Group digital lab books

Last summer I bought a LiveScribe Sky pen for my lab group, with the hope that we’d connect it to a group Evernote account that we’d use as a group lab notebook. Unfortunately, it didn’t work very well. The Evernote part worked pretty well, but the LiveScribe connection never really worked reliably, so it wasn’t really our go-to way of collecting information. I really wish I’d read a few more product forums about the Sky pen. It seems that nearly everyone was disappointed with it. Oh well, live and learn, I guess.

So this summer I want to try a different, though similar, experiment. Now, dear reader, you should prepare yourself, for I will be making a suggestion that I and my group should use a Microsoft product. Specifically, I’m going to be promoting OneNote in this post.

Here’s what I want (numbered for reference, but not necessarily in priority order):

  1. Easy access by me and all my students on whatever devices we want to use.
    1. for me that means a windows desktop/laptop and an Android phone
    2. my students use lots of different things, though I don’t think I have a student who uses Linux at the moment.
  2. Digital handwriting
    1. including annotating digital artifacts
  3. Organized
  4. Easy to connect images, video, mathematica files, etc.
  5. easy way to share notebook with future students/collaborators

Last summer’s approach did 1 and 5 great, 3 if we worked at it, 4 once we decided on google drive for our other docs, but not 2 at all because the sky pen didn’t work as advertised. Note, if it had, I think I’d still be using that system and not thinking about a new one. It’s interesting to note that LiveScribe now sells a pen that only works with Apple products.

A couple weeks ago I used some IT “sandbox” money to purchase and test out a Microsoft Surface Pro 2. I really like it, especially how well the digitizing pen works. What’s been interesting to me is to find that the best software on it for leveraging that pen seems to be OneNote 2013, which, as it happens, Microsoft has recently decided will be free for windows and macs. It also has connections on the ipad/ipod and android, so that takes care of number 1 above for me.

If you’re a fan/user of Evernote, you won’t be surprised by the organization set up in OneNote. You probably also wouldn’t be surprised by the usual set of things it can hook into its notes. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how well it can take in digital handwriting. Not only does it look great, but it’s searchable! In other words, it does some internal OCR on it but you don’t have to have it replace your handwriting with text. The reason I don’t do the latter is because I really like the flow you can get with handwriting, including arrows, underlines, circles, etc. Converting to text seems to screw that up, and, if it’s searchable (and legible), who cares?

Also, it can do the LiveScribe thing where chunks of handwriting can be indexed in a larger audio recording, so it’ll work for group meetings too.

So how do I envision using it? I’ll have all the students get a free microsoft account so that it’ll be easy to share the notebook with them. They’ll all have full editing capabilities. Last summer I was disappointed to learn that we needed to share an evernote account to pull that off, though I’ll admit that I’m going by what my students said since I had them research that. OneNote lets me set different sharing for each notebook inside my one account.

Now that I have my Surface, I’ll donate my Wacom Bamboo tablet to the lab so that they can enter handwritten notes if they’d like. If they like it, I’ll buy a couple more for the lab. I like how the ~$70 bamboo turns a non-touch desktop (which we have lots of in our labs) into a touch-sensitive device. It’s certainly how I’ve done all my annotations prior to my Surface. My Surface will be portable and can be used in group meetings, but they’ll have OneNote and the bamboo in whatever lab they’ll be working. My guess is that they’ll want to type most end-of-day thoughts, but I know how useful sketching a plot of things can be. Also, equations are much easier in handwriting than anything else.

So they’ll take pics/vids/do screenshots of linked Mathematica files, link and annotate journal articles all in a single place where we can all stay up to speed. I only work ~20 hours/week in the summer so I’ll be able to give them some feedback to keep them on task even when I’m not there.

I did a not-very-thorough search to see what other ways people do this. It seems to breakdown into people doing evernote/onenote and people doing specialized software. None of the specialized ones did handwriting very well, though I’d be pleased if I was wrong about that. In many places I’ve found lots of people saying that onenote trumps evernote for handwriting **for the moment**. We’ll see how things go down the road. For me each summer is a pretty well contained research event, so I really only have to commit to doing it this summer. Soon I’ll experiment with the sharing with one of my students who already downloaded the free onenote to her mac. Hopefully all goes well.

One last thing: Every other year we bring in a 3M corporate attorney to talk to our students about patent law careers. This year she took some time to tell us about the repercussions of the USA’s new “first to file” law. The US used to be “first to invent” which was why you had to be so careful with your notebooks. Policies ranged from having to have every page signed by a supervisor, to signing across the border of any taped in page. Everything, even in this digital age, needed to be put into the notebook, and I for one always thought it was a great big hassle. Well, now with the “first to file” law, we don’t have to do any of that any more. And that’s not just me saying that, it’s a corporate attorney from 3M of all places. She tells me they’re slowing relaxing their policies in the company, but she sees a lot of things being easier with this new ruling.

So what do you think? Here’s some starters for you:

  1. I’m working with Andy this summer and I think this is great. I’m especially excited about …
  2. I’m set to work with Andy this summer but after reading this I’m going to try to get out of it. Here’s why . . .
  3. I think you haven’t given Evernote enough of a try. It’s totally better than OneNote and here’s why (beyond the, you know, not being Microsoft stuff) . . .
  4. I use _____ for this and I think it’s great. It’s way better than your proposed solution because . . .
  5. I think you should have your students keep their own pen-and-paper notebook. It’s a mistake to go all digital. Maybe a hybrid? Here’s how I’d do it . . .

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in lab, research. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Group digital lab books

  1. Joss Ives says:

    Andy. I have used OneNote on and off for many years and think that overall it is a really great product for your use. I test-drove the collaborative mode by running back and forth between two computers and found that it worked really well that way. My only quibbles have to do with default formatting pieces which I am sure can be changed, but I never bothered to try. I will be very curious to hear how you and your students find this to work. People are always on the lookout for good digital lab book solutions so committing a summer to actual use will generate a lot of useful info for interested parties.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I was just talking with someone today about how this is a great test bed. I have authority over these students and can force them to give it a try. We’ll see.

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