Notes in the Cloud

Notes in the Cloud

To kick off the One Post a Day project I thought I’d share an idea stemming from a couple data points in the 2008 Faculty Advisory Committee on Academic Computing (FACAC) results. I have been giving the idea of student laptop use a lot of thought lately — especially in light of the recent advancements in the Blogs at Penn State platform, MoveableType. The report tells us that about 88% of Penn State students at all locations own a laptop computer. What I find terribly interesting is that only about 18% of undergraduate students carry them to campus — that is compared with a relatively high number of grad students at 42%. When you look at that coupled with a growing trend of faculty permitting/inviting students to use their laptops for note taking has risen to 36% you can see an opportunity emerge. The most disturbing piece to me is that of those that do own a laptop that only 4% actually use them for note taking. This is an opportunity.

As we’ve been aggressively pursing the Blogs at PSU as an ePortfolio platform for all students it is becoming obvious that the use of a publishing platform like the blogs could be an immensely powerful note taking tool as well. When I was in college I took notes in spiral bound notebooks that were organized like most people’s — chronological order with each course getting its own notebook. This left me with a huge stack of notebooks to carry around and it also meant that over time discoverability dropped to a very low number. My claim is that a laptop paired with the nearly ubiquitous wireless access on our campus connected to the blogging platform should provide an ideal note taking environment.

Notebooks by Jae Elle
Notebooks by Jae Elle

Imagine a single blog (public or private) that is organized by multiple categories — perhaps representing each semester, year, subject, and free-tagging of the content being written about — all together in an always-available, searchable, editable publishing environment. Finding anything would be a breeze, filtering subjects would be a no-brainer, and there is the potential for permanence that my paper-based notebooks did not enjoy. As a sidebar, I lost nearly all my college notebooks when the garage at an apartment I was living in was flooded. So much for going back and ever revisiting work. There also seems something right about storing this in the cloud — access to thinking from anywhere there is access would be killer.

My Digital Notebook: Blog Posts as Daily Note Entry
My Digital Notebook: Blog Posts as Daily Note Entry

Can you sketch in a blog? Not really. But the ability to snap quick digital pictures with a cell phone or a built in iSight can get that job done. Why waste time reproducing a diagram on a slide when a simple photo would do. If you get into it, recording lectures on your own, or obtaining them via iTunes U and connecting them to each note entry would raise the stakes as well. I can’t seem to understand why this hasn’t caught on yet. We haven’t even touched on the potential social components here … adding the ability to share thoughts on your and other notes could move the static notebook into the frame of the 21st century study group — actively engaging in reading other peoples’ notes and sharing thoughts via the comments could add a new layer to the learning opportunities. Not sure if you’ve heard of outfits like Nittany Notes, where they pay students to take notes and then sell them to the ones not showing up … sure would be nice to put people like that out of business. I think the social potential for creating deeper connections could be potentially game changing.

I am seeing a big opportunity emerging here and I am thinking about how we can use the extensible nature of our MoveableType implementation to create a more notebook friendly writing environment. Something that invites students in and helps bridge the metaphor gap … I think there is something real with the mindset of the physical notebook that a contextualized theme and style could help with. So, any thoughts for me related to this little observation? What is going on at your University, college, or department? If you are teaching, would students taking notes, recording lectures, snapping pictures of slides, and openly sharing make you nervous? I think it is worth exploring the creation of a seminar on note taking in a blogging environment.

13 thoughts on “Notes in the Cloud

  1. Sounds like a great idea! Also, why not take it one step further and in addition to blogging encourage hashtags for courses?

    I love the idea of blogging as note taking, but the perfectionists of the bunch may have trouble just churning out notes at the pace of a lecture when they could tweet a few notes, pull the aggregated tweets later, and construct a more thoughtful post. (This would be the virtual equivalent of those students who recopied their scribbled notes into neater form later–don’t laugh, some of us actually *did* this and probably retained more information from the act of reorganizing the information!)

    Students get the added benefit of being exposed to the reactions of their peers to the same experience. If they miss a note, someone else may have tweeted it. They also get exposed to multiple interpretations of the same lecture and are shaped by them. The instructor would have immediate feedback as well.

