Evernote: In the Classroom

This semester at Grinnell College, I have integrated Evernote into all of my classes. In this post, I explain how I have gone about doing it.

Organization for Students and Teachers

First, a note about my target audience. I have written this blog post for other teachers, but it works just as well (with minor modifications) for students who want to use Evernote to organize their course materials. I know this because I organized my notes the same way during my graduate student career. One thing I didn’t do, but wish that I had, was to follow all of the steps outlined here, but share the notebook with my classmates, and work together to create a knowledge database of notes from classes, links to helpful sites, review session notes, etc.

How Do I Use Evernote?

I had four goals when I set up Evernote for my courses this semester:

  1. to distribute readings and helpful resources to students;
  2. to incorporate critical note-taking into courses;
  3. to exchange ideas in a collaborative, “virtual” classroom environment; and
  4. to record our classroom experience together.

I have detailed seven steps below, beginning with the creation of a shared notebook before the class starts and ending with the students transferring the notebook to their own accounts after the course is completed. I should note that, unlike the collaboration in the physical classroom, collaboration with Evernote is asynchronous, because the syncing capability is more limited than what you’d find on an online forum. In this case, “collaboration” refers to students sharing insights about the readings and creating a shared knowledge base (see step #4).

STEP #1: Make a Notebook

I title my notebooks with the name of the class and the class number. Of course, you’ll want to use whatever naming conventions best fit your workflow. If you only need to share one notebook with one course, then you can manage this as a Free member. However, if you have more than one course and you think you might exceed the monthly upload limit (easy to do), then you’ll also want to purchase a Premium subscription. See the Evernote limits here to get a better sense of what the benefits are.

STEP #2: Make a Syllabus

We all make syllabi for our courses already (here are mine), but this time, when you are finished, copy/paste the schedule out of your document into an Evernote note. Ideally, you would have used Evernote to create the syllabus in the first place (or plain text and markdown), because sometimes funky things can happen when copy/pasting out of a PDF or Word document.

In the screenshot above, I have titled the note “INDEX: Historical Trauma, Memory, and Identity in East Asia (History 295-04).” There are links to all of the notes for class meetings and related course materials, but we will cover that in more detail later (see step #4).

By “creating” the INDEX note at some time in the distant future, I ensure that this is the first note students see, because the Web browser automatically defaults to a sort by created date. You can access this dialog box on the Mac by pressing the “i” icon in the upper right-hand corner of the interface.

STEP #3: Upload Materials

This step is easy — just drag and drop everything into your notebook. If you title things systematically, I think it will be easier to find them. I title mine using a pretty simple system — you’ll want to use whatever works best for you and your class. I do OCR (optical character recognition) as needed on everything before putting it into Evernote, but if you have a Premium account, Evernote will do all of that for you.

STEP #4: Make Notes

Making notes for all of the class meetings is the most time-consuming part of the process. In the screenshot below, you’ll see that I have three sections in each of my notes. In order to view it more closely, see a copy of the note here (with inactive note links).

  1. The first section of the note has a link to the INDEX note at the top, the readings for that day, and a link to the readings (when applicable). I copy/paste the assignments from the syllabus.
  2. In the second one, you’ll see instructions for note-taking — I have asked students NOT to make any modifications to this note, because doing so will inevitably create note conflicts when all of us sync and start trying to overwrite one another (Evernote syncs at different intervals, unlike Google Docs and some other services with an instantaneous sync). There is a separate, empty note in this notebook for each student (used for the entire semester), and they make modifications to it. Those are listed and linked next to the bullet points (here’s a link to a copy of it).
  3. Finally, in the third section there is space for notes and photos from the class meeting (see step #6 for more).

The easiest way to go about doing this is to create a master note for the first day with all of this information, copy the note into the notebook (right click on the note in the center column -> copy to notebook), select those and repeat the process until you have all of your notes.

If you intend to include links to the INDEX note and the empty student notes, make sure to create those links and put them into the master note before making all of those copies! As you go through and edit the first section (with each day’s assignments), add in note links to the materials you uploaded in step #3. For a screencast of how to generate note links, go to this page.

STEP #5: Share Your Notebook

Sharing notebooks on the Mac starts in the notebooks page. In order to get the dialog box to show, move your mouse over the notebook name and click on the icon that appears.

My notebook is already shared, so it looks a little different, but basically you want to “share with individuals” and give your students the ability to modify notes.

