I’ve finally figured out notes

I tend to take a lot of notes, and as a result, they get saved in several places. Over the past seven years, I’ve been on a quest. My goal has been to develop a workflow that would give me maximum flexibility. I don’t always have a paper notebook or a device with me, so a single application won’t cut it. Instead, I experimented with several strategies for organizing notes and tested several apps until I found an approach that worked for me. I went into this project willing to spend a little more of my time curating and organizing notes since it’s an essential component of my career and hobbies. The time invested is worth it if the strategy pays me dividends over the long term. My goal for this post is to tell you what’s worked for me since I think that – like most people – staying organized is paramount. Furthermore, any organizational strategy should be accessible. If you’re spending more time curating your notes than producing ideas, the system doesn’t work.

The “productivity guru industry”

Evernote 2017 productivity books of the year
(Image taken from Evernote’s 2017 productivity books of the year post)

Before I dive into the nerdy aspects of note-taking, I’d like to make a few comments about productivity in general. My goal regarding notes was purely personal, but it coincided with an explosion in what I call the “productivity guru industry.” I’m neither for nor against any books that address productivity. Like every fad, there is good and bad advice. As far as I can tell, productivity books started to make best-seller lists around 2014 and they continue to trickle out to this day. David Allen, and his 2001 book Getting Things Done, was the progenitor of the productivity guru movement. Based on my reading, Allen inspired the current generation of academics, social critics, and amateur sociologists who are now developing their methods. These gurus propose an array of productivity “hacks,” often tying them to personal fulfillment and meaning. Even The Minimalists (whom I admire for their pushback against thoughtless consumerism and advocacy for having less “stuff”) have drifted into the productivity/self-help genre. I’m not here to bash this industry by any means. Many of these productivity titles are worth your time, including Cal Newport’s books (especially Deep Work), Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and the works of Steven Pressfield – most notably The War of Art and Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be. These are excellent works from which I’ve benefitted. Other titles I’ve read have been less valuable.

This tangent about productivity is relevant because a subset of the productivity fad is dedicated to perfecting note-taking. Since 2017, I’ve seen countless blog articles and YouTube videos about note-taking to develop a “second brain.” On the far end of the spectrum, there seems to be a theory that creating a vast personal archive of your notes will unlock hidden insights. On the more moderate end of the spectrum, the revived interest in note-taking seems to be mostly about helping people become more organized which I’m all in favour of. Speaking from personal experience, if something is written down it’s not taking up room in my mind. In this respect, note-taking serves a similar purpose to journaling. The Zettelkasten method is an example of this. This pre-Internet system has been implemented by many intellectuals, but the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann is probably the best-known figure. (I discussed this method in Ep. 34 of the EdTech Examined Podcast). If you’re interested in this concept, you can check out https://zettelkasten.de.

What I use

As I mentioned at the start, it’s not practical for me to rely on one “super system.” Not all notes need to be saved. Some you will want to keep indefinitely, while others have a limited shelf-life. How and where you store these different notes should be appropriate to your needs.

As an office worker, I write a lot of things down. Plus, I move around a lot. I’m sometimes in my office, but I’m often in the classroom with students or attending meetings somewhere else on campus. I take notes with whatever tool I have on me at the time. So far, I’ve been able to limit my note-taking to four places.

  • Obsidian (macOS and Windows program)
  • Apple Notes (iPhone, iPad, and Mac)
  • Notability (iPad with stylus)
  • Paper (a high-quality notebook that I take with me)

Why have so many places you might ask? First, this is a huge improvement. As a serial app tester, I have crap everywhere. As an inherently suspicious person, I don’t trust any single application to not lose my notes, nor do I trust myself to never lose a paper notebook. I had to be diversified, which is the opposite of what many productivity gurus will advise. If I’m out for a walk and I didn’t bring a notebook or larger device, I have no choice but to take notes on my phone. If I’m in a meeting and I don’t want to look like I’m texting someone, I use paper or an iPad with a stylus. Social situations sometimes dictate how we work. Second, not all notes are created equal. Again, this goes against the grain. If you’ve taken a certification or a course, you might want to take notes in a format that will give you long-term access. Other notes are temporary, are at least don’t fit under the categories of work or professional/personal development. Therefore, where these should be stored might be different and the format and “archivability” is less important. Third, different methods of note-taking provide different affordances. Many of the best practices I’ve read advocate for one method that you enforce no matter what. This seems both silly and painful. Why be limited to one system? I use all the tools available to me. As long as you can keep track of your system, it works. Let’s not pretend that you’ll be donating your notes archive to your local museum or passing it down to your kids. They’re just notes. But we all need to stay organized.

