Sunday, October 1, 2017

Note Taking in School (and Illustrating a Blog)

When I started this blog I did so because it was becoming too cumbersome for me to update my web site.  I don't like spending my time that way, and wanted to do something that would allow much faster updating and be more portable.  After a web search and comparing a few different options I decided on Blogspot.

So far I'm happy with it.  I can update the blog quickly, from anywhere I have computer access and it's much easier to do things in bite-size chunks that are more likely to get posted, as opposed to the huge effort it took to build my web site and maintain it.  I don't know how many hundreds of pages of stuff I produced that never got posted because of the difficulty in getting all the links working, etc.

One of the things I wanted was to be able to post pictures and diagrams of things because they are usually a lot faster than typing (two fingers- I'm from that generation before computers when girls learned to type and boys took shop class) and editing a lot of text.  I considered many ways to get diagrams into my posts including drawing on a whiteboard or paper and taking pictures of the drawings.

Then I remembered how I got through dental school.  I had two years of didactic classes which consisted primarily of PowerPoint presentations.  The instructors would make the presentation available and we'd all follow along and make notes on our computers.  Then I saw something really incredible.  It was called a Livescribe Smartpen that recorded whatever you wrote and put a copy on your computer.  Not only that, it recorded audio (binaural!) and linked the audio to the text.

The audio recording quality is good, but when you use the binaural mic, it's great!  Recording lectures can be tricky.  You could hear and understand everything being said, but for some reason recordings usually come out echoey and difficult to decipher.  The binaural mic records audio exactly as you hear it because the microphone capsules are almost in your ears.  If you could understand what the lecturer said during the lecture, you'll be able to hear it exactly the same way when you record it with the binaural mic.

Whenever the instructor said "this is going to be on the test", I'd write the word "test" in my notebook.  When it was time to study, I played back the audio recording of the lecture and tapped the pen on the word "test" the audio would jump right to what was said when I wrote that word.  It made my studying extremely efficient and effective.  My notes primarily consisted of slide numbers -when they changed a slide, I mark the number down, creating a link in the audio recording- and occasional keywords like "test" "final", etc.  If I was going through the PowerPoint presentation and didn't understand something on a slide, I'd tap the pen on that slide number in my notebook and the audio would immediately jump to the lecture at that slide.  By minimizing my note taking that way I was able to pay more attention to the lectures than my note taking and I think I learned more of the presented material.  My pen had 1 GB of storage which was enough to store an entire month's worth of audio lecture recordings and written notes. If you are in school, or have a kid or grandkid in school, I can't recommend the Livescribe pens highly enough.

My 1st generation Livescribe Smartpen's battery had long since died (it was only 10 years old).  After a futile attempt to get the thing apart so I could try to find a replacement battery, I gave up and bought a second generation of the pen, a 2GB Livescribe Echo.  The Livescribe smartpens use special paper that has a dot pattern that allows the pen to know exactly where it is on the page.  Don't worry, the notebooks are cheap, especially considering the utility that the system provides.  There are plenty of other paper options, too.

If you've read any of my blog posts, chances are you've run into some of my handwritten notes and drawings that look like scans from a lined notebook.  Those were made using the Echo Smartpen.  I draw/write the note, connect the pen to my computer and transfer the notes, then export the note page as a png file.  I open the png file and crop it then save as a jpg file and upload it to the blog.  The whole process takes only a minute or two.

 There's an interesting paper that describes the technology of the whole system here.

Here's a photo of a note I made using the Echo pen and notebook:

And here's what shows up on the computer when you connect the pen via USB cable:


The image of the writing can be captured with or without the blue notebook lines, as you'll see in some of my blog posts.

I've misplaced the earphones/binaural mic that came with my original SmartPen or I'd link to an audio recording made with it.  

Anyway, for me it was great in school and now it's a very portable way to make notes and diagrams to put into this blog.  If you have a kid in school, I can't recommend this pen highly enough.