Tuesday, June 18, 2013

9 Note-Taking Apps For Teachers

Here is how I write my formative assessments in class; I first grab a clipboard and a sheet of paper (or a sheet of sticker labels). As the children worked or talked, I take notes. I then put the paper down, and promptly forget about it for several weeks until I accidentally throw it away. Repeat ad naseum.
I'm a big believer in careful, documented formative assessment, but I'm also extremely disorganized... especially with paper. So when I learned that I didn't have to use the awful touch keyboard on the iPad to take notes, I
1) Started taking notes on my iPad
2) Started gobbling up all the finger-based note-taking apps on the iPad to find the best one for me as a teacher. 

But "best" is relative and I quickly found that there's a different "best" one for different aspects of my profession. Here then is a rundown of my experience with some handwriting note apps, First though, using a four-point rating system:
  • Handwriting
  • Design
  • Ease of Use
  • Extra Features
Handwriting: I am not an artist. My handwriting is atrocious. So I need an app that can overcompensate for my lack of line sense. And I don't want to see any of this nonsense in the promotion:

Hey Noteshelf, I can be an Immortal 
and never be able to do this

I'm serious, Paper, stop pimping this as even a possibility
(courtesy of http://che-guiruela.tumblr.com/image/51461482622)

It doesn't matter what great artists can do with this app, because I'm not a great artist. What I want to know is how the app tackles terrible handwriting, because I have an abundance of that.

Design: Even though I could care less if the app can do pretty things, I want it to look pretty. And by "pretty" I mean "comfortable." And by "comfortable" I mean does it feel like I'm writing in an actual notebook? Why does that matter? Because I love writing. And writing in notebooks is how I've experienced writing for several decades. If the app can connect me to the love of writing by using a design that is sleek but familiar, then I will want to use it more.

Ease of Use: The easier an app is to use, the more time I spend with it. Does it do what I need to do when I pick up my iPad upside down and start writing? This is kind of the opposite of "Design" where I ask the app to act like a notebook. For this rating, I want the app to act like an app.

Extra Features: This is not a rating based on how many extra features an app has. Instead its a rating based on how many useful extra features an app has that directly pertains to how I take notes in the classroom. Apps can have some amazing features that I will completely ignore because I don't need or want to use them while I'm furiously writing about or with a student. 

9 Note-Taking Apps For Teachers

Handwriting: 9/10
Design: 10/10
Ease of Use: 9/10
Extra Features: I-Don't-Care /10

*Best For: Keeping a Classroom Journal, Taking Classroom Notes
Noteshelf is my favorite handwriting app. I love the design. It feels like a writing notebook. Or a whole shelf of them. Here is a view of its home page:

Not only do the virtual notebooks look like the iBooks homepage, but you can also group the notebooks together just as you would apps in your home screen.
Notebook makes my handwriting look better than it actually is, and it has a "zoom" feature, which I believe is essential to a handwriting app. The zoom feature allows you to write small and clear. Several apps have them. In Noteshelf, it looks like this:

Handwriting: 8/10
Design: 3/10
Ease of Use: 7/10
Extra Features: 9 /10

*Best For: Annotating PDFs, Taking Running Records, Recording Book Club Conversations

Notability has good handwriting too. Not as great as Noteshelf, but it's good. And if you like to write small, it has the biggest zoom of any of the apps listed here. There's also a pointless toggle switch for the handwriting; you can toggle nice handwriting on and off. Notability reminds me a lot of Noteshelf, Until we look at the design and how notes are organized:

It's icky. It doesn't look nearly as nice.
That would be a deal breaker, but Notability does something else really nice; it annotates PDF files very cleanly. Why is that important? For Running Records. Not only can I open the app and import a Running Record pdf from dropbox, but while I'm keeping track of the Running Record, I can also record the student reading. So I can have the completed Running Record on the annotated PDF, and the child's voice attached to the file. That's great!

