I recently attended an online conference on the use of mobile devices for libraries. During the associated Twitter back-channel chat, I noticed an open invitation to participate in real-time, collaborative note-taking via Google Docs. I've been an avid note-taker since my undergraduate days, but I've never collaborated with someone before (unless asking "What did she just say?" or "Can I photocopy your notes?" counts).
I'd also never used Google Docs for real-time collaboration - so I was sceptical. But I figured it was an excellent opportunity to experiment.
In the end, I was greatly impressed. The resulting notes were excellent and the experience helped me become better aquainted with fellow attendees. I was surprised on how much less effort it was for me to work collaboratively than alone too.
So I'm sold on the benefits of collaborative note-taking.
But I've only tried it once, so I wanted to learn more about the practice. The notes' organizer Ayla Stein kindly agreed to answers my questions about this practice.
Ayla Stein is a librarian at the University of Houston libraries. Her expertise includes user experience research, metadata, and scholarly communications. She has participated in collaborative note-taking in both educational and conference settings.
Question: What is your experience with collaborative, real-time note-taking?
Ayla: My experience with collaborative, real-time note-taking is ad-hoc, informal, and sometimes for fun instead of study. I had an evening class with a few friends in grad school. The class happened to be at the same time as another class that a few of our other friends were in. We shared a Google doc to take notes on what was going on our respective classes - partially because we wanted to know what the other course was about, but it tended to degenerate into goofing off.
I've also used shared notes (via Google doc) to share notes with a classmate who may have been out sick or had to miss a day for some reason.
The first time I intentionally invited others to take collaborative notes with me was at a pre-conference for ALA Annual 2012. There was a lot of interest in viewing the notes, especially at first since I forgot to set the permissions on the document so that anyone with the link could edit!
Since then, I tend to use collaborative note-taking during professional development opportunities like the Handheld Librarian 9 Web Conference, mainly because I haven't been in a formal face-to-face course since I graduated.
Q: Have you used any other ways to do this than Google Docs? What are your thoughts
on Google Docs?
A: I haven't used any other system than Google Docs to do this, unless live-tweeting/live-blogging (via tumblr) counts. I like to use Google Docs, because I only have to sign into one account, and since it's a web application, I can access my notes from any device/computer with an internet connection. I think Google Docs are easy to use and share with others, whether or not they have a Gmail account. Formatting can be a bit unwieldy with Google Docs, but for note-taking it doesn't matter all that much.
I also like the comments feature in Google Docs that allows you to ask questions or make observations on a specific piece in the notes that someone else can then address.
The main issue I've had with Google Docs is the default privacy settings - anyone with a link can view but not edit, so if I forget this, a lot of people will close the document without telling me that they can't edit.
Q: What have you found to be the benefits of collaborative note-taking?
A: For me, the benefit of collaborative note-taking is comprehensiveness - if I miss what a speaker said, chances are decent that someone else did hear, and can add it to the group notes. I also like it as a way to still see what's being covered in a conference session or workshop that I wanted to go to but was unable to attend.
Q: What are the challenges?
A: I think the main challenge is human group effort. I take very detailed notes (probably too detailed) because it's a way for me, as someone who has issues staying attentive for long periods of time, to better focus on the speaker and what is happening. I think that often others feel as if they don't have anything else to add, or maybe they figure that whatever is already on the page is good enough.
From a user experience it can also be confusing if you have several people taking notes or editing at the same time because you can see what others are typing as they type it. Another issue is when there are a lot of people on one document, any interactions on the document can become very slow.
Q. Any overall comments on the experience or future of this practice?
A: I'm not sure about the future of this practice - I enjoy it as a way to not miss anything important, but I can definitely see where it could be distracting.
I want to keep doing it but I would also like to see how it would work in an asynchronous setting. I take a lot of professional development courses that operate asynchronously - the content is available but every student works through it at his or her own pace. I am interested in knowing if people would contribute their own personal notes to a group notes document or if this would prove too distracting.