Note-taking in the digital world of distance ed

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Editor’s note: Michael Nieckoski, instructional designer at Rowan College of South Jersey, contributed to this article.

Over and over again, research has proven that handwritten notes are the best way to help reinforce understanding a new subject. Essentially, if students can jot ideas down and explain new concepts in their own words, they are more likely to learn and be able to apply them to projects and other assessments.

But in the digital world of distance education, it may take a little more prompting to encourage notetaking. It definitely is a challenge: We write things down to refer to them later, and online courses usually come loaded with presentations, lecture notes and not to mention captioned videos. Often, everything is already written out for students so they can easily refer to or reread it later. We have become accustomed to having so much information at our fingertips. This includes course materials.

This article is part of a monthly series provided by the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Here are three tools that can help bring back good old-fashioned highlighting and annotating to the online classroom.

Digital annotation tools

Hypothesis is a free digital annotation tool that allows students to take notes, highlight text, and even insert content like YouTube videos, links or images. It helps with study skills by adding a “layer” or panel to a website or PDF. This panel has lots of annotation tools and can collapse when not in use.

Students can also go to their Hypothesis accounts to refer to all of their previous annotated pages. While students can mark up web pages and PDFs, there are some variables or restrictions when it comes to integrated publisher content providers like Cengage or McGraw Hill.

Rowan College of South Jersey has adopted Hypothesis in recent years after running a semester-long pilot program. Within the learning management system (LMS), this program adds a layer over a web article or PDF that allows students and instructors to use all its notation tools to strike up a conversation. Instructors can easily use this tool as an alternative to the infamous online discussion boards.

One instructor noted the proximity of the text and the conversation led to a more dynamic and robust discussion. The “layer” of annotation shows the text with the participant’s comments, unlike an LMS discussion forum, so you can really see the context of the conversation. This tool can be used for class activities like peer review, general annotation, vocabulary and analyzing a text.

A sample of using Hypothesis.

Perusall promotes its platform as a method for students to engage in reading by making it a social experience. Instructors can select and load their course content into a Perusall account or “classroom” for students to access a library of content for each course. Students can comment, highlight and ask questions with the whole class.

Persuall also includes reports that can summarize student activity for each piece of content, which can help instructors know which concepts to reinforce or review, along with praising students’ activity. These reports are a great way to connect virtual conversation with a live online or actual live classroom.

Its pricing is also unique. While there is an institutional license, the platform is free for individual classroom use. Perusall lets instructors include copywritten materials like their textbook in the curation of Perusall course activities. But students will need to purchase the content through Perusall instead of the campus bookstore.

Perusall has a more visually dynamic integrated platform than Hypothesis, but it does not have the same individual note-taking options as Hypothesis. Students can use Hypothesis to take notes on their own using digital content; Perusall focuses more on a more instructor-curated and collaborative application.

Productivity tools

Sometimes, the solution may be closer than you think. Most schools offer students productivity tools like Google Workspace or Office365 accounts. Since many instructors post or link these commonly used file types in an LMS, students can simply download or make online copies of the content and insert comments or highlight text on their own version of the lesson materials. Once again, the proximity of the original content and the individual annotation will help reinforce a students’ understanding.

For MS Office, students with touch-screen laptops or tablets can use the various tools under the Draw tab to highlight, circle, and actually write notes on the file. They can get even more creative by collecting their annotated files and curating a OneNote “portfolio” which can include the files, short notes, ideas or questions from their lessons.

Using MS Office.

Knowing something is not the same as simply knowing where to find it. As we look at various ways to emulate the live classroom in the digital classroom, we can’t forget about some basics like study skills. Including and encouraging digital notetaking tools will provide students with modern, digital-study skill options.

About the Author

Brooke Litten
Dr. Brooke Litten is an instructional designer for Rowan College of South Jersey. She is the Northeast regional representative for the Instructional Technology Council, (ITC). Along with working as an instructional designer, Litten teaches critical thinking online with Mercy College and first-year writing courses at various New Jersey community colleges.