Now I’ll explain how I use these tools.

Obsidian

Obsidian is a multi-platform open-source application that syncs with iCloud (and presumably other cloud storage solutions) which is great for accessing notes across devices. Obsidian is designed around the Zettelkasten method I mentioned above, but I don’t use the program to its full extent. Zettelkasten was originally a print solution, and it has one key differentiator which I found helpful – the ability to connect notes. Niklas Luhmann used an index card system. He would give each note a unique ID (this could be a precise time stamp such as 202212071025) in addition to a title. The reason was that he could reference his notes in other notes, like an analog hyperlink system. Using an ID took up less space on a note card than a title, and unique IDs can only be assigned once – reducing confusion. Given that we live in the digital age, I don’t rely on unique IDs because search and tags work fine for me. I’ve experimented putting IDs at the end of a title which doesn’t hurt. If you think you’ll have notes with similar titles, or maybe you don’t want to have descriptive titles at all, IDs are a good solution. What matters is being able to create my little wiki among notes. Obsidian makes it easy to self-reference. This is a great tool if you’re writing an article or a book because you can link your notes to your manuscript.

Obsidian only holds things I want to keep for the long haul. I use the program exclusively for summarizing books and articles I’ve read (or listened to), key ideas from podcasts and other media (including social), and notes from courses I’ve taken or conferences I’ve attended. Original ideas (particularly “ah ha!” thoughts) also get saved in Obsidian. I use Obsidian purely for educational material. Because they’re important I can’t afford to have them locked behind some proprietary format. What’s critical is that all the notes can be written in Markdown and saved in .txt format. That means that my notes are not locked into a program that uses a proprietary format, or a program (like Apple Notes) that exports to PDF only.

Obsidian example
(Obsidian interface)

Like the Zettelkasten method, the notes fall into one of three categories. I take notes in Obsidian, or on paper, while I’m reading something. These are called “fleeting notes” (or “working notes”). I convert these fleeting notes into “literature notes,” where I try and condense down the ideas in my own words. (I include a full citation in each note). “Permanent notes” (which could be called “my ideas”) are ideas or conclusions I’ve reached based on the things I’ve read. Thanks to the ability to link notes together, I can include citations from other notes. This strategy might sound complicated, but it’s not. It’s just a locally-hosted wiki.

Some potential alternatives to Obsidian might be Notion (needs an Internet connection), The Archive (too complicated for me), and Click Up (never tested it).

Apple Notes

You might be wondering “why are you using Apple Notes if Obsidian is so great?” Yes, Obsidian is on all my devices so I could easily pull up my phone to use it. But, not all notes deserve to be archived. I’m a big reader and I work in a university as an academic librarian, so generating ideas to be published isn’t out of the ordinary. But, even if I worked retail I’d still use Obsidian because I find it helps my memory. A training course where I learned workplace safety is something I took useful notes on. The act of condensing something I’ve read into my own words is very helpful, and I can keep a record of what I’ve read which I like to reflect on.

Apple Notes example
(Apple Notes)

Apple Notes is more convenient, however, and it tends to work well with a voice assistant like Siri. Also, I keep lots of notes that I don’t want to be mixed up with things I intend to keep. I may use Apple Notes to jot things down, but I make a habit of converting ideas worthy of preserving to a program that uses a universal format (.txt).

The notes I keep in Apple are all working notes such as budget information, gift ideas, to-do lists, personal routines, shared notes with family, etc. They’re extremely valuable but utilitarian and often temporary. I regularly cull these notes. Apple Notes is a great app, and it serves a valuable purpose. If Apple closed the app tomorrow I would lose some useful stuff, but I wouldn’t be devastated.

