Taking Notes on the iPad to Make Observations of Students in the Classroom

Last year, we were looking for notetaking software to make observations of students in the classroom.

  • We wanted an organization system that was quick and easy to use.
  • We wanted an easy way to find information from our notes.
  • We wanted a way to be able to share and collaborate with other colleagues.

In short, we wanted a quick and easy way to take notes on an iPad in the classroom. (A lot of us bring our iPads to school; Here are some reasons why iPads should be used in the classroom.)

There are lots of great note taking apps and solutions on the iPad:

Google Docs is fantastic and truly allows multiple users to collaborate simultaneously.

  • Their new commenting system really allow teachers to have side conversations while working on a common document.
  • The downside with Google Docs is that there isn’t really an off-line version, and so if you’re working at a school with no Wi-Fi, Google Docs really isn’t an option for taking quick notes.

Evernote on the iPad is pretty neat. We need to play around with the Evernote app a little more.

  • It’s neat how you can organize your notes into notebooks, embed photos and audio, and search your notes (and even photos).
  • Unfortunately, you can’t have notebooks within notebooks. So, for example, you can’t have a notebook for your 8-3 class and then within that notebook have another notebook for each of your subject (i.e. Geography, Language Arts, Music, Math, etc.) and then within each of those subject notebooks have a separate notebook for each of your students.
  • You also need an Evernote premium account ($45 per year) if you want to share notes and have other teachers edit those notes. (Although, students and teachers can receive a 50% discount.)

Microsoft OneNote can be a great teaching tool, if you teach with a data projector. OneNote doesn’t have an iPad app, but they do have an iPhone app (now available in Canada.)

  • OneNote is great because if you have the desktop application, which is essentially like SMART Notebook: you can type, make handwritten jot notes, underline text, and do pretty much everything else you expect from a Microsoft Office product.
  • Unfortunately, other teachers will need Microsoft OneNote in order to access your notes. There is a web version, but it’s pretty stripped-down.
  • Running an iPhone app on the iPad is never a good thing because you don’t take full advantage of the iPad screen or keyboard.

The native iPad Notes app that came with the iPad used to be our go-to app for taking quick notes.

  • It’s simple and easy to take notes right away. You don’t have to click around before you can actually start taking notes.
  • Unfortunately, there’s no file organization system – it’s just a big simple list of notes.
  • It’s also hard to get content out of the iPad Notes app. You either have to copy-and-paste the content into a different app, or e-mail it out. There’s no dropbox or cloud syncing.

Now that we’re writing this review, we should be using AudioNote as one of our go-to notetaking app on our iPad.

  • AudioNote is like the native iPad notes app with a few enhancements. The best feature is that you can record audio as you type notes and afterwards, if you click on a word or phrase in your notes, it will jump to that section of the audio recording.
  • AudioNote lets you draw images, circle words, highlight text, or handwrite notes in addition to typing notes.
  • AudioNote also lets you create folders and subfolders to organize your notes.
  • Finally, if you have a computer that’s on the same Wi-Fi network is your iPad, the AudioNote iPad app will give you a web address that you can use to download your notes onto your computer. You can download your notes as text, HTML with drawings, as a PDF, in addition to the audio..
  • Unfortunately, there’s no dropbox integration. It would’ve been nice to have been able to connect to the cloud and to upload your notes, drawings, or audio recordings all from your iPad.
  • AudioNote could be the perfect iPad app if you’re a teacher scribing a student response, or student taking notes in the lecture.

Bamboo Paper is a great iPad app for taking handwritten notes and drawings (but not for typing.)

  • You can’t really move your notes around or change the page order. You only get one folder, although there’s an in app purchase that lets you add up to 20 notebooks (folders)
  • Bamboo Paper has the prettiest handwriting that we’ve seen in an iPad app. (The digital pen strokes actually looked like real pen strokes because the digital ink uses a thinner line when you’re writing quicker.)
  • There’s no typing option. You can only handwrite. Chances are, you can probably type faster (even on the soft keyboard on an iPad) then you can handwrite. (Check out this comparison chart to see the fastest and most accurate way to get ideas onto paper.)

