Saturday, July 9, 2011

Lesson from Agatha Christie: Rediscovering Windows Tablet and OneNote for education

In the last 3 months I feel like I am living an Agatha Christie murder mystery.  Agatha Christie had several tricks for preventing us from guessing who the murderer was.  One trick she used multiple times was to have a person be the prime suspect early on in the book.  Then they would be exonerated and we would start thinking of someone else.  In the end, that would be the person who would be revealed to be the murderer.  So what is the point of this?

Instead of a murderer, suppose the question is "What is the right computer and software for (medical) students?"
Many years ago I had thought it would be a convertible Windows tablet computer with OneNote.  After trying it out for 2 years our study showed that students did not find it useful.   Since then having explored many other options, including netbooks, PDAs, regular laptops and iPads, I am gravitating back to the Windows convertible with OneNote.  Why do I say that?

Lets start by identifying some requirements:

  1. A device that is portable (relatively speaking) - size, weight, battery life
  2. Has both a keyboard and ability to write on the screen - ideally with both stylus and finger - drawing concept maps, take notes, 
  3. Options for installing from a wide menu of open source useful software.
  4. Capture digital information from multiple formats (documents, presentations, web pages) and store it for annotation, highlighting etc.
  5. Flexibility in organizing all the artifacts in various ways - at various levels - e.g. move things around easily on a page, organize pages under sections etc...
  6. Share working material with multiple collaborators and with multiple computers 
  7. Allow multiple collaborators to work on same document
  8. Be able to work online and offline - with automatic/seamless syncing of material.
  9. Mechanism for someone who does not have the software to be able to at least see the material.  (The assumption in this model is that all students have the same setup.
So the solution I am looking at is a smallish convertible HP elitebook 2740p with Windows 7 and Office 2007 or 2010 which includes OneNote.  

The HP 2740p has a screen that supports both stylus and multi-touch.  It has a very slim unobtrusive battery that extends its life to 10 hours.  
OneNote has terrific features - everything I mentioned above - with some outstanding features being:
  1. The file organization is built into the software itself - thus no need to look for the file explorer to find what you need 
  2. There is a superb search feature - that catalogs every artifiact
  3. You can grab any web page or part of it with a screen clipping tool
  4. Handwriting recognition tool
  5. Print to OneNote option from your list of printers
  6. Ability to move artifacts around on a page like post it notes
  7. Awesome and flexible heirarchy of organizing - Notebook>Section Groups>Sections>Pages>Subpages
  8. Internal hyperlinks to any page or artifact on a page
  9. Live sharing by IP address with anyone over the Internet
  10. Shared notebook feature for working with collaborators
  11. Audio narration, video captures
  12. Tag pages/artifacts with question mark, star, to-dos
  13. Am sure there is a lot more.
Here is an example of me working on my thoughts regarding Google+ and how it is similar to and different from Facebook and Twitter.

I created a new Social Media Notebook
Created sections for each of the 3
On page one of Facebook you see a list of topics I planned to write about. 
2 of them are checked off
There is a diagram of who sees whose posts on Facebook.

On the next page I am collecting artifacts that I can use to think about the Facebook privacy settings.
These are screen clippings with my annotations - was quickly able to scratch over the identifiers on the screen clipping.  

In the last few months I saw the HP elitebook 2740 with it stunning features and immediately recalled the thrill I had felt in the early 2000's when the first windows convertibles came out.  
I saw how one of our medical students used OneNote on a regular windows (non-tablet) laptop to collect all the information he had come across in year 1 of medical school
I saw how a local middle school has every student use a similar convertible laptop to collaborate with each other and with the teacher for 4 years, collaborating on group projects even from off campus, submitting assignments by sharing sections with the teacher who can annotate the assessment in a shared space and build their portfolio of learning.
I saw how we can keep a shared notebook on a shared folder on dropbox and use the online OneNote app.  

Sometimes the best solution is the one that is right in front of you.  Just like an Agatha Christie book, the solution was the first suspected one!
OneNote might be the best software that did not get marketed!  It may be time to rediscover this. 


  1. Good, clear - and specific - write up on the advantages of OneNote. May I suggest that it's well worth upgrading to OneNote 2010 - it looks like you're on 2007. Microsoft added some surprisingly impressive enhancements.


  2. @Miles thanks for the comment. I will look into OneNote 2010 and some of the enhancements.

  3. My students use OneNote a lot. I did too until I got a MacBook Air and found that there was no compatible software for OneNote. Really a pity.

  4. @Ryan That's is a bummer. One would have thought that MS Office for macs would have OneNote.

    One option is to use the OneNote web app

    Another would be to run Windows on the Mac using bootcamp or other similar tool.