Handwritten notes (paper and digital)

A device isn’t always available, and writing notes by hand is often more effective when summarizing or for promoting memory recall. In my bag, I always have a travel notebook and I’ve used a variety of brands over the years. As long as the pen doesn’t bleed through the paper, I don’t have that many requirements.

Since 2016, my primary mobile computer has been an iPad Pro. It’s a simple device that’s more than adequate for answering emails and writing. The introduction of the Apple Pencil stepped up my handwritten note-taking game because it made using multiple brush strokes and colours much easier. My app of choice is Notability, though Good Notes and Microsoft One Note seem like equivalents. No longer do I have to carry around an artist’s pen set. Not to mention, digital notes with a stylus is my preferred way of annotating PDF articles which I read a lot. The ability to draw (and easily erase) diagrams and mind maps has benefited my work. This strategy has helped me break the bad habit of taking too many typed notes. I’ve seen people typing vigorously in meetings and during class, but I doubt most individuals revisit these notes. I find that I can listen or write, not both. I don’t believe typing a live transcript of what someone is saying in a meeting or a lecture hall qualifies as “notes.” A stylus and tablet are a better method of jotting down what’s essential. But I realize an iPad is expensive, so handwritten notes on paper will be preferable to many people.

Notability example
(Notability)

My handwritten notes are either shredded (or deleted) or archived. Notes that have limited value get tossed. Notes that I wish to preserve are trickier. Reviewing all my handwritten digital notes and retyping them into Obsidian or Apple is neither feasible nor necessary. If the note pertains to something I read or listened to, then I might condense it into prose in Obsidian. I also attach the original note as a PDF. I use the same strategy for Apple Notes, except I’m not as much a stickler about retyping my ideas and instead will just attach the digitized note with a title, and perhaps add some tags. The majority of my paper notes are ideas such as research topics I’d like to explore, future blog articles, or ideas for personal projects. These types of notes may or may not be of long-term value, and it would require too much effort to painstakingly sift through them. Several years ago I came across the app Scanner Pro which I use to digitize my old notebooks. (I’ve also used this app to digitize all sorts of other things like old elementary school projects and high school papers). I flip through the notebook, scan the important pages, and save it as a single PDF file to my Mac. I make sure the file name includes the date range. The notebook itself eventually gets shredded.

(Pocket Batman Moleskine and Uniball pen)
Scanner Pro app example
(Scanner Pro: Image from MacStories)

Scanner Pro is great, but I’m not sure it’s at the top of the heap anymore. I just use it because I’m familiar with the interface. Some alternatives include Microsoft Lens, Adobe Scan, and Swift Scan. The New York Times Wirecutter site has a great page (that gets updated) which compares all the options.

Concluding thoughts

I chose to share the methods I’ve developed not to inspire others or for you to copy. I wanted to demystify some of these note-taking methods. My needs were practical. I take a lot of notes and my physical location changes frequently, so I have to a) use what I have on me and b) develop some consistent guidelines. I headed out on this personal quest because I was losing notes which I felt was unacceptable. I’m going to assume others have been in this situation.

Throughout this intellectual pursuit, I’ve been amazed at how note-taking has become evangelized. There are subreddits, social media groups, websites, countless custom apps, and productivity gurus (often YouTubers) flaunting their perfect “system.” Concerning the latter group, there is some good advice out there. Many students and professionals have made a side gig by selling their processes. I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to side hustles, but I’m not sanguine about it either. If the YouTuber is successful in something else besides having a channel about productivity hacks, then I’m more inclined to give it a pass. But, many of these self-proclaimed productivity gurus haven’t done much except use these productivity hacks to develop their productivity-focused YouTube channel. In contrast, Cal Newport – who will forever be Mr. Deep Work – was an excellent student and is a prolific academic in the field of computer science.

