depending on the type and while you can buy cheaper unofficial versions, they tend not to work so well. You can also use an Apple TV to send your screen wirelessly to a display as well, though obviously your school would need to have purchased these. There are also software options – you can install a programme such as Reflector or Mirroring360 on your computer and have it wirelessly mirror what’s on your ipad/iphone screen. However, these do cost money and you need to be able to install software on your school computers for this to work.

Android is a bit of a mess when it comes to this: again, the fact that so many different manufacturers make Android devices means that there is no one standard for outputting to an external screen. Some will use mini-HDMI, others use something called MHL (e.g. Samsung) or Slimport (e.g. LG), some don’t have anything at all. So good luck finding the right cable. And then once you do, it seems to be 50/50 whether it’s actually going to work with the display you’re plugging it into. Often you then discover that it will only work if the phone/tablet is being charged at the same time because it doesn’t have enough power to send the screen image to an external display. I’ve basically given up trying to get this to work properly and tend to use our school ipad if I ever need to demonstrate anything on the screen.

Where iOS excels

The app ecosystem is incredible on iOS, for any particular educational need you can probably find 2 or 3 high quality apps to use. And of course the unofficial online support you can get through websites to discover and curate these is substantial. The apps tend to be more reliable than on Android and they generally get released first on iOS. Apple just seem to understand the education market better than Android, or maybe they are just more effective because they control all aspects of their devices whereas Google are at the whim of the manufacturers who make phones and tablets running their OS. This is particularly evident in the case described above when you want to output your device screen to a projector, Apple’s control means that there is a standard adapter that works on all devices and work reliably.

Where Android excels

This is a much tougher one to call, though the most obvious one is price. The cost of some of the lower-end devices give far more people the chance to own smartphones and access a huge range of educational apps. And the openness of the platform means that Android is better at certain things, such as sharing. If you ever want to share a text/email/picture/video from an Android phone, there are many, many different ways you can do it, making it very simple to move things between apps or between people. Apple exert a lot more control over where things can be sent, though they have been relaxing this with more recent OS updates.

Another benefit of the open Android platform is that you can do things such as screenrecording directly on the device. So, for example, I’ve had to show a few students how to set up their phones to use university services and used an app called AZ Screen Recorder to show them how to do it. This is possible on Apple but can’t be done on the device and you need to connect it to a computer somehow (either via cable or wirelessly) and then use a screen recorder there.

And the apps seem to be getting better on Android, or at least more of the iOS apps are getting ported across as developers realise the untapped market available there. Mendeley was one that took an age to come to Android but got there eventually, same with Explain Everything, an app you can use to create educational Show-Me or How-To videos for students.

I think the big issues on Android for app developers are the diversity of devices out there and piracy. It’s difficult to develop an app when you don’t know exactly the power or screen size of the device and there’s little incentive to develop when your app can be so easily copied and distributed for free. Google really needs to exert more control over its operating system and ensure that developers have a financial incentive to make education apps.


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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.


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5 thoughts on “Android Academicals

  • Teresa MacKinnon

    Thanks for this post, it is good to see someone speaking up for android! studying in the UK is getting very expensive and the device options are not helping. We have a set of chromebooks we supply to students in order to ensure everyone can get online access in class, using them on a GAFE account. As an android user myself recognise some of the annoying differences between systems but I manage everything through android devices. Chromecast is brilliant for sending content to screens and even Haiku deck – which I love for its use of creative commons – is making improvements for android users (although they are asking for subscriptions to get full equity of use). I doubt that increased control will help matters, it is probably more a matter of arriving at industry standards for browsers and a more collaborative approach from these industry giants rather than wasting everyone’s time and effort as they try to find confusing and unhelpful USPs and cling on to “competitive advantage” a commercial fallacy that creates frustrated users and costs too much,

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      David Read Post author

      Chromebooks are an excellent, we’ve bought about fifty of them at our centre and they make it really easy for students to get connected and work collaboratively using things such as Google Docs/Slides. I’d like to be able to use Chromecast, but there are issues on our university network getting it working, something to do with the protocols it uses.

      Interested to hear about Haiku Deck and android, are they making an app for it?