Platforms for Digital Notetaking; The Touch Book

I’m involved with 6 NSF grant proposals this month – 3 down, 3 to go. On one of the projects we are looking at platforms to support digital notetaking with students. Students write and draw their notes which are recorded digitally. In many engineering and science classes, regular laptops are not sufficient to support note taking. Students have to write down math formulas or draw graphs, both of which are difficult to do with a mouse or trackpad. It requires a stylus input format. Why even bother with digital notetaking? Why not plain old pencil and paper? Our motivations for using the technology are to be able to record students’ notes for research purposes, and also see how the use of the technology can enable more collaboration through online note sharing. There are other potential reasons to explore digital notetaking as well, but assuming digital notetaking is something worth supporting, I’ve identified 4 potential technology platforms that could work, each with various advantages and disadvantages. I’m ignoring for now the tablet PC laptop, which has been around for many years, but is still quite expensive, often costing over $1000 per device as compared with netbook laptops, which are in the $250-$400 range.

1. One platform option is digital pens such as Livescribe, IOGear, and ZPen. You draw your notes on regular paper, and the pen records the notes. You can transfer the digital notes to a computer in various file formats. These pens range in price from $65 to $200 and have various file formats and developer platforms. Livescribe’s software API for example is java-based. The advantages of this platform are the cost – they are cheaper than laptops although the livescribe is still quite expensive. The Livescribe pen also requires printing their own special paper with micro dots used for tracking the pen position. Other pens like IOGear use a triangulated sensor attached to the corner of the sheet of paper or pad. Another issue though is the workflow. Students still need access to a computer of some sort to upload the notes, and some custom software for doing so.

2. Another platform is the PDA, such as a Palm or Windows CE machine. These aren’t as popular as they used to be, with folks moving on to more expensive devices such as the iPhone, Google G1 Android phone, and the Blackberry. There is a mobile version of Microsoft OneNote available, which is software for notetaking.

3. A third platform is to use a regular laptop or netbook, plus a separate tablet drawing input device attached, such as a Wacom Bamboo tablet (starting from around $50-$60). This is a clunkier option, but doesn’t add much cost if a student already has a laptop. There is the regular version of Microsoft OneNote one could use, or the free and open source Jarnal notetaking program, developed in Java.

4. A fourth option is one which I hope is the next phase in netbooks. These are netbooks with touchscreen interfaces – basically cheaper tablet pcs. The Classmate PC and its derivatives are in this class ($500-$600), as is the new Touch Book (due to be released this summer for $300-$400, pictures here). The Touch Book especially looks very interesting, except one issue is that it doesn’t run regular Ubuntu or Windows – it uses an ARM processor that can run Android or Ubuntu Mobile. It’s essentially a big cell phone minus the phone. I don’t know if Jarnal would run on it or if there is alternative free and open source notetaking software that runs on Android or Ubuntu Mobile. There are some Android note taking applications listed here.

The latter two options though especially could be developed using open source platforms and software, and are completely paperless, unlike the digital pen options. The students can take and upload and share their notes while in class or online, instead of having to manually transfer and upload notes from digital pens. Of course the best solution would be a platform that would work with all 3 of the latter platforms mentioned, including smart phones such as the G1 which runs Android.

Anyway, I very likely will be ordering a Touch Book this summer and will post back here with some notes then.

Posted in opensource, research, technology

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