OneNote – A great application for administration, teaching and professional learning

Guest post from Elizabeth O'Connor - Science Teacher - Sydney Girls High School 

Engagement with technology in the classroom has been completely changed by the introduction of 1:1 computer to student programs. Previously, lessons were divided between 'normal' lessons in the classroom and 'computer' lessons in a computer lab. Each student having their own computer on their desk though allows us to incorporate technology into lessons more seamlessly. However, there was still a disconnect between the work done on the computer and other work done in the lesson, and so students were left with a hodge-podge of notes - some on the computer in a variety of formats, some in their notebook. This makes it hard for students to look back over what they have learned - concepts get out of order, and some may be missed entirely.

I decided to try OneNote as a possible solution to this problem. All of my students have access to the program and the students are given basic lessons on its use by our school technology team. OneNote is specifically designed to have a similar format to paper notebooks and so it is an ideal replacement for the traditional school book.

OneNote is organised in hierarchical fashion, with 'notebooks' at the top. Each notebook can then be divided into 'sections' and each section is divided into pages. Our students are instructed to create a notebook for each of their subjects. I then ask them to create a section for each of the topics we study in class. At the beginning of each topic I give them a page with the outcomes we will cover, set up as a to-do list with tick boxes. As we progress I issue further pages to add to the section. These pages contain questions to answer, tasks to carry out, links to websites, and attached documents for information or completion. Students can then add answers, their own notes and additional documents.

Using OneNote allows students to keep a complete record of their own learning in the one file, including the products of research, 'printouts' of documents that they can annotate, active links, screen clippings, and more. One student said that a benefit of using OneNote was that it was "...easy to manage and collate all the information…" and that it helped her study for exams. It also encourages good habits by automatically including a link to the source when text is copied and pasted into the page.

The screenshot above shows a page I used for a Year 11 physics lesson. The page originally provided to the students just had the Word document, which contains a scaffolded experimental report for an experiment designed to test Newton's Second Law. Students were then able to open the Word document, edit it and save as usual. The student has also generated an Excel document to analyse the results and pasted a copy of the resulting graph into the page.

Before I started using OneNote with my classes I was already using it extensively as part of both lesson planning and for administration. As well as the pages I generate specifically for distribution to students I also create pages containing the results of my own searches for information and resources. I find the 'clipping' function particularly useful for this. As a science teacher I often use applets and animations, many of which are quite similar, but the differences can be critical. By taking a screen clipping I have a visual reminder of which applet a link refers to, and OneNote provides the link automatically. An example of a clipping can also be seen in the above screenshot.

Switching to OneNote revolutionised my administration practices. Before OneNote I was constantly trying to keep track of multiple pieces of paper, often not very successfully. Now I can easily keep everything together. Planning an excursion, for example, requires a great deal of paperwork and organisation. I will create a page and paste copies of the relevant documents (permission note, approval form for executive, risk assessment). I will also generate a to-do list with tick boxes to record my progress. I can add ongoing lists of who hasn't paid, add worksheets and other documents, keep records of communications with the provider and write my own notes for things to change for next year. I scan or photograph any paper documents I receive and add them too.

OneNote is also a great tool to curate documents and ideas for professional learning and development. I have pages for particular types of professional issues, for example, class management, developing higher-order thinking, and learning theories. I add links, key paragraphs, diagrams, documents as I find them, and I can easily annotate and re-arrange as appropriate. In the screenshot you can see part of my page on the SOLO taxonomy, which I have recently started exploring.

There are of course some drawbacks. OneNote itself has limited formatting options, for instance, it can only do simple tables, which can be a problem when recording experimental results in science. However, anything requiring more complex formatting can be carried out Word and then the file can be pasted into the page as both an attachment for later editing and a printout sot that the contents can be seen immediately. Another potential drawback is that pages can get messy and disorganised, since items can be placed anywhere on the page. I try to periodically go through and shuffle items about, rename pages, create new sections to keep it in a useful order.

The final issue is that it can be tempting to think that switching to an electronic delivery mode automatically creates engagement. It doesn't. I find though that the ability to switch quickly between static pieces of information, applets and animations, and web search has inspired me to develop higher order tasks.

I have found that through the use of OneNote I am more organised, my desk is much less cluttered, and I can find information and resources more quickly. My students are able to revise more easily and loss of worksheets is no longer an issue.  There are still more features that I haven't yet used with my classes, including the addition of video and shared notebooks for collaboration - that will be something for next year!

Elizabeth O’Connor is a science teacher at Sydney Girls High School. She is a strong believer in the value of technology in all aspects of teaching and learning. She encourages students and fellow teachers to see various forms of technology as important tools and to develop an understanding of their strengths and limitations.

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Comments (2)

  1. Daniel Anderson says:

    G'day Pip,

    We are using OneNote extensively at Frankston High School here in Melbourne. We are using OneNote Notebooks in conjunction with Office365 / SharePoint Online and SkyDrive Pro…Idea being that teachers create a "Read Only" Master copy and students then get a copy of that and cannot change it…They then create their own "working" copy of that master note book. All Notebooks are stored in either SharePoint Online or SkySrive Pro and shared with the students teachers…The teacher can then open all his or her students notebooks and have all their work…

  2. Kurt Söser says:

    I love to see how OneNote is used by different teachers. I amusing it wince over four years now in my mathematics classes and started to integrate my students and do some collaboration stuff. A short video showing some scenarios can be found here:

    I would love to exchange ideas and right now I started to work on an interactive digital textbook for MATHS (Statistics and Probability)

    more info on my experiences on

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