Note-taking in the Digital Age

A Research Proposal

Spring, 2003


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:

Planned Activities

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:

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