Note Taker HD is one of our favorite teacher notetaking apps on the iPad.

  • It’s a great tool that lets you type notes, handwrite messages, and annotate PDFs. We have actually marked student work on our iPad using this app. Here’s how we did it:
    1. Create a rubric using Microsoft Word
    2. Print the rubric as a PDF and save it to a dropbox folder.
    3. Use the dropbox iPad app, and open the rubric PDF in Note Taker HD. (You can only open PDFs in Note Taker HD… Unfortunately, you can’t use.DOC or other file types.)
    4. When Note Taker HD opens, choose the folder for the new document and click on done.
    5. When you push the create.button on the next screen, it will import the selected file as an annotation doc, which is a multipage Note Taker HD document with each page showing the PDF file as a background image. In other words, you can draw on the PDF to highlight words, add diagrams, etc.
    6. When you are done, there is a tools option to output the annotated Note Taker HD document. You can set the output file to be printed, e-mailed, or opened as a PDF in another iPad app (i.e. like dropbox so that your annotated rubric can be accessed from your computer.)
    7. You can now print up this marked rubric for your students, or you can keep things digital and e-mail it to them (or their parents.)
  • Unfortunately, we find Note Taker HD to be a little bit too complex. It takes a lot of clicking around in different folders to get to where you need to go,
  • Note Taker HD is also not very good if you only want to type text. That’s because you’re actually limited to typing inside of the right sidebar. (Most of your iPad screen will be filled with a preview of what’s note looks like.) In other words, we find it actually hard to type notes using Note Taker HD. We’d much rather use the native iPad Notes app because then you can use the full screen to type.
  • If you have a cable that connects your iPad to a digital projector, then you can display Note Taker HD on the big screen. In other words, you can potentially eliminate your overhead projector by scanning in your transparencies, marking them up in Note Taker HD, and then if you want, you can post your lessons on your class website. (We played around a little bit with this feature, but we haven’t figured out a way to scroll down when you’re projecting your notes onto an overhead projector. Still, this is a very exciting app, because if you have Apple TV, which allows you to wirelessly projector iPad onto a screen, then, in theory, you could take notes on the overhead projector on your iPad as you walk around the classroom. Exciting stuff.)

So then, how do you quickly and easily take notes on your iPad that can be accessible anywhere?

How to use WriteRoom, TextExpander, and DropBox to quickly and easily take notes on your iPad that you can access from anywhere and share with anyone.

WriteRoom is a $4.99 app. (You could use the free PlainText iPad app, but there are a few features in WriteRoom that will make your life easier.)

  • WriteRoom and PlainText are two very simplistic iPad apps made by Hog Bay Software, which basically give you a quick and easy way to take notes on your iPad and sync them directly with DropBox. (There’s also iTunes filesharing access to your files, but we would prefer to sync our notes over the air with the DropBox cloud.)
  • You can create folders and subfolders to organize your notes. As you type notes, WriteRoom will automatically sync your changes to your dropbox account. (Compare that with the Daedalus notetaking iPad app which requires you to manually sync.) For example, you could create folder for each class that you teach, and inside of each folder, create one text file for each student. Every time you want to make a quick jot note about a student, just open up their text file for that class and type away.
  • Your notes are saved in plain text format (instead of some proprietary format like with other notetaking apps.) Windows Notepad won’t display your notes correctly, but Microsoft Word will. (See FAQ #11 for more details.)
  • You can share your dropbox folder with your colleagues, so they can access and edit your notes as well. (Unfortunately, dropbox doesn’t allow simultaneous collaboration, which means that two people can’t be working in the same file at the same time. Dropbox will simply create a duplicate (conflicted) file. Dropbox also provides you with some history and file recovery features, so you can always go back if you make a mistake.)

