Writing on the screen- how to do mathematics without paper

We had some thoughts at work about how to do mathematics online, so I put my thoughts down- sharing here in case it’s useful more generally!

Advantages Disadvantages Cost
1) “Dumb” Drawing Tablets. These are tablets without a screen that plug in to a USB port and replace the mouse. You have to look at a separate screen when doing so. Personally, I chose a VEIKK A30 Digital Drawing Tablet but many others are available!

Cheap (~£50) and easy to use. Works with many operating systems and all software (it replaces a mouse). No training needed Takes a day or two to get used to. Some people really dislike not being able to see the screen when they write. ~£50
2) Drawing tablets with screens: additional screens you can draw on that plug in to your PC, such as the Wacom tablets
https://amzn.to/3gSsmsJ These you can clearly see what you are drawing, and are a bit more sensitive to pressure, etc, as well, so tend to be favoured / marketed to artists.
Fairly intuitive to use. More functionality than (1) if graphical precision (e.g. pressure, correct colour matching) is important- not generally so for most maths teaching.. Does not necessarily work with all hardware or operating systems particularly linux used by many mathematicians.. For a large tablet, can be £400 or so. £300-400
3) Dedicated tablets such as an Ipad Pro or Google Slate that allow you to draw on the screen with a dedicated pen. Useful for other things rather than just drawing. Portable, more flexible than previous options. Expensive (can be £1000 for an ipad pro). Cheaper models are sometimes more laggy. Restricted to one ecosystem- apple, google, microsoft, etc. Changing between apps is sometimes a hassle if live teaching. A small ipad is ~400 but a usable large one can be close to £1000
4) Laptops such as the Dell 2 in 1 which are full blown PCs which also allow you to write on the screen. A cross between an Ipad and PC, if you like.
Most versatile; a fully functional PC that just happens to be writeable on. Many models have “2 in 1” modes, so you can flip the keyboard under the screen and use the laptop as a tablet. Expensive (cheaper models can be high hundreds). Can be bulky on a desk physically, so not like writing on a peace of paper. If live teaching, you need a second screen. Changing between apps sometimes more difficult. Pen/stylus needed which is often sold separately. £800 up
My personal experience is that for live teaching (1) was perfectly sufficient for me for most cases. Some people just don’t like it, so (2) is better for then. I have an ipad which I use from time to time, but mostly if I’m on the move; I found being restricted to apple a bit frustrating sometimes. I have a 2-in-1 laptop and that is great for other things- I marked my exams on this for examples, and also give presentations with pre-prepared slides when drawing on the screen is necessary.

Points to note:

  • Mathematicians tend to use a wide range of software, including linux, so it’s important whatever is bought is widely compatible. Many graphical tablets aren’t with linux.
  • One size fits all is unlikely to work, but most people can get some use out of option (1). (Some dislike it though- it’s like buying a car, I suppose.) I recommend though, for £50 most staff and even students can afford to try it.
  •  If people are considering getting new laptops anyway, make sure it has a 2-in-1 option so you can write on the screen. It’s only a little bit more expensive (maybe £100-200) than a standard laptop, and adds vastly to the functionality.
Hope that’s useful – I know a lot of people worry about getting it wrong, but really all of these options will probably be useful to most people.


  1. Hi Ben

    Thanks for this very useful summary of the options.
    I am using a angled tablet on which I can see what I write. It is not ideal, but at least my handwriting with a stylus is improving all the time!

    One question: with the laptop option, how do you actually write on the screen?
    Do you have to lean across the keyboard with a stylus. With my tablet, the nice thing is that I don’t need anything in front ( there is no keyboard) so I can rest my hand on the desk.
    If I rest on the lower half of the screen itself, this can set off unwanted actions.


    Chris Robinson

    1. Hi Chris- a good point. With my laptop you can flip the screen over all the way so it sits on top of the keyboard- which is then inactive. A bit difficult to describe, but imagine an ipad and underneath the screen is a dead keyboard.

      So it has two modes- either a regular laptop, or a tablet mode where the keyboard is turned off. See a review for example here: https://www.techradar.com/uk/reviews/dell-xps-13-2-in-1-2019

  2. Hi Ben

    With the laptop option can you e.g share a document you and students are writing on with the pen and still see chat etc . in Blackboard at the same time?


    1. Hi Susanne- no it’s fairly awkward to do this. I tend to use a laptop as well as another computer, so you write on the laptop and are logged in from the other computer as well to monitor chat. I think if you have a large class and the resources, it’s good to have someone monitor the chat for you!

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