Education, Technology

Updating my Master Science Notebook Online [My Workflow]

Inspired by the generous sharing of my friend, Russ Goerend, I’ve decided to start an occassional series here on the blog.  I plan to share some of my current practices with two goals in mind.  First, I hope that some of what I describe will help others to streamline what they do.  Second, I would like feedback about how I can improve some of the processes I use on a regular basis.  Here’s the start:

2013-05-08I have been using Livescribe smart pens with my students for the past couple of years.  The newest pen, the Sky, has a few tricks that I really find useful.  Most importantly, it creates pencasts (in Evernote) that are HTML 5 and playable on iPads.  But, I still keep my stable of Pulse smart pens around for lots of reasons.  The older pens still work with a desktop application called (appropriately enough) Livescribe Desktop.  This program allow you to manage all of the pages and pencasts that your pen has stored.  If you are not familiar with Livescribe pens, stop now and go read about them.

Beginning several years ago, my goal was to help my students learn how to take notes during class by taking notes with them under my document camera.  This worked well, except that students who were absent (physically or just mentally) or who lost their notebooks (a frustratingly common occurrence with my students) didn’t have an easy way to get caught up.  More important for me, however, was that I had eager parents who wanted to support out classroom learning at home, and they needed a way to see these notes.  Sometimes it was to help their kids get back on the ball, and sometimes it was to provide some remediation at home.  No smart teacher wants to hold back on tools that will help a parent be more supportive, right?

So, I developed this system, and you can check out the final product here.  The necessary ingredients are as follows:

  1. A Livescribe Pulse or Echo smart pen.  Cost (refurbished) = $40. You can probably do this with another capture device, even a camera.  Figure that out on your own.
  2. An older Dropbox account (created before October 4, 2012).  Cost = free. Newer accounts no longer include a “Public” folder, but you can probably work around it by creating links to share content.  It won’t be as easy, but it will work.
  3. A website where you post content.  Cost = free.  This could be a blog, a Weebly site, an edmodo group, or anything similar.

First, a few caveats.  I don’t record the audio of my lessons as pencasts for lots of reasons that include privacy, digital storage space, and self-consciousness.  I use the smart pen to create a simple, static PDF of the page that I’ve written (with input from the class) as we take notes.  This process also requires that, every day or two, you connect your pen to your computer and spend about 5 minutes updating the Master Notebook.  If this is not something that you are willing to do, then it doesn’t work.  That said, here is the process:

  1. Capture what you write in your Master Notebook.  Using a Livescribe Single Subject notebook, which costs about $4 and last about a semester, turn on your smart pen and write your notes.  It doesn’t matter how many pages or how long it takes.
  2. Connect your smart pen to your computer and launch Livescribe Desktop (if it doesn’t launch automagically).  The pen will sync and you’ll see all of the pages in your current notebook.
  3. Highlight the pages that you wish to put together into one “notebook”.  My students have frequent notebook checks and the online Master Notebook only shows the pages since the last check (although I leave up previous sections, as well).Screenshot_6_27_13_8_19_AM
  4. Print these pages as a PDF.  On a Mac, this is simple because every application can Print to PDF, but in the Windows version of Livescribe Desktop you can Export the files as a PDF.
  5. Save the PDF to the Public subfolder of your Dropbox folder on your computer.  I strongly recommend a sub-subfolder called “Master Notebook”, and that you name the file after the date on which you updated it.  All files placed in Dropbox’s Public folder have predictable URLs that can be shared so that others can access some of your files.Screenshot_6_27_13_8_25_AM
  6. Get the URL of your saved file by right-clicking on the file in the Public folder.  Later, as you update this file, you can skip this step because the URL changes in a predictable way.Screenshot_6_27_13_8_29_AM-2
  7. Go to your website of choice and paste that URL as a link to your Master Notebook.  In most programs, you can have text that reads “Current Master Notebook” but make it be a hyperlink to your PDF.

That’s it.  The final product can be updated very easily.  Each day, after my students go home, I repeat steps #1-3.  Then, I just update the link on my website (…/2013-05-08.pdf becomes…/2013-05-09.pdf).  Note: I’ve found that it you simply save the PDF with the same name every day (masternotebook.pdf, or something similar) that most browsers will not recognize that it is updated and will display an old cached version of the PDF.  Giving it a new name forces the newest version to load, and helps everyone know how recently it was updated.

Have an idea for making this system better? Please share in the comments!  Use other tools for this same purpose?  Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Updating my Master Science Notebook Online [My Workflow]

  1. Your post is very timely. I’m planning to move to an all-digital master notebook this year. I do have the Dropbox Public folder.

    I’m not sure I’d wish to create one large “notebook” file that is re-saved as a continually longer notebook with additional pages. That’s not how I envision a master notebook in my subject working. I imagine needing a page on my WordPress site with pdfs on theme, another on the current short story’s vocabulary, and others on the grammar concepts we are studying, etc. Language arts isn’t like the content areas: It spirals. It isn’t cumulative.

    However, I don’t have a livescribe pen. I was thinking my iPad with perhaps the free GoodNotes App:

    “GoodNotes lets you take handwritten notes, sketch diagrams, mark-up PDFs and Export to external apps (e.g. Dropbox, Evernote etc.)”

    I’m hoping I understand your process. If this App worked as I imagine, does this mean I would just complete your steps 5-7?


    1. I think that would work just fine, Erica. But, my only complaint with note taking apps on the iPad is that they don’t provide enough area for me. I end up using several pages to explain something simple, especially when I’m trying to mimic the students’ paper notebook.

      I’m eager to see how it goes. Please share your results!


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