Laptops and tablets can be powerful learning aids, but many faculty feel uneasy about the role such devices play in their classrooms. Recent data suggest that they may be a distraction and deter from learning outcomes. How, then, can we be sure that digital tools are integrated into the higher education experience in ways that encourage deeper learning?
We believe that the answer lies in building student-faculty partnerships around supportive strategies for effective digital tool use. Collaboration, as our work to encourage educators and students to develop new literacies has shown, is key. Rather than imposing a particular system or tool, educators can model best practices and encourage students to share successful approaches. With the right strategies in place, laptops and tablets can be effective devices for both teaching and learning, and a task like note-taking can only be a means of capturing content, but also way for students to make new connections.
Here are three strategies for digital tool use to consider, particularly at the start of a new term or when organizing for exams. We’ve presented them from our dual perspectives of student and professor:
Getting Digitally Organized
Student: With the start of a new year comes the promise of getting digitally organized. Though my term does not begin for another week, I have already started to think about how I will keep track of all the new materials. Personally, I am a fan of using Microsoft OneNote for all digital note-taking. I have a notebook for the year, section groups for each semester, and then a section for each course. As the semester progresses, I will create individual pages within the section for each session of the course, projects and assignments.
I also have corresponding folders set up in my OneDrive to hold specific documents as well as in my Papers library to contain course readings. By forcing myself into this hierarchical structure, I can easily keep track of all course materials as well as my notes, readings and assignments.A similar structure and system could be set up with a number of different platforms. For example, Google Drive folders could also be used to store documents and notes. Regardless of the platform, the challenge lies in ensuring that you can quickly find all of your course documents, assignments and notes easily and across all of your devices.
Professor: When preparing for my course and working with faculty at the Keck School Of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), we first and foremost begin with empathy. The majority of our students come from traditional pen-and-paper environments and have had little to no formal training in how to effectively use digital tools for learning. As a result, many simply substitute their devices for pen and paper and struggle through the process. Modeling digital organization through how modules or units are presented on Blackboard (or another learning management system) provides students with a structure for how they can organize their materials.
At USC we use Notability. Students create a new divider (binder) for each course during the semester, and create Subjects (notebooks within the binder) for each module. Providing students documents in a format that aligns with this tool is key. For example, faculty often create lecture materials and documents directly in Notability that students can edit immediately. Other times, documents such as PowerPoint slides are designed to allow for blank space on the page where students can use the different annotation tools to make their thinking visible. Providing students with examples of what this looks like puts them in a stronger position to develop a system that works for them.
Tagging To Curate Content
Student: I attended high school and college in a mostly pre-digital world. Though I typed and printed my papers, I stored all of my notes, readings, and course materials in either three-ring binders or accordion-style folders. The nature of analog systems required me to organize vertically: one notebook per class, sections within notebooks, papers in the sections. In many ways, my digital organization mirrors this structure. However, tags add an additional layer to my system and allow me to see trends by looking horizontally through the silos of notebooks and sections. At first, consider tagging as a way to apply keywords to your content. You might think about individual topics or concepts introduced in your classes. However, also consider how you might use them to make deeper connections. For example, in my dissertation research, I tag by methodology (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods), overarching theory, and underlying construct, as well as how closely the content connects to my specific research context. When I then search by tag, I can more easily synthesize across courses and readings. Given the volume of content consumed each term, I often forget what I have already read. Tagging helps me to ask better questions of my own work and make deeper connections.
Professor: During our orientation session, this is the image I often share with students: myself in my student days, filing away every notebook, every textbook and every paper, knowing that the information was valuable and that one day it might be useful. However, when I actually needed to retrieve something, it was never immediately available. If we truly want students to be able to apply their learning, we have to be able to help them curate their resources in a way that makes them easily accessible. Tagging, or indexing of materials, presents students with an opportunity to “Google their brain.”
However, like any new digital concept, this must be modeled for students. At USC, at the end of each lecture, students are given a series of tags that they can use if they choose. Over time, as students become more comfortable with the idea, they begin to develop a tagging system that is meaningful to them. After each module, students share tags with one another, and this serves as an excellent critical thinking activity. In explaining why they chose the tags they did, they are making connections across the curriculum and helping their peers think of ideas and connections that they may not have otherwise considered.
Mind Mapping To Forge Connections
Student: One of my favorite features of digital tools often is overlooked: the ability to work on an infinitely scaling canvas. Whether using an open-ended product such as Explain Everything or Realtime Board, or a mind-mapping tool like Coggle or Popplet, the ability to brainstorm without limits provides a tremendous benefit. When researching a particular topic, I might take notes in a mind map to draw connections between sources and then organize a paper. When it comes to writing a paper, I might start with a mind map and then use the never-ending space afforded by a tool like Realtime Board to visually arrange ideas and content to determine the best way to build a coherent argument. Finally, mind mapping helps to visualize the connections between different content areas, theories and concepts. Too often, courses focus on discrete pieces of information. By mapping the individual ideas, it becomes easier to see the broader picture—and point—of the course as a whole.
Professor: As we watched our students take notes on whiteboards and on their laptops, we noticed that many were working in a linear fashion. Once students became more comfortable with using Notability as tool for note taking, we began to introduce and model ways in which they could begin thinking in a more visual manner. This can be done face to face or through the use of a video tutorial. Digital mind maps allow students to use a never-ending space, where they can insert web links, audio, images and more into their maps. Furthermore, students can also use these mind maps across the curriculum to build connections between multiple courses. Students tag these mind maps and they serve as excellent summary notes for them to access while out in the field.
Moving forward, whether you tackle one of these strategies, or a combination of them, think about how note taking and organization can lead to greater opportunities for inquiry, reflection and connection.