Use Google Docs to Collaborate on Class Note Taking

Some of us are slow typists, others have moments where we tune out the teacher. So why limit our class notes to what we as individuals are capable of writing down?
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By Shep McAllister of HackCollege

As college students, we survive by collaborating. We work together on group projects, form study groups, and share advice about the toughest professors. Despite all this, it occurred to me that nobody really works together to take notes. I'm not talking about sharing notes with your buddy who was too hungover to make it to class, I'm talking about actually working simultaneously on the same set of notes during a lecture. Some of us are slow typists, others have moments where we tune out the teacher to daydream (or check Facebook), most of us struggle to keep up with fast-talking professors.

So why limit our class notes to what we as individuals are capable of writing down? Aren't two brains better than one? Google Docs makes it possible to work simultaneously with partners in class to produce a single set of master notes, with more information that any individual could possibly transcribe. This is made possible through Google Docs' excellent live-updating collaboration feature (detailed in the video below), which lets you watch a letter-for-letter update of your friends' contributions to the document. If you haven't tried it, you really should. Watching the page fill up before your eyes in real time is straight out of Harry Potter.

I've been trying this out for a few weeks now in a couple of my classes (including one with Laura), so read on for a few tips and tricks I've picked up, then try them out yourself!

1. Give Everyone a Job
The hardest part about this is keeping everybody from writing down the same thing at once, so get together with your partners before class and assign some responsibilities. The fastest typist can be in charge of copying whatever's on the board or Powerpoint, while someone else fills in the details from the teacher's lecture. You can even have someone in charge of scouring the Internet for vocab terms or other easily-searchable information that comes up, and drop links into the document. The goal here is to divide and conquer, because with distributed note taking, you can focus all of your energies on doing one task extremely well, and rely on your partners to fill in behind you.

2. Utilize the Chat Window
Google Docs also includes an IM sidebar that you can use to talk to anybody else working on the document. This is perfect for assigning tasks on the fly, warning your partners that you'll be stepping away (or switching tabs) for a moment, or even for witty banter about the class. Distributed note taking turns class into a social, teamwork-oriented event, making the boring classes more fun, and the hard classes a little easier.

3. Give it a Week or Two
The system certainly has a learning curve, and taking notes by yourself is a tough habit to break. Hell, you've been doing it your whole life. The first few class periods will be a little shaky as you learn how to complement one another, but the payoff is huge. The biggest issue I had was trying to start a new bullet point underneath where my partner is typing, as your cursor won't stay in front of your friend's work. After a few days of practicing, I realized you have to keep a few bullet points at the bottom of the document at all times, allowing people to work ahead and get down what the professor is saying. You'll run into your own kinks like this, but give it at least three class periods. If your notes don't come out very well for a few days, you can always get them from another friend. Once you get your system down pat though, you'll never want to go back.

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