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Note-Taking in a Digital Age


Note-taking has evolved way beyond pencil and paper – but it’s still an effective study method whether you are learning online or on campus.

How do you take notes during your classes? An image posted by Edudemic recently showed a classroom of students all snapping pictures of a projected computer screen with their smartphones.

I remember the first time I saw someone do this. At a conference in 2010, as I frantically tried to draw on paper a complex diagram the presenter was showing, from my vantage point in the back of a standing room only session, someone stood up and took a picture of the slide with his phone. Just like that, he had the information to take with him. Stunned at the simplicity of this action and its sheer brilliance – effective use of technology for learning if I’ve ever seen it – I was left wondering, why didn’t I think of that?

Help or Hinderance?

But the use of this technique in an academic setting may not be as straightforward. Edudemic asked, “Would you encourage or discourage this type of behavior?” The image and this question sparked a quick Twitter discussion between eLearning designer Mark Britz and myself about when/how this kind of thing might be helpful, or possibly more of a nuisance, with students in a class environment.

Britz mentioned the flipped classroom possibilities and the benefits of a blended strategy in which these materials would be provided online for students to access and review before meeting to discuss. I agreed it could take away from the classroom experience to stop the activity, discussion, or presentation to allow everyone to take a picture.

But what about materials created during a class session? Whether it’s building a concept map, wiki, or other collaborative effort, it may be helpful for participants to capture the work they are doing at that moment in time.

Context is important to keep in mind with this kind of note-taking. You don’t need a picture of every slide or screen your instructor presents, and you may be able to access and retrieve the information after the session. In my conference example the presenter could have made his slides available in some other way, such as Slideshare, his personal website, or the conference repository, but that would also mean remembering to go find that site, download the materials, and review them after the fact.

More Tools to Try

Taking and collecting images may not be as effective in helping you retain the information as other strategies that require more focused attention on the content you are trying to capture. And an online classroom provides additional challenges to consider.

Taking a picture, taking any notes at all, won’t be enough though. You’ll still have to study the materials. Experiment a little to discover the most effective ways for you to take notes, so that you’ll actually refer to them later on as you prepare for course assignments, discussions, and exams.

Here are a few alternatives to explore:

  • Screenshots: This is another way to take a picture of what’s happening on screen, which may be particularly helpful in a live session. ScreenHunter, Greenshot, and Awesome Screenshot are just a few of the free applications available. Ask your instructor, prior to the start of the session, if taking pictures of her presentation is acceptable, just as would be appropriate in a face-to-face classroom setting. There may also be copyright or intellectual property issues that you aren’t aware of.
  • Cloud-based options: With tools like Evernote, Dropbox, and Zotero you can create an account in which you can store text, images, etc. from virtually anywhere. Additional features allow you to search your notes by keyword and share them with classmates or group members.
  • Digital devices: Livescribe is a brand of digital pen you can use to physically write out your notes, and even record your lecturer, while also capturing a digital record that can be used with applications such as Evernote.

New Zealand’s Massey University provides a helpful list of questions to consider before choosing digital note-taking software:

  • What kind of material will you use? Think about file types (e.g., .doc, .pdf, .jpg) as well as the ability to annotate and organize.
  • How many files will you use? Some systems have limits related to storage capacity, especially with free accounts.
  • Where will you study? Consider access to the Internet and working offline, and which devices you will use (i.e., laptop, smartphone).
  • Will you be collaborating? Many online students find themselves working on team projects and forming study groups. Being able to work together and share notes can be helpful functions of the applications you decide to use.

Like many aspects of online learning, effective note taking takes practice, and you’ll need to find the combination of tools and techniques that work best for you, and modify them from time-to-time as your needs change.

How do you take notes in your online courses? Share your recommendations with us here!

Image credit: Sean MacEntee, Flickr, CC:BY

January 15th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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