OneNote and Classroom Note Taking

OneNote and Classroom Note Taking

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OneNote is being marketed to college students as a tool for taking notes in class. Is it up to the task?

The short answer is, probably not. The longer answer is, of course, it depends . . .

[Possible Plusses] [Minuses] [The Bottom Line] [Features and Mis-Features] [Links]

Possible Plusses

There are several ways in which in-class note-taking with the computer could be good for you.

First, you could end up with better notes. The OneNote ads feature beautiful, colorful, well-laid out notes, notes that are a joy to look at. The night before the test of course you'd prefer to have notes like that instead of in dull black ink on paper. But there's no free lunch. To create more beautiful notes requires more work, and using a computer doesn't much change that.

Second, you could share notes easier. Of course it's nicer to exchange notes with friends by e-mail, rather than runing to the copy shop. Unfortunately there's a moral hazard here; if note sharing becomes trivially easy, it will become that much easier to skip classes; not always a good thing.

Third, you could get better organized. This is something that really appeals to businesspeople, reporters, authors, etc., who are the primary market for OneNote and the TabletPC itself. However, unless your professor is really bad, your class notes can simply follow the lectures and automatically be reasonably well structured into topics. And if you're like most people, reviewing for the test is mostly a question of going though the notes in order, with no need for fancy reorganization or indexing.

Fourth, your notes could be more legible. Maybe having a shiny new computer will motivate you to take more care with your writing, but it will simultaneously make it harder. The TabletPC, although a huge advance on PDA touch-screens, still is not as writeable as paper. Technically, the screen has less friction, lower resolution, less contrast, parallax problems, and a delay from the moment you write to the moment the ink appears. Today paper is still the best technology for capturing handwriting. (It's also the best technology for viewing handwriting.)

But what about the handwriting recognition? Again, no free lunch. If you write beautifully, then perhaps it will work for you, but otherwise you'll be spending more time correcting the recognition mistakes than listening to the lecture.

But why not just type the notes? In principle that's the answer, especially if you type faster than you write, but OneNote appears not to be designed with that in mind. It does improve on Journal, in that you can type after just clicking the screen where you want the text to go (the "anywhere canvas" feature). This is a welcome break with the Office tradition of being unable to enter text without painfully creating a textbox. But it doesn't go far enough. Since most notes are mostly text, the overhead for text entry should be minimized. For students, this means the ability to create little chunks of text all over the page, so that the notes reflect the way the professor lays out the keywords and keyphrases on the the board to in meaningful patterns showing their logical relationships. In OneNote, however, you still have to click before you can start typing, which forces you to pick up the pen, click, and put it down again, for no real reason. (Of course if you buy a TabletPC with a trackball (recommended!) you're a little better off, but there's still the unnecessary click.) (Oct 29, 2003: A OneNote product manager at Microsoft sent me mail kindly pointing out that description above is technically incorrect. The unnecessary click actually seems to be required for the purpose of exiting the previous text box. Of course that doesn't make the usability problem less significant.)

This is another case where the true aim of the OneNote designers shows through. If you're a reporter, for example, most of the time when you type you type a lot: paragraphs or pages. Students, however, differ from reporters and all other potential OneNote users in that each chunk of text tends to be small. It wouldn't be that hard to create a version of OneNote optimized for student use, but no, the generic businessman's version is all that's available.

Fifth, you could create notes with less effort. If using OneNote is more intuitive than paper for you, then great. But most people will probably find it a distraction to have to navigate through menus, recall shortcuts, and fight with the pen-mode problems (more on that below). Now if you're a businessman in a boring meeting, that distraction is probably welcome, but if you're in lecture and your brain is already running at capacity just trying to understand what the professor is saying, then the extra cognitive load will be a real drag.

Sixth, you could restructure your notes more easily. This is not something that most students do a lot, but it might be useful sometimes. OneNote has a nice feature that lets you get extra space: it's like cutting your paper in half and gluing in a new piece. This is faster and less error-prone than the Office-standard method of selecting the bottom half the page and moving it down. Unfortunately there's no analogous feature for moving some chunk of notes up or to the left or right. Since OneNote lacks a "group" function, doing so is quite a pain.

Actually it's even worse, since there is some evil logic in OneNote which appears to dislike overlapped objects. For example: I input some text and highlight it. Then I decide it should be somewhere else, so I select the text and the highlighting and drag them down. Oops, the highlighting did not come with the text. Okay, I'll click on the highlighting and drag it down on top of the text... but now the text jumps away. After chasing the text around a bit I give up. Apparently the proper thing to do is delete the old highlighting, and create a new highlight. Why make things easy?