  2. I love the idea as well and it makes perfect sense. I think this has to start with faculty though. I think there’s still this sense that if you’re not ‘writing’ then you’re not paying attention. There’s this pervasive idea that if you’re “online” then you’re chatting with friends and ‘disrespecting’ the faculty member by not paying attention. Even at the TLT Symposium we had a faculty member tell us that they felt it was rude for us to be typing/twittering during sessions.

    So, I think if we get faculty members engaged as a first step.. and they proactively work with students to get this set up and encourage this during class, those students will immediately see the benefit of note-taking this way and continue to do it for other courses (where it’s encouraged).

    Students would certainly want to be more efficient in their note-taking and studying so anything we can do to help that is certainly a great thing in my mind. We just .. once again.. have to invite them to participate.

  3. Great point, Shannon. I still hear from people who are irked by participants who do not take written notes at sessions/meetings, but are just as perturbed at those who bring in a laptop.

    We need people to understand that digital note-taking is preferable to paper in that it can be indexed, searchable, shareable, and easily duplicated (for the purposes of disaster recovery). After all, it is just as easy to feign paying attention with a piece of paper by doodling in the marginalia. A captive audience is a captive audience, regardless of the tools you allow or deny them. Quality teaching and an engaging experience is what draws them in.

  4. These are great points. What I am seeing is the confluence of laptops, tools, and emerging acceptance. While I’d love to see 100% of faculty understanding it is OK to type notes in class, I think it’ll take success stories from the already there 36% to help it along. I am wondering how difficult it would be to run a pilot that embraced this approach and then worked to expose the model?

    I am also interested in exploring a new theme for the blogging platform that plays to the look and feel of a notebook. Maybe taking a nod from Nikki with the ability to produce smaller notes and reassemble them? That is a really interesting concept.

  5. I monkeyed around with this when the blogs @ PSU pilot launched.

    http://www.personal.psu.edu/bkp10/blogs/BartNotes/

    In addition to being able to search through my notes with much greater efficiency, I really was hoping this would be a method to keep the conversation alive. I’d send the blog entry URL to the meeting attendants, hoping the notes might continue the discussion (which usually ends abruptly when you leave the conference room). Only a handful of people ‘got it’ and continued the brainstorming after the initial meeting ended.

    A few of my students are actually doing this for my IST 110 class this summer. I’ll have to ask them if they like this style of note taking and maybe get a few leads for research questions we could ask around this topic.

  6. With instructor buy-in it would be possible to avoid uploading the images of diagams, graphs, etc… I’m imagining a collection of images (Flickr?) of the diagrams student would normally be expected to draw (or annotate in the case of the instructor publishing slides for printing prior to class). The images could then be embedded in the blog(s) before or after class with the notes built around them.

    The organization of the images with tags would make it very easy for students to find what they’re looking for.

  7. That is a fantastic idea, Kyle. I love the idea of the instructor providing the digital assets for the course and allowing the students to pull from those assets for their own blog notes.

  8. Kyle, what is interesting about this idea is that if the faculty member were willing to do this, the repository of content elements could grow over time. I could imagine combining stuff created by the instructor, with stuff mashed up by the students (that included personal notes), with some other materials built by multimedia developers … that would add up to an amazing set of resources over time. The other thing I am thinking about is the “add note” feature in Flickr to create some really simple and slick annotations.

    I hadn’t thought about the power of the embed code opportunities that we could tap into with this approach. When you think about faculty using social spaces for course slides and resources this whole approach gets really interesting. Students focus on gathering the right notes from lectures and can easily embed faculty provided assets for greater depth of analysis later on. Cool ideas.

  9. Great post, but I wonder if some faculty might have qualms about having the content of their lectures publicly available on the web. Maybe it would make more sense to just add some blog capabilities (like tagging) to another “cloud” documents app like Google Docs?

  10. Will … very good point. Google Docs open up all sorts of new possibilities as well. To your point of faculty might not being into “lots of notes in the cloud” of their content, PSU offers protected personal space. This space is like their personal webspace, but they have individual control over who can access it.

    This fall we are very hopeful that we can release a secure version of our blogging platform. We are working right now to finish the protected side of blogging at PSU. I think private note publishing could become very popular if we can make the mental leap.

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