Ultimately, I’m just an individual. I’m a professional librarian, and former IT person, who has a job that requires me to take a lot of notes. Not to mention I have a lot of personal interests. After speaking to friends and colleagues (often to learn about their processes), I discovered that many people struggle with similar organizational problems. I wrote this post to demonstrate what I do, but also how I made other peoples’ advice work for me. The rise of productivity gurus tells me that individuals have both a desire for self-improvement, but also a lack of confidence. Take their (and my) advice with a grain of salt. Be bold and develop your processes. I can do it, and so can you.

New paper: Italian immigration to Kelowna and its lasting legacy

Cover image for Okanagan History 86.

The Okanagan Historical Society’s latest issue of Okanagan History is out, and I’m proud to have an article published in this year’s annual report. Roughly ten years ago (when I was an undergraduate), I received UBC Okanagan’s undergraduate research grant. This grant was an incredible opportunity, as allowed me to spend the better part of the summer travelling throughout the province of British Columbia visiting archives and museums. My research topic was Italian immigration to BC’s Central Okanagan and West Kootenay regions between the 1880s and 1920s. Italian immigrants played a big part in BC’s emerging economy – particularly the primary resource sector (mining and smelting), the Kettle Valley Railway’s construction, agriculture, and the development of the Okanagan’s wine industry. Italian immigration to BC was (and probably still is) an under-studied aspect of the province’s history, as the majority of immigrants settled in Ontario and Quebec. I had a wonderful time learning how to work with archival materials, reading family letters, and looking at town directories. There were two big waves of Italian immigration to Canada. One wave took place during Italy’s unification as a nation-state. Unification was a long and painful process that spanned from 1848 to 1871. The second wave took place during the rise of fascism in the early 1900s to the 1920s. These tectonic events created economic uncertainty, so Canada became an attractive destination. I still feel grateful to have had an awesome project supervisor, Professor Maury Williams. I wrote up my findings and presented them at a student conference and that’s where my research ended.

In 2020, I was contacted by Don Rampone of the Kelowna Italian Club (a social club and historical society). Mr. Rampone had found an old UBC press release about my research and was looking for archival sources on Italian immigration to Kelowna, specifically. I sent him the Kelowna portion of my unpublished manuscript, and pretty soon we were editing the piece together. Tara Hurley, an archivist at Kelowna Museums, was kind enough to help me track down sources so I could fix up the citations. We posted an earlier version of the article on the Italian community’s website. Later, Don and the Okanagan Historical Society asked if I could re-publish the piece in their 2021 annual historical report. This was pushed to 2022 which was a blessing, as it gave me time to re-work the article a bit more. My colleague Peter Houston (MRU Library Archivist) also provided some valuable feedback on the piece.

I’m thrilled to finally see this article in print. Following graduation, it was always my goal to return to, and publish, this research. It’s satisfying to have finally achieved that goal. Older editions of Okanagan History have been digitized by UBC, and are accessible online.

  • Citation: Christiansen, E. (2022). Italian immigration to Kelowna and its lasting legacy. Okanagan History, 86.

New paper: Examining the technological and pedagogical elements of select open courseware

First Monday journal logo

I’m pleased that my colleague Dr. Michael McNally (Ualberta SLIS) and I have published a new paper in First Monday titled “Examining the technological and pedagogical elements of select open courseware.”

The paper is non-traditional in both its focus and method, but it’s a step toward answering some research questions Michael and I have. Specifically, what does openness in education mean, what are the factors that constitute openness, and what does openness look like on a spectrum? In our previous paper (a thought experiment) we addressed these questions from a philosophical perspective. In this new paper, we wanted to know how ‘open’ open courseware (OCW) actually is. We focused on open courseware because we feel it’s an important component of open education, but it’s often overshadowed by open textbooks. This was a small study, where we randomly selected ten open courses – five from MIT and five from TU Delft. The sample is too small to generalize to all open courseware. Analyzing all the course materials in this sample was challenging, so a larger research team (or narrower focus) would be necessary to replicate this approach across a larger sample. We selected courses from these two institutions because of their similar focus on STEM; though, both institutions do have courses from other disciplines. Ultimately, we got a good mix of courses after running our randomizer formula in Excel. We analyzed the openness of each course using the framework we proposed in our previous paper. So, this paper is part analysis and part proof of concept. Below are our research questions from the paper.

