Going paperless with OneNote


Over the weekend, I presented at a professional development event in Chennai – Perspectives in Business English Training – hosted by ELTAI BESIG and Ethiraj College. We had Evan Frendo from IATEFL BESIG as our keynote speaker. Here’s a summary of my presentation on going paperless with OneNote.

I started exploring OneNote a few years ago in response to some conclusions I arrived at after reflecting on my ESP courses.

  • We use too much paper in Business English and ESP courses: the difference between the volume of paper handouts we use and the amount of paper that’s used in a large digitally driven organisation has only become more pronounced over the years. I recall walking past a series of meeting rooms with glass walls to the one that I was training in at the end of the corridor for an in-company workshop. All the other rooms were filled with people busy on their laptops, smartphones and at the whiteboard. I don’t think there was a single piece of paper in any of them. My room was the only one swamped by paper handouts.
  • Our courses don’t reflect the realities of the workplace and workplace communication: whether it’s in terms of the amount of paper we use, or the limited way in which we use technology, Business English and ESP courses are often divorced from how communication occurs in the workplace. Evan Frendo in a BESIG webinar once spoke about the tendency for teachers to ask students to stand and deliver presentations when the great majority of presentations at work are delivered sitting down and often over the phone.
  • Even millenials or digital natives need support with using technology meaningfully and resourcefully at work: we assume that young people are on top of tech. This isn’t necessarily true particularly when it comes to mapping the affordances of digital tools that are available at work to their communicative needs.
  • Texts within courses and training programs don’t reflect the multimodal nature of texts at work: coursebook texts are quite different than the range of texts that working professionals encounter which include multiple genres within a single text type, data, images, infographics, video, audio, hyperlinks, embedded social media, all of which are underscored by intertextuality (how texts connect and speak to each other).
  • Written tasks at work are often collaborative but written tasks in the classroom are usually done individually: I can’t generalize and say this is true for everyone. Certainly, when I think of a typical email writing task on my courses, I don’t usually set it up as pair or group work. But even emails are often written collaboratively by teams in meetings – not to mention other sorts of documents such as presentations, proposals and reports which often have multiple authors.

But it was a specific event that led me to OneNote. Four years ago, I was teaching a course that focused on improving communication in meetings and it also included some on-the-job coaching. One of the outcomes we focused on was getting learners to produce useful minutes/notes during the meeting. I got them to watch a lot of videos and participate in simulations, and write up minutes on flipcharts with colourful markers. By the end of the course, the walls of the room were covered with rainbow coloured ‘minutes’ in large writing. I was feeling very pleased with myself.

Later that week I found myself observing a meeting with three of these learners. It also included some attendees who’d joined in telephonically as well as a client who’d been dialed in. Interestingly, all three of my learners were taking notes in different ways. The first was using the Notepad application on his laptop. Notepad has no text wrap or formatting so he was essentially writing one long sentence across his screen. The second learner had an Outlook message open and he was typing the notes directly as an email. He even had all the attendees’ and the client’s email addresses filled in the To: field; presumably to send the notes the minute the meeting got over. The third learner didn’t have his laptop with him. Instead, he was writing in a physical notebook. Halfway through the meeting, the second learner suddenly put up his hands and started to apologise profusely – he’d accidentally sent the email with half-written barely understandable notes to everyone. He then went to his Sent items folder and opened the message, and started writing in it again! And all this while, his colleagues continued to make their own notes and the other virtual attendees were conceivably making their own notes.

I saw a need and a opportunity – and a definite gap in the way I was approaching course design and delivery. I needed to

  • Make in-class tasks more authentic
  • Mirror real life tech use
  • Build digital literacy along with language and soft skills
  • Allow for collaboration
  • Reflect the multimodal nature of work.

My research took me to OneNote, a relatively unknown application in the Microsoft suite. OneNote comes bundled with Microsoft Office which means a lot of people already have access to a licensed version without realising it. It’s certainly on most work systems that have Microsoft Office. OneNote also has a free app for mobiles and tablets although it restricts you to a maximum of 500 notes.

Initially, I only focused on getting my learners to use OneNote to take meeting notes. But I soon discovered what a versatile tool it is. It lets you record audio, draw, research, organise, and collaborate among other things. One of my favourite features is Insert stickers which lets you personalize stickers and use them to give quick feedback for written work. I also like the web-clipper which is a button that gets added to your browser and is an easy way to collect links, articles etc. This can be really useful for web quests with a bit of learner training. The best part is that it’s easy to share a Notebook with your learners and get them to work collaboratively on it either using the OneNote mobile app or on their laptops.

You’ll find more ideas in this presentation which is a slightly modified version of the slides I used for the session.

OneNote also has an additional Class Notebook add-in which is specifically designed for education with lots of useful tools. Unfortunately, this version is only available for people who have Microsoft Office for Education which in turn is only available to those in the formal education sector.