Note-taking in the Digital Age
A Research Proposal
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 find one 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, etc.
today, because these are 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 be more control and enhanced
lecturing abilities 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
goes 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.
Analysis of notes and note-taking showed that this requires a handful
of 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 input text from the keyboard (fast, error-free, legible) 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, it was necessary to provide streamlined
ways to do text positioning and textbox creation.
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
prefered paper, but two liked it, 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 solution here arrived last November, when Tablet PCs finally
became available. These are full-feature PCs that are roughly the
size of a pad of paper and which afford 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
designed for corporate workers they also meet the needs of students in
the classroom. Thus the hardware is there.
The software soon will be there too. Currently the only option for
classroom note-taking is Tatsukawa's code, which does not yet run on
the Tablet PC but which has been released open source for anyone to
extend. However last fall Microsoft preannounced an application
called OneNote whose marketing literature evokes the possibility of
classroom use, although the feature set previewed so far does not seem
adequate for note-taking. It is probably only a matter of time before
other players also release systems to suppport taking class notes.
Problem and Proposal
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
In the absence of such knowledge, there may be significant missed
opportunities or, on the other hand, significant adverse impacts on
teaching on learning. We propose to find out: the aim of this project
is to evaluate the utility of note-taking with the computer.
Since note-taking with computers will probably be neither entirely good or
entirely bad, we also would like to know:
- whether this will encourage more note-taking, better note-taking, or more efficient note-taking;
- whether this will help students pay more attention in class or be a
- whether this will foster or weaken in-class collaborative learning and
after-class learning communities; and
- on the bottom line, whether this will be a waste of time
and money or an effective learning tool.
- for which students should we recommend the use of computers for
- what attitudes, note-taking styles and study habits can we
foster so that students can obtain the benefits while avoiding the
- what other factors affect the successful use of computer note-taking?
- what features should we recommend students look for when chosing
software for note-taking?
- for what sorts of lectures and other activities should
instructors allow or encourage computer note-taking?
- how can computer note-taking leverage other technology,
such as distance learning and multimedia and wireless classrooms?
The role of note-taking in learning is today reasonably well
understood, however current models do not allow confident answers to
the above questions. Empirical work is needed. We propose to:
It is possible that in the first year we will discover that computer
note-taking has no educational worth, in which case the study will be
terminated at that point. However it seems more likely that we
will need to continue the above activities with more users, with
more diverse users, and with long-term users in the second and third
years, and also:
- Port Tatsukawa's note-taking system to the Tablet PC.
- Lend Tablet PCs equipped with this system to students to use in
%We envision distributing 30 units the first year and 10 additional units the second year.
We will aim for both depth (complete coverage of one freshman
pre-engineering learning group), and breadth (coverage of students at
a variety of levels in a variety of majors).
- Evaluate the effects of using computers to take notes, answering
the questions posed above. This will be done primarily by means of
weekly interviews with users, focus group sessions, summary
questionnaires, and analysis of quiz and test scores under various
conditions, both with system users and a comparable group of
- Form a first-pass predictive model for
determining whether students are likely to find computer note-taking useful.
- Publicize our findings --- in conferences and journals in
education, technology, and the intersection, and on the web and in the
media if appropriate --- to help provide a roadmap for students,
instructors, infrastructure planners, and systems builders interested in
note-taking by computer.
- Test and refine our predictive model.
- Do controlled studies to test specific hypotheses developed in
the first year, especially regarding whether the use of the computer increases
or reduces demand on up cognitive resources needed to take notes while
listening to lecture, and regarding specific types of learning
- Improve our open source system.
- Experiment with integration with wireless classrooms, distance learning, and/or use in high schools
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