So, where is the magic? Install TextExpander on your iPad and here’s what you can do:

  • TextExpander is a $4.99 app that lets you create shortcuts for snippets of text that you frequently use.
  • As a classroom teacher, you might want to make a quick anecdotal note and mark your students as they are participating in whole class conversations, chatting in small groups, or making presentations.
  • You can use TextExpander to automatically insert the subject, the grade, the date, and the time with just a few keystrokes.
  • For example, just by typing
    .G3
    you could get
    (Fri Sep 23, 2011 – 2:40 PM) Geography Level 3
     inserted into your notes.
  • That way, you could spend more time marking students, or adding notes about what they said, instead of trying to type the date and the time into your note. (We haven’t found another iPad app that allows you to insert the current date/time into a note.)
  • The reason why you want WriteRoom instead of the PlainText iPad app is because WriteRoom allows you to have a customizable extended keyboard row. On the standard iPad soft keyboard, you have to switch to a different keyboard in order to type numbers or certain punctuation. In WriteRoom, you can define up to nine keys that will appear as an extra row at the top.
  • We’re teachers, and if we’re going to be taking anecdotal notes or marking in the classroom with our iPad, we want to be able to quickly type in marks like level 3-, or A+. So on our extended keyboard, we’ve put the following keys, which normally don’t appear on the standard iPad keyboard: 1 2 3 4 – + ‘ “
  • Now, when we were walking around the classroom, it’s easy to give a student a level 3- or 4+ in our notes. When we’re using our TextExpander shortcuts, we can quickly type .g3 without having to switch to the numbers keyboard.

So, looking back at our initial criteria:

We wanted an organization system that was quick and easy to use.

  • WriteRoom is plain and simple. Folder organization is on the left. Clean white notetaking space is on the right.
  • Notes are automatically synced with dropbox. We don’t have to manually click on any button to download any changes or upload any notes that we make. It all happens behind the scenes.
  • It’s easy to print up notes from our computer because all of the notes are plaintext files that open in Microsoft Word.

We wanted an easy way to find information from our notes.

  • WriteRoom has a full text search feature. Just click on the magnifying glass, type in the student’s name, and all of a sudden you have a filtered list of all the notes that you’ve taken that include that students name.
  • When you click on the title of a note in your left document list, it’ll automatically appear on the right reading pane. You have to worry about opening and closing files because it’s all done on the same screen.

We wanted a way to be able to share and collaborate with other colleagues.

  • With DropBox, it’s easy to share folders and files with colleagues. Plus, you can get a free dropbox account with 2 GB of space. (You can get a bonus 500 MB of space if you sign up using a referral link like the ones on this page.)

Downsides to the system:

  • WriteRoom doesn’t allow you to have any type of formatting other than tab. No bolded words, italics, or underlines. No bullets, tables, or inserted pictures. Just plaintext. (See FAQ #7)
  • Dropbox doesn’t allow simultaneous editing. This means that if two teachers try to edit the same note at the same time, you end up with two versions of the file.
  • Cloud are not bulletproof. For example, in June 2011, a programming error in a code update left dropbox accounts completely unprotected for four hours. In other words, anyone could have accessed the files in your dropbox folder without the correct password. Educators need to become more conscious about maintaining the privacy of student data. One option is to make sure you don’t use the full name, or that you use pseudonyms. Another option is if your dropbox contains sensitive files, you can encrypt the data yourself before sending it to the Dropbox cloud. Here are some instructions on how you can use TrueCrypt with dropbox. Unfortunately, there’s no iPad truecrypt app, so any files in your dropbox that are encrypted with truecrypt won’t be accessible by your iPad.
This post was written using Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 Premium Wireless. Students and teachers are eligible for an education discount but you should read this first. We are compensated for our reviews. Click here for details.

  • There are 2364 words in the draft of this post. Dragon made 30 word errors. So, we had an accuracy of 98.7% in this document.
  • If you include punctuation and capitalization errors, Dragon made an additional 9 punctuation and capitalization errors. So, we had an accuracy of 98.4% in this document.

Here are some examples of errors that Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11 made:

  • Microsoft OneNote = Microsoft one note
  • A lot of us bring our iPads to the classroom = A lot of bring our iPad to the classroom
  • search your = searcher
  • you can have a notebook = you can’t have a notebook
  • Windows Notepad won’t display your notes correctly = Windows Notepad will display your notes correctly

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