Can a smart phone improve my son’s grades?

Originally posted on the OneNote Blog.

(Guest blogger Christina Tynan-Wood writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle magazine, and is the author of "How to Be a Geek Goddess." She has been covering technology for decades and blogs at and Family Circle's Momster.)

Can a Smart Phone Improve my Son’s Grades?

My son Cole (16) -- like many men I know -- is very good at appearing to listen when he isn't paying any attention at all. Whenever a conversation takes the form of a lecture, his attention drifts. His imagination kicks in. He finds something to do with his hands. Sometimes he even absently gets up and leaves the room. When he was younger, he got into quite a bit of trouble in school for this inattention. So over the years, he has learned to strike a pose of rapt attention before allowing his mind to wander. I'm sure this nonverbal tendency has contributed to a few of his more shocking report cards. Thankfully though, in this digital age, his high-school teachers tend to take a liberal attitude toward the use of technology. As long he is quietly using his tech as a study aide (not to cheat, text, or watch TV), his teachers quietly turn a blind eye.

So, to bolster my hope of someday celebrating college acceptance letters with him, I decided to teach him how to use Microsoft OneNote - in conjunction with his Windows Phone -- to improve his note taking skills.

I'm a journalist. Years ago I ditched notebooks and rely instead on OneNote keep track of research. It looks like a digital three-ring binder. But the more you use it, the more you realize how limited a three-ring binder is. I recently added a Nokia Lumia 900. ($49.99 with a contract at AT&T) Windows Phone to my work arsenal. And the combo allowed me to ditch the backpack, handheld recorder, and camera I once sported for note taking. When I jot a note, snap a photo, or record a conversation using OneNote on my Windows Phone, those notes are instantly synced (via Sky Drive) with OneNote on my Windows PC. So when I get back to my office, all my notes are waiting for me. No carrying. No filing. No organizing. It's all done.

Being a journalist is a lot like being a perpetual student, I figured. So -- hoping these tricks will help my son, too -- I grabbed a laptop, cornered him, and said, "We need to come up with a plan to help you do better in school."

He had a terrible year last year so he knew he wasn't getting out of this conversation. He sighed, sat down, and pretended to pay attention.

"Do you take notes in class?" I asked.

He said he did.

"Can you show me some of them?"

He looked panicked and started tossing out excuses. Some of them contradicted each other. It was funny.

"So you don't really take notes?"

"I mean to," he admitted. "I bring a notebook. I get it out. It's just so boring."

I've known this boy a long time. So I know that listening to someone talk for ninety minutes is harder for him than jumping off an Olympic high board would be for me. (I don't like heights.) He's also nocturnal. So a long, early morning math class -- even though he likes math -- is an endurance sport, one where he is not the favorite to win. This all gets worse as the year goes on because if he daydreams through one lecture, the next one makes even less sense. With every class, he becomes more completely lost.

I opened OneNote and showed him that it looked like his notebook but was better.

Then I showed him how simple it was to create notebooks that are stored online at so he can access them from anywhere. He already has a Microsoft Account so we logged in from OneNote and created a new class notebook that would be stored in the cloud.

Then I showed him around the note-taking features of OneNote on his PC. It allows him to capture Web research (and remembers where he got it.) It lets him record video. He could drop scans of homework assignments in here and toss the originals. He could jot ideas. He could create to-do lists. And all of it is searchable.

It would even let him enter mathematical formulas.

This was all very cool, he agreed.

"But I'm not bringing my laptop to class," he told me. "Only dorks do that."

I knew that. But he, too, has a Windows Phone. The selling point for him was its seamless integration with Xbox not its seamless integration with Office and SkyDrive. But he's hooked on it. So my evil plan was already working. In fact, he had it in his hand while we were talking. I pointed out Office Mobile (which, in addition to OneNote, features Word, Excel and PowerPoint) and told him to tap it. His phone was already logged into Windows Live - that's how he keeps up with his gaming peeps -- so when he opened Office on his phone, the new school notebook we'd just created was already there waiting for him.

I showed him how to create a new note in that notebook, right from his phone.

"So, when you can't pay attention anymore in class," I told him. "Start a new note and tap that little microphone icon to record the lecture. That way you can listen to it later - and use fast forward and rewind - so you know what material was covered." His idea of studying is to go watch Sal Khan explain things in a way he can relate to at The Khan Academy. That usually brings him right up to speed. But he needs to know what the teacher covered in class to do it.

He was impressed. "This would be handy for when you start these random lectures and force me to listen to you," he told me, smiling and tapping the microphone icon to record our conversation.

Within seconds, the recording showed up on the computer screen. And now I had his attention.

I pointed out that the camera icon would be handy for taking photos of the homework assignments on the blackboard - since he never seems to remember to write those down, which leads to missed homework assignments, and - eventually -- terrible grades.

I had him now. I know he wants to be a better student. But, in addition to his attention problems, he's also a hip guy with a social life. And sitting in class, hanging on the teacher's every word and copying things off the board are not - in his mind - the way to win a pretty girl's heart. (No matter how many times I tell him girls like smart guys.) But this sort of note-taking? He could do without anyone noticing. In fact, it would give him a chance to show off his tech savvy. And, if he does miss something in class and finds himself having trouble with a tough homework assignment, he can switch on his Microsoft webcam and Skype his friends-or that cute girl from math class-to figure it out.

Whether all this technical firepower will improve his grades still remains to be seen. But I'm certain it would have helped me get better grades back when I was a student.

You can find OneNote -- and the other Office applications I think are great for students - in Microsoft Office Home and Student 2010. Even better it's on sale until September 14! When you buy Office Home and Student 2010, Office for Mac Home and Student 2011 (3 pack), Office University 2010 or Office for Mac University 2011 you get 15% off.

For more ways to replace old-school tools with tech, check out the September issue of Family Circle Magazine for my feature, "Tech that's Anything But Old School." Or come visit my "Family Tech Christina" blog at

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