After you finish, an email will be sent to everyone with an invitation to join the course notebook. It will look something like the screenshot below (this is a reminder).

After clicking on the link in the email, the students will be taken to the Evernote website. They will click on the link and be presented with a pop-up asking them to join or view the notebook. You’ll want to have them “join” it, though they may need to create an account at this point if they haven’t got one already.

STEP #6: Update Your Notes After Every Class

Into the note, I place follow-up comments about the material we covered, a PDF of any presentations I make, video clips I show, and photographs of what was written on the boards. Evernote will recognize the text written on the boards in some cases and that will become searchable as well (see my blog post here for advice on handwriting in Evernote)!

STEP #7: Moving the Notebook

After the course has ended, I recommend you change student permissions to “view only,” and ask them to copy the notebook into their own accounts. Doing this will ensure that no members of the notebook inadvertently delete / modify anything in the future, and it will free you to archive the contents of the notebook somewhere in your own account. I have a screencast explaining how to copy notes out of a joined notebook.

How is the Experiment Working?

I am extremely pleased with student participation in the note-taking (see step #4) and, overall, I have received positive feedback from the students about it. Some students have had trouble accessing the notebook. In one case, it was an unfortunate combination of user error, device failure, and an apparent bug in one of the apps. Also, I have had students say that they prefer not to use Evernote and would rather access everything on Blackboard, where they have the rest of the materials for their classes. That’s certainly understandable. As the Evernote service improves by making the user interfaces more robust (the Web client has caused the most problems for us), and more students become familiar with it, I think it will become easier to incorporate Evernote into the classroom.

Here are a few tips:

  • Take it slow. I started out a few semesters ago with a notebook that only shared resources with people, similar to my public notebook. If you keep all of your materials in Blackboard as well, even if something goes wrong, the students will be able to access everything they need. When you and your students get the hang of it, you can move away from Blackboard.
  • Introduce the Evernote service. Walk students through all of the steps in order to ensure they understand how to make an account, join the notebook, and access materials. They’re all using different devices, but everyone has the Web client in common, so I would recommend showing screenshots of it.
  • Solicit student feedback. I had some pretty clumsy workflows in the beginning, and comments from the students have greatly improved how I set up this system.
  • Take clear photographs. My photo in the screenshot from step #6 is at such an awful angle that it is difficult for the students to read and impossible for Evernote to recognize. Stand in front of the board and get a nice, clear picture of it for the best results.
  • Don’t share confidential information. You want to protect your students’ privacy and I don’t think many cloud services are appropriate for confidential data (graded papers, comments on performance, etc.) entrusted to us by our students, because they do not offer zero-knowledge encryption. I write more about this elsewhere in my blog.
  • Restrict access. I recommend only inviting members of each class to have access, just as you would with a discussion board in Blackboard.

Why Not Just Use Blackboard?

Blackboard

I’ve used Blackboard services for nearly a decade now at universities and colleges, and even though it is quite convenient, it has a few major drawbacks. First, it is clunky and unpleasant to use, especially on the iPad, where it can be an almost impossible challenge that requires many workarounds. Second, it is a chore to get data in and out of it, even if you ditch your iPad and fire up the desktop. Third, there is no way to use it offline when your connection is spotty or non-existent. Finally, it doesn’t integrate with anything else in my life, and so I do everything else (writing, reading, note-taking, etc.) elsewhere. In the end, I think students are unlikely to spend the time and effort to get stuff out of it after they complete a class, they lose access to it when they graduate, and then that content is lost forever.I figure that there ought to be a more user-friendly way to take advantage of the Internet in classrooms.

Evernote

Evernote offers a simple, free, and ubiquitous service that performs many of the same functions as Blackboard while making up for its shortcomings.

  • Easy-to-use interface? Yes.
  • Easy way to get data in and out of it? Yes.
  • Offline access? Yes.
  • Integration with other activities like writing, reading, and note-taking? Yes.
  • Ability to share with classmates? Yes.

I explain it to my students as a way for them to build up a knowledge database that will travel with them for the rest of their lives. Every time they look up the word “Japan” or “China” in their notes from this class forward, they’ll immediately have access to every note, every class discussion, and every reading they have ever had on the topics. I think that is amazing, and I sure wish I could have had software like this when I was an undergraduate.

Related Resources



I write in my blog about various topics related to my personal and professional interests. For regular updates, join my Evernote shared notebook at https://www.evernote.com/pub/mayo-christopher/public.