Handwriting: 6/10
Design: 8/10
Ease of Use: 8/10
Extra Features: 7/10

Remarks takes all the best parts of Noteshelf and Notability, and makes them slightly less. It seems slower. It's handwriting software isn't as nice, the design is almost as good as the iBooks-like shelf of Noteshelf. It has an intuitive way to annotate PDFs but there is no voice, and you have to open the PDF from Dropbox. You can't open the PDF in Remarks. 

Handwriting: 9/10
Design: 7/10
Ease of Use: 7/10
Extra Features: It's-A-To-Do-List-App /10

*Best For Taking Classroom Notes (If Time Is Not An Issue)
This may be cheating because UYH Gold is not strictly a note taking app. It's a To-Do list app. But it's so much fun that I've used it for student notes. The handwriting is as nice as Noteshelf, but the ink is fluorescent rainbows.  Here is how I organized some Westing Game Book Club notes:

The basic app is free, but to be a good notetaker, you need to buy the "embedded list" extension. And the rainbow ink.

Note Taker HD 

Handwriting: 4/10
Design: 3/10
Ease of Use: 5/10
Extra Features: I-Don't-Care/10

Bad handwriting in this app looks bad. There's still a zoom feature, so that's why the rating is as high as it is. The homescreen looks identical to Notability. Apparently you can only annotate a PDF if it is in the "File Import" folder, but I couldn't actually find that folder.   

Top Notes Pro

Handwriting: 5/10
Design: 8/10
Ease of Use: 7/10
Extra Features: I-Don't-Know/10

Sometimes when I write with Top Notes Pro, it drags. And it takes a while for the software to catch up to my finger/stylus motion. This is an incomplete review. People seem to like this app, but the dragging software means that I haven't given this one much of a chance.  

MyScript Memo 

Handwriting: 1/10
Design: N/A /10
Ease of Use: N/A/10
Extra Features: 5/10

*Best For: Taking Classroom Notes That Need To Be Converted Into Typed Text At Some Point.
This is the free version of MyScript Notes Mobile, which is $7.99. I wasn't going to buy that one though because neither of these apps has a zoom window, and the hand writing is atrocious.   What makes this so promising is that it does a good job of changing the awful handwriting into typed text. It would be a good feature but the handwriting is so bad on this app that I have no desire to write in it. 


Handwriting: 3/10
Design: 3/10
Ease of Use: 3/10
Extra Features: 3/10

Threes all around! Or twos! Or whatever! This is a terrible app for notes. The handwriting is awful, the page does not flip around when I turn the iPad, there is no zoom feature... but it's free. And apparently you can search your notes if you type in a key word. Sometimes. 50% of the time. It worked about 50 percent, because it doesn't improve my handwriting, and as I've said many times, my handwriting is atrocious. Check out this promotional video from Evernote:

A few things struck me while I was watching this video:
  • The handwriting is a lie.
  • You can search for key words if you type them in,
  • And that's it. There are no other features in the promotional video that is promoting version 4.0. What on earth were the other versions like?
I don't use this app. But it's free.


Handwriting: 8/10
Design: 8/10
Ease of Use: 7/10
Extra Features: 10/10

*Best For: Doodling During Faculty Meetings

I would never use this app to take classroom notes. The zoom feature is weird and not meant for writing. It's meant for drawing. But I use Paper all the time for another professional reason: Faculty meetings.
I'm serious Paper, knock it off. I will NEVER be able to do this!
(Courtesy of: http://carpetman12.tumblr.com/image/49964414433)

I use Paper to doodle during meetings. It's great. And it helps me listen

This is the apex of what I can do.

Noteshelf is my app of choice for note-taking in the class. I sometimes use UYH Gold because it's so different than the others in this list though. For Running Records I use Notability. Finally, I use Paper to doodle during faculty meetings.

So that's it. What am I missing? What did I get wrong? Let me know.

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