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Moving Note Taking into the Digital Age

For evey student, note taking is a necessity. For some, that may be easier than for others. But in any case, mobile technologies have the potential to change the process dramatically—especially when specific note taking software is developed for the Tablet PC.

The night before the final, did you ever discover that your class notes had become illegible? In Chemistry lab, did you ever search tediously through your notes from last semester to try finding one specific formula? Did you ever want to interpolate some extra information into your notes, without having to re-copy an entire page? These problems never occur for theses, reports, manuals, letters, and the like today, because those documents are now all digital. Digital documents are legible, searchable, and editable. But class notes are still overwhelmingly produced the old-fashioned way, with paper and pencil.

Thus my new student, Hajime Tatsukawa, made the case for doing his thesis on a system to enable students to take class notes with the computer. The idea of using technology to empower students was, to me, novel, in contrast to the mainstream inspirations for applications of technology to education, which seem to offer mostly course management and enhanced lecturing capabilities for instructors.

My immediate response was, however, to point out that paper is a superior technology for this task. Lecture notes, unlike most kinds of documents, are produced under extreme and inflexible time constraints. You have to get down the important things fast, before the lecturer g'es on to the next topic. Producing lecture notes with a computer is not difficult, but doing so fast enough is a problem; in fact we found that using the computer took twice as long as pencil and paper for typical lecture notes. But Hajime thought that this was fixable, and set to work building a system for taking notes.

Hajime’s System
Analysis of notes and note taking showed that a note taking system would require several special features. For example, since lecture notes tend to be full of little diagrams, sketches, circles, arrows, wavy lines, and so on, students need a laptop computer with a stylus. With such a machine, you can use the keyboard for fast, error-free, and legible text input, and add the graphic elements by writing directly on the screen. Also, since text typically occurs in small chunks of a few words each, and these chunks are arranged in meaningful ways across the two-dimensional drawing area, you need streamlined ways to do text positioning and textbox creation. Hajime created a system, written in Java, that d'es all this and more. [The source code is available for downloading at]

After tests in the laboratory showed a generally positive reaction, we bought four basic pen-equipped laptops and advertised for students to try out the system in their classes. Of these users, two decided they preferred paper, but two liked the digital system, and one of the latter was still using it after two semesters. The factors affecting acceptance seemed to include computer literacy and typing speed. The main problems users noted related to the hardware, notably the temporal and spatial resolution of the pen input.

The Tablets Arrive
A solution for the problem of the resolution of pen input arrived this past November, when Tablet PCs finally became available. These are full-featured PCs that are roughly the size of a pad of paper and which allow PDA-like writing with a stylus. Unlike familiar touch screens, Tablet PCs use active (RF) pens, enabling smooth writing with no jaggies or feeling of disconnection. Several models also come with keyboards. Although they were designed for corporate workers, they also meet the needs of students in the classroom. Thus the hardware is there.

The software soon will be here too. Currently the only option for classroom note taking is Hajime’s code, which d'es not yet run on the Tablet PC, but which is available as open source for anyone to extend. This past fall Microsoft preannounced an application called OneNote, and the marketing literature evokes the possibility of classroom use although the feature set previewed so far d'es not seem adequate for classroom note taking. But it is probably only a matter of time before other players also release systems that will support taking class notes.

Take Note
One way or another, over the next few years some students will end up buying and using computers to take class notes, whether by thoughtful choice or as victims of a some marketing blitz. However no one knows whether this will encourage more note taking, better note taking, or more efficient note taking. Will digital note taking software help students pay more attention in class or will it be a seductive distraction? Will it foster or weaken in-class collaborative learning and after-class learning communities? On the bottom line, no one knows yet whether digital note taking software will be a waste of time and money or an effective learning tool.

Note taking with computers will probably be neither entirely good or entirely bad. When the software becomes available, it will be helpful to investigate questions such as:

  • For which students should we recommend digital note taking?
  • What attitudes, note taking styles, and study habits can we foster so that students can obtain the benefits while avoiding the potential problems?
  • What other factors affect the successful use of computer note taking?
  • What features should we recommend students look for when choosing software for note taking?
  • For what sorts of lectures and other activities should instructors allow or encourage computer note taking?

As note taking software becomes integrated into our learning systems, it will be crucial to consider how computer note taking can leverage other technologies, such as distance learning and multimedia, and how it can take best advantage of the wireless classroom and other mobile and collaborative technologies.

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