During the first few days of the new year at university, some freshmen told me about their first course given by Professor Erik Duval (One of my former professors). Apparently professor Duval was completely amazed by the fact that there was not a single student with a laptop or tablet instead of plain old paper. I don’t think that was a coincidence. Laptops and tablets are just not quite fit (yet?) to really replace paper. However, I’ve had a surprisingly pleasing experience when studying on a tablet last year.

There is something about laptops and taking notes that just doesn’t go hand in hand. The primary problem is of course that you are limited by your keyboard & mouse. A keyboard limits your ability to create truly personalized notes. If you quickly want to emphasize something by underlying it, drawing a circle around it, you are still better off with a pen. Now imagine taking a mathematics class. I would really enjoy seeing you writing down the formulas and still keep up with the class. This is of course mainly because mathematical notation existed already before the computer and is especially fine-tuned for handwriting. It would be a very limited view of course if I only considered math classes. In my bachelor I studied computer science. A lot of courses there don’t involve formulas but usually a lot of written text about the concepts and examples. In such classes you probably make different kind of notes. You might want to summarize the main concepts or the interesting intermezzos that the lecturer mentions. I can imagine one being able to take notes using a laptop in that case. It is most of the time much quicker to write text using a keyboard instead of using a pen, notice you made a mistake, take your eraser and correct it.

There are still some other things that bother me about using a laptop though.

First of all: the noise. I think that I’m not alone when I say that noise of strumming on ones keyboard can be pretty annoying. You might say this isn’t a problem any more with tablets (if the user is so kind to turn off the ticking sound of his tablet keyboard of course). But then again, who wants to type on a tablet to take notes anyway?

To be really honest, I firmly believe that the keyboard-problem is solvable and often already solved.

The other problematic thing I experienced when using a laptop is distraction. The person behind you sees everything you do on your computer, if there are some flashes on the screens in front of you, you are distracted (and believe me, people do play games during class).

What about taking notes on a tablet then? For most of the tablets out there I can be really brief: don’t…just don’t!  (I tried it) The precision of a touch screen (even when you are using a stylus) is just not satisfactory. Not everything is horrible though: try the GoodNotes App on iPad combined with a stylus. It is almost perfect to emphasize text, colour it, underline it or circle it while reading a PDF. It is amazing and I’m totally sold to it after using it to study for my exams last year! (It is sad however that at the time of speaking there is no equal alternative on android (someone please make this!) ).

Remember that I used the words “for most tablets”? There are actually some really interesting tablets for note-taking. Examples are the Galaxy Note and the Microsoft surface pro. What they have in common is that they come with a special pen. The tablets use a different sensor for the pen, and turn of the touch screen while writing (hence your fistpalm can rest on the screen).

I can imagine using this with a quality app like GoodNotes so that – using this specialized pen – you are able to make side-notes on pdf’s in a comfortable way.

Are we there yet?

I don’t see students at university all together taking notes on a tablet or laptop very soon. Maybe it is habit but there is something about paper that a tablet seems unable to achieve. I do foresee a very near future in which a tablet becomes one of the favorite companion of a student. Not for taking notes but rather for reading literature, slides, papers and making some notes and markings. Like I mentioned above I had a very pleasurable experience while studying for my exams last year.

Vision of the future

Why aren’t we there yet? All the technological puzzle pieces seems to be at reach (which might explain why people who don’t study anymore wonder why students aren’t massively adopting “digital paper” (or tablets). But somehow the available technology is not satisfactory to most of the students. I think that one of the major issues that I have with digital note taking is due to plain old. I’ve learned how to study, concentrate and make notes using a pen and paper and I can honestly say that I have extreme difficulties to concentrate myself when using a laptop or tablet.

Maybe when children are being taught really early how to take digital notes they might one day be able to do so effectively. However I think it will take at least a generation before really *good* digital paper will arise. My argument goes like this:

Currently all the so-called digital paper is designed by people who never had to use it as intensively as a student in college. Yet those same people that design it say that “they would love to have had this at school”. But the point is that they didn’t!  It will take the time for those students to grow up to be engineers & designers (at least some of them) to actually make products they know that will be usable.

Another challenge for the future is the screen. Specifically screen back-lights. The continuously radiating screen is really tiring for ones eyes.

I’m also very keen about the idea of flexible screens. One flexible piece “digital paper” won’t be able to completely replace the comfort of taking two sheets of notes, put them next to each other to compare the content. So you might want to buy yourself some multiple pieces of (let us call it) digipaper.

Conclusion

I do believe in a bright future with digipaper. But not just now. There are still too much issues with concentration/distraction, comfort of writing on a screen that still have to be solved. One hint is to start with the youngest pupils as soon as possible. I’m quite sure that this will become a very hot and exciting research topic.

So dear professor Duval, I guess you still have to wait a few more years. However I strongly share your opinion that the topic must be kept alive, that people must be reminded that a great future is nigh and that the right people must be triggered to just go and try it out.

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