Seventh, you could find stuff in your notes more easily by searching in them. Once in a while you may really want to find something in your notes from last semester. I guess. I never have. But if you did, then you could search for it. That is, you could if OneNote's supposed ability to search handwritten text actually worked once in a while.

Eighth, you could recycle snippets from your notes into reports without having to retype them. Business people of course do this all the time, but students? I guess it's useful in those rare cases where you get a professor who gives regurgitation-type assignments.

Ninth, you could review the audio of the lecture. I haven't tried this feature, which sounds reminiscent of Lisa Stifelman's Audio Notebook. However I wonder how many people this would be useful for. Most of the time when you don't understand your notes it's probably better to go to the textbook rather than mess around listening to the audio. Or even read the textbook more thoroughly before class, so that it makes sense on first listening, live.

Tenth, you could really impress your friends. It's undeniably true that using a pen is cool. Wielding a pen makes you look so much more in-control than just schlepping a mouse around. So using a computer to take notes in class has one undeniable advantage after all!

[Possible Plusses] [Minuses] [The Bottom Line] [Features and Mis-Features] [Links]

Clear Minuses

So the plusses are mostly theoretical.

And they come at the cost of more work for the user: as noted above, OneNote makes demands on your time that may interfere with your ability to keep up with the lecture.

And there are the obvious form-factor disadvantages: the cost, the fear of theft, the weight, and, most of all, the fact that you can just see more stuff on a sheet of paper.

[Possible Plusses] [Minuses] [The Bottom Line] [Features and Mis-Features] [Links]

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that for most students, using OneNote to taking notes in class will probably hurt more than it helps.

The harm will come from interference with your ability to listen and understand during class. This won't be an issue for every student in every class, but it probably will be for most.

Partly this is because OneNote was designed more for business people than for students, but mostly it's because pencil and paper is a superior technology.

[Possible Plusses] [Minuses] [The Bottom Line] [Features and Mis-Features] [Links]

Features and Mis-features

So that's the big picture. Let's also look at some more of the specifics of OneNote.

Small Feature Set. OneNote lacks most of the familiar features of drawing tools. The move away from feature bloat is a welcome one, but on the other hand, you may be disappointed by the lack of features like straight lines, arrows and grouping, especially if your class involves a lot of diagrams.

Lightweight Textboxes. In OneNote the textboxes have a novel look and feel. As noted above, their creation is somewhat easier. Also, if you hover over a text item up pops up an elegant little gray toolbar. This lets you do a couple of simple things right on the spot, without having to stretch up to access the menu bar. However the little toolbox is so tiny that it requires precise pen aiming to hit the icons. And the flashing up of little toolbars as you move the pen around might be distracting.

Pen Modes. In OneNote the pen is used both for drawing and selecting. Sometimes this is not a problem: when you click on menu item you're clearly not trying to draw something, and OneNote understands that. Other times it's a big problem, as when you try to select and drag an existing object, but OneNote thinks you're trying to draw a new line, or conversely. There seems to be some Artificial Intelligence (in the pejorative sense) attempt to infer the user's intention from things like pen jitter, dwell time, and context. To the user, however, this makes things unpredictable. At one point there were hopes that this would be fixed in the final release, but to me it looks the same as in the beta.

Pen-Trackball Interactions. Once OneNote has decided that the pen is in drawing mode, rather than select mode, it also interprets trackball input the same way. This seems a clear mis-feature. No sane person would sketch something or input handwriting using a trackball, so OneNote could easily assume that trackball/mouse inputs were intended as selections. This would give the user a way to get around some of the pen-mode problems mentioned above. But no. In the Tablet PC the pen and the trackball or mouse are apparently seen as a single device. Maybe the user is supposed to take the programmer's perspective and memorize the twenty-some rules in Tables 2-1, 4-1, and 4-2 of Jarrett and Su --- then maybe everything will make sense. My guess is that the business logic --- the aim of designing the OS so all apps can also run on pen-less computers --- took priority over the user interface needs. The result is that users can't use pen and mouse in a complementary way. Rather than being exploiting the specific strengths of each device, they are handled generically and the advantages are lost.

[Possible Plusses] [Minuses] [The Bottom Line] [Features and Mis-Features] [Links]


OneNote in the Classroom

Research Links

OneNote Marketing

Related Software

General OneNote Resources

[Possible Plusses] [Minuses] [The Bottom Line] [Features and Mis-Features] [Links]

by Nigel Ward and Jabel Morales, October 17, 2003