Question 1: Based on the eight factors of openness in the framework, how open are the sampled OCW?

Question 2: Are the sampled OCW adequately designed for educator reuse or adaptation?

There are quite a few findings, but I’ll give a couple of highlights. First, we found the framework (called ‘Open Enough’) functioned reasonably well as a rubric for OCW evaluation, though it had some shortcomings. We proposed a revised version of the framework in the discussion. We also found that despite the name ‘open courseware’, the openness of these courses was a mixed bag, at least when evaluating them using our eight factors of analysis. Our results and discussion sections are long, but the paper includes a summary of the findings.

The level of openness across the sampled OCW was inconsistent. From a copyright perspective, the OCW were mixed as they employed an institutional licence across all content — a CC-NC-SA licence. In terms of adherence to accessibility standards, MIT courses were most open while TU Delft were closed. We determined accessibility openness by reviewing each OCW platform’s statement regarding which accessibility standards were observed. From a usability perspective, we concluded that TU Delft has the more modern interface, but MIT courses were more navigable. All courses (except one) were categorized as closed since the course content was offered in one language. The majority of support costs (course readings) were proprietary and many of the courses relied heavily on paid books. Two TU Delft courses were the exception to this rule; one course’s readings were completely custom (presumably written by the instructor), and another course made its proprietary ebook openly available (albeit with a closed licence). All of the sampled courses were very open in terms of digital distribution. Each course could be located using several federated OER search engines. Surprisingly, the sampled courses were categorized as closed in terms of file format, as all relied heavily on PDF content. We struggled with the cultural considerations factor, given the large volume of content and the factor’s subjective nature. Courses were split between closed and mixed/most open. Course content dictated this conclusion, as STEM courses materials were determined to be more culturally applicable, broadly speaking.

Given the limited editability of the course materials, we concluded that the sampled OCW were better suited for learner consumption rather than educator reuse. The lack of editability was surprising and severely limits these courses’ utility outside their originating institutions. These findings highlight the importance of prioritizing OCW for editability and adaptability, in addition to making them discoverable to the broader community.

Since writing this paper, MIT OpenCourseWare has redesigned its website which presents more opportunities for analysis, particularly usability and discoverability. This was an interesting project to be part of and I’m glad it’s finally published. I’d like to thank First Monday for publishing this piece, and the paper is available as an open access article from the journal website.

Citation: Christiansen, E., & McNally, M. (2022, Oct 5). Examining the technical and pedagogical elements of select open courseware. First Monday, 27(10). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v27i10.11639

Manuscript and figures

Voices from the Digital Classroom

I’m thrilled that my colleague Kris Hans and I were featured in this new book about teaching online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kris and I did an interview with the Teaching and Learning Online Network (TALON) about our experience with, and our vision for, remote instruction in 2020, and I’m grateful the fine people at the University of Calgary decided to put this book together. Our book chapter is adapted from our interview with TALON and we’ve also included an addendum where we further reflect on our experience teaching in an online context.

You can find a print and digital version of Voice from the Digital Classroom: 25 Interviews about Teaching and Learning in the Face of a Global Pandemic on the University of Calgary press website. The UofC press has also made the PDF version of this book free to download! The website includes a link to the PDF as well as videos from the original interview series.

https://ucp.manifoldapp.org/projects/9781773852782

This book is a great time capsule of voices and experiences during higher education’s transition to emergency remote instruction during the pandemic. I’m honoured to be a part of this project.

The Rogers Communications outage and the need for offline functionality

Image by IO-Images from Pixabay

I recently published a piece about the lessons we should learn from the Rogers Communications outage. The way I see it, the outage underscored two facts

  1. We are incredibly dependent on the Internet. 
  2. The importance of preserving offline functionality

Offline functionality means having devices that are functional without an Internet connection.

What I took away from this outage (I wasn’t affected thankfully) is that offline functionality in my devices is critical.

