My Education Workflows

Last year I made the decision to go back to school part-time. (If you’re curious, I’m working towards an LL.M in Taxation.) When I was in college and law school the first time around it was the late 90s and early 2000s. For some reference, the Titanium PowerBook G4 was released in January of 2001 and though I had one for my last years of undergraduate school, I did not use it regularly in class as wireless networks were not very common place and the infrastructure was simply not setup.

When I was in law school technology had evolved somewhat, but most legal programs were PC based. In fact, I bought a basic Dell PC my 1L year (first year of law school) to be in compliance with my school’s laptop policy, but I primarily used my Mac except during exams when the PC was required for compliance reasons. There was no iPad, there was no iPhone, and Microsoft Word was as fancy as things got for taking notes.

Fast-forward more than ten years and everything’s changed. One of the things I was most looking forward to about going back to school was being able to take advantage of all the new technology available to students. While most students in my program still use the Microsoft Office suite of products for taking notes and word processing, I am pleased to tell you that even in my graduate tax courses at the law school, Macs easily outnumber PCs among the student population. There are even a few students who have chosen to use a tablet, generally an iPad or a Microsoft Surface as their primary device.

While I love my iPad, I knew that I would primarily be using my Mac in class. Having a full size keyboard, larger screen, full Mac apps and the ability to switch between apps was too important to my daily workflow. However, I decided even before the first class started that any workflow I setup for my school work would be cross-platform across the Mac and iOS. This would allow me the greatest flexibility to work wherever I was, and have an additional device as a backup.

Everything In The Cloud

To offer the most flexibility, allow me to work anywhere, and protect from data loss I decided that all my school related documents would be stored in the cloud. I use a combination of Dropbox, OmniPresence and Evernote for storing and organizing all my school related documents. For added protection I also backup everything to Backblaze, a cloud backup service.

I prefer to take notes in an outline form and for this and OmniOutliner is my tool of choice. The OmniGroup has developed their own sync service, OmniPresence for their apps that is compatable with Macs and iOS devices. While it is a bit of a pain to have yet another sync service, it’s worth it to use the advanced features of Omni’s programs.

Most of my other documents related to classes are PDFs and word processing documents. They are all stored in a hierarchical folder system that I keep in Dropbox. I use Evernote for storage of more general information items or archival documents that aren’t necessarily related to a particular class but more information about the program or school as a whole.

In addition to having all this information on my primary machine, I sync the school related Dropbox folders and Evernote notebooks with my work Mac where I also keep OmniPresence running. (My office is very supportive of me going back to school.) I also have all these services on my iPhone and iPad. This means I have all my school related documents available on all my devices.


As mentioned above, most of the notes I take myself are taken in OmniOutliner. I got into the habit out outlining years ago and I still find it the most effective way for taking notes. I will occasionally supplement my outlines diagrams, sometimes form PDFs, sometimes from scans of my hand-drawn notes on a piece of paper and sometimes form photos taken in class of the instructor’s notes on the board. (It’s funny, many times after class everyone runs up to the board with their iPhones to snap a picture.) They all get dragged into my notes at the appropriate place. I will also occasionally record audio of lecture to save with my notes. I can do all this with OmniOutliner. With OmniPresence, all my document sync across my devices.

Microsoft Word is still a staple in education. Many professors will provide notes or supplemental documents in Word format and anything that has to be turned into a professor generally is expected to be sent in as a Word file. I’ve found my use of Word varies by class. I didn’t use it much last year, but this semester I have two professors who provide problems and handouts as Word docs so I find myself using it much more frequently. It’s still a necessity.

Microsoft has really upped its game recently with cloud services and partnered with Dropbox to provide excellent sync services in addition to their own OneDrive solution. Their iOS apps have also seen great updates in the last year. Currently you can read and perform basic editing of Office documents for free with an office 365 login using the Microsoft iOS apps, but if you want to be able to perform more advanced edits you have to have an Office 365 subscription which starts at about $7 a month for personal use. However, students should check with their school as there may be discounted pricing or an Office 365 subscription may even be included as part of your tuition benefit. I was fortunate that my school offers all students a basic Office 365 subscription during their term of enrollment.

PDFs are also a mainstay in education and I find myself annotating PDFs frequently. I will frequently receive supplemental reading assignments as PDFs and the ability to pull up the documents and highlight and make notes directly in the document itself is invaluable. This semester I was able to avoid buying a $275 textbook because it was available online and I could download it as a PDF. My tool of choice for this is PDFpen Pro. PDFpen has apps for the Mac and iOS and will support a number of cloud services, including Dropbox and iCloud. I’ll commonly read an annotate documents at home on my iPad and then pull them up from my Mac to review while in class. PDFpen also has the ability to OCR documents - take a document and turn pictures of text into editable words and even export a document into a Word document. This is great when someone gives me a PDF that I may want to copy and paste text out of or perhaps save and edit for later use.

In addition to the above apps I’ll occasionally use Byword for quick text notes. I use Fantastical for scheduling calendar entries on the fly when a professor mentions a special event or a schedule change. OmniFocus is my task manager of choice where I will keep track of projects and tasks. I use the standard for managing my email but use the Mail-Act-On and MailTags plugins to supplement its functionality.

iPad Backup

Most of the time I choose to run the above applications on my primary computer, a mid–2012 MacBook Air. Although now just over 3 years old, this computer has served me fairly well and I hope to get another year of use out of it to allow me to complete my program and perhaps see what future changes come to the Mac lineup. My only complaint is that the battery life isn’t as good as newer models, but I’ve found keeping my batter regularly exercised using the battery utility FruitJuice has helped.

Unfortunately, this past summer I started having problems with my MacBook Air, an intermittent screen flicker. While the problems have thankfully been covered by an AppleCare service plan and have cost me no money out of pocket, it has required my computer to be sent in for service four separate times, all (of course) during the school semester. This meant there were periods of time when when I would have to go for stretches of 3–4 days without my primary computer.

While this was certainly an inconvenience, my planning and access to iOS kept it from becoming a disaster. Because all of my files were synced to the cloud and all of my applications were cross-platform between Mac and iOS I was able to continue working despite not having access to my Mac.

For the days I was without my Mac, I simply switched over to an iOS setup that included my iPad Mini (second generation) propped up in an Apple Smart Cover and paired with a Logitech K811 bluetooth keyboard. Having the external keyboard was key, especially when using the smaller screen space of an iPad mini. While it’s a bit more expensive than a standard bluetooth keyboard, I prefer the K811 because it is a full size keyboard with backlit keys and a battery that will last for weeks on a single charge. It is extremely compact and can be stored in a carrying case to avoid accidental damage and key presses. Best of all, it has the ability to pair with up to 3 Mac or iOS devices, including Apple TVs. I use this single keyboard as my travel bluetooth keyboard for my iPad but also as the keyboard for my home Mac mini (that I use primarily as a media center and server) and with my Apple TV.

While the iPad setup is not my preferred method for getting work done, it is certainly usable and very lightweight. I’ll admit while my classmates are wheeling around luggage to bring their books and computers to class, I liked being able to jaunt in with a small shoulder bag and pull out an iPad. In fact, the iPad setup worked so well, I considered upgrading to an iPad Air 2 from the iPad mini just to have a little larger screen space when the need arises, but decided I loved the portability of the mini too much to let it go.

This article first appeared in the October Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at