I’m from a generation (maybe even the last generation), that remembers when personal computers were primarily offline devices. It’s not my intent to scold younger folks, nor am I suggesting that I was born during a better time. It’s just a fact that most home computers from the 1990s – which were generally shared by all family members – were offline most of the time. As a result, our sImage by IO-Images from Pixabayoftware was designed with offline use in mind. Budgeting, word processing, and gaming were all done offline.

Continue reading on Tech Bytes

Intel in the news

ARC discrete GPUs. Image courtesy of Intel.

Intel has been in the news thanks to the release of its new i9 desktop processor (dubbed the ‘fastest’ CPU in the world) and its new ARD discrete mobile GPUs. Intel’s i9 CPU is what we’re used to; more watts. What’s most interesting is that Intel is targeting gaming enthusiasts (and possibly esports professionals) in its marketing. That’s a curious move considering how niche that audience is.

The ARC GPUs are arguably more interesting because they represent a significant advancement in mobile graphics. Anyone running a recent Windows laptop with Intel’s Iris integrated graphics have fared well. ARC show some considerable performance gains in games and professional applications. So far, Intel has only rolled out ARC 3 – with the 350M and 370M chips. The story was originally reported by Chaim Gartenberg from The Verge.

Continue reading on Tech Bytes

A passwordless future

Authentication diagram fro the FIDO Alliance.
Image courtesy of the FIDO Alliance

The FIDO Alliance recently published a white paper about its plan to replace passwords. Coverage about this paper from Wired and The Register is excellent, and the white paper itself provides some interesting solutions for eliminating the need for passwords. FIDO proposes using secondary Bluetooth enabled devices to transmit cryptographic keys locally, without data being shared over the Internet. Such an implementation would be phishing-resistant, but is its adoption realistic?

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The Steam Deck

Steam Deck
Image courtesy of Valve

Earlier this month, Valve opened pre-orders for its new Steam Deck, a handheld gaming PC built on AMD’s Zen 2APU. This handheld PC runs a Linux-based operating system called Steam OS (v. 3.0). The Steam Deck allows users to play ‘many’ of their Steam game library portably. Tech Radardescribed the Steam Deck as “one of the most eagerly anticipated product launches in recent times, with Valve trying its hand at making a handheld console.”

But the Steam Deck is more than a gaming device. It’s a new PC form factor – what I call the ‘mobile desktop’ – and showcases recent advancements in mobile computing.

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Apple Peek Performance Event: M1 Ultra and Mac Studio biggest highlights

Apple’s Peek Performance event has come and gone. Other blogs will discuss the minutia of the event, so I won’t attempt that here. Instead, I’m going to focus on the highlights – mostly Apple Silicon.

M1 Ultra

M1 Ultra specs overview slide from Apple
M1 Ultra overview: Image courtesy of Apple

As not to bury the lead, the star of the event was the new M1 Ultra chip. This is a professional-class desktop chip that builds on the M1 Max available in the current crop of MacBook Pros. M1 Ultra is essentially two M1 Max chips fused together using a new “Ultra Fusion” process. M1 Ultra provides for 2.5 TB/s interprocessor bandwidth, 800 GB/s of memory bandwidth, has 114 billion transistors, has up to 128 Gb of unified memory, includes a 20 core CPU, and includes a 64 core GPU. Most of Apple’s chips have a combination of high performance and efficiency cores. The Ultra is no different, but the balance has shifted. M1 Ultra has 16 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores because this is made for desktops using AC power.

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Presentation: Higher education trends that will outlast the pandemic – McGraw hill

Image from McGraw Hill

My colleague Kris Hans and I recently concluded an invited presentation for McGraw Hill publishing. We discussed higher education trends that will outlast the pandemic. We discuss hybrid learning, online teaching/learning exposure, lifelong learning and open education, higher education costs, micro-credentials, and the growth of the EdTech industry.

A recording of the presentation can be found on the McGraw Hill website.

A big thank you to the 140+ individuals who took the time to attend this event. We got some fantastic questions from audience members. A blog post summarizing some of the presentation highlights will be forthcoming.