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Notetaking and Notetakers

keyboard, notepad and pencil

Despite the adoption of technologies broadening the manner in which teaching content is provided to students in the post-secondary education and training sector, some students living with disability continue to require the provision of person-based notetaking services in order to equitably access curriculum material.

Approaches to the provision of notetaking services is highly variable across the sector, ranging from peer based, honorarium based services to paid professional services.

The following is an overview of current practice in relation to the provision of notetaking services across the sector, based on a recent discussion by disability practitioners on a national list server.

Who requires notetaking supports?

The following students engaged in post-secondary education may require note-taking services in order to equitably access the curriculum:

  • Students who are deaf or have a hearing impairment
  • Students who are blind or have a vision impairment
  • Students who have learning disabilities
  • Students who have a neurological condition or use medication which impacts upon memory and concentration and /or
  • Students who have a physical condition that impacts their writing or typing capacity.

A note-taker can be provided as a reasonable adjustment provision in a student’s Access Plan (or equivalent) developed by an institution’s Disability Service. 

Notes are primarily for the use of the individual ‘client’ student (i.e. student registered with the Disability Service) only. It is not common practice for institutions to create a bank of lecture notes that other students in the class, who may benefit (such as students for whom English is their second language) can draw upon.  This is primarily due to the funding arrangements for Disability Services.  

What does notetaking involve?

The role of a note-taker is to provide accurate, legible and well-organised notes that reflect all aspects of classroom content including: 

  • a summary of academic content including material presented by the academic / teacher via auditory and visual means (e.g. PowerPoint slides).
  • key points of discussions and/ or instructions that transpire in the delivery of a lecture, class or tutorial. 
  • key points from audio visual material presented (such as digital videos)

What format are notes provided in?

Notetaking is undertaken using a pen and paper or by using a laptop or tablet. Handwritten notes may be transcribed outside of class before being supplied to the student, if required as typed notes.

The format of the notes will be determined by the following factors:

  • the needs of the student recipient of the notes e.g. students with print disability will require access to notes in digital format to facilitate use of screen reader software to review notes.
  • the skill, ability or preference of the notetaker (where the student recipient’s need aligns with this preference)

The following information, based on the student recipient’s requirements should be agreed to, and communicated prior to commencement of notetaking services:

  • format of notes (handwritten v’s typed)
  • content and emphasis of notes
  • preferred layout, spacing and use of colour
  • approach to formulae, diagrams and graphic content (how these should be noted)
  • need for student to sit with the notetaker during class e.g. for students with a hearing impairment, it may be useful to read notes ‘live’ during class, where live captioning is unavailable.

Provision of equipment to facilitate notetaking

Few institutions reported that they provide equipment to notetakers in class or where they are required to transcribe handwritten notes. Agencies and peer notetaking staff are expected to provide their own equipment for this purpose.

Some institutions indicated that they provide smartpens (such as LiveScribe) or access to Inclusive Technology suites to complete transcription of notes.

How are notes made available to students?

The provision of notes to student recipients varies across institutions and may also vary according to student recipient needs. Current practice includes:

  • provision of handwritten notes immediately and directly to the student by the notetaker (face to face)
  • forwarding of notes directly to the student via email within an agreed time frame (usually 24-48 hours)
  • forwarding of notes in an agreed format to the Disability Service, which forwards them on or loads them into DropBox or similar
  • uploading to a portal or repository on the institution’s website where the client student can access them;
  • uploading to links that are part of the learner engagement and management system for the relevant subject (such as Blackboard or other systems). Access can be restricted to the students with Access Plans who require the notes.

Who provides notetaking?

There are a variety of arrangements made for provision of notetaking services in post-secondary education and training sector institutions.  These include:

  • Engagement of external agencies that specialise in provision of notetaking, interpreting, transcription or captioning services;
  • Contracting of peers as notetakers on a casual basis. These peers are may not from the same course or program;
  • Payment of peers from the same program or course per set of notes shared; and
  • Provision of a peer student’s own notes in exchange for vouchers that can be used towards text-books, rather than payment.
  • Contracting of tutoring staff as notetakers on a casual basis.

Among the institutions contributing to the discussion, the most common method of provision of notes to students was by peers from the same program or course using their own notes.

What training is offered to notetakers?  

Training does not appear to be consistently provided to notetakers across the sector but is contingent on the circumstances and type of notetaking services to be provided. Some Disability Services provide training to peer notetakers while others provide a set of printed guidelines only.

External providers of notetaking may provide formalised training or guidelines to their agency staff prior to commencing service.  

Melbourne Polytechnic offers an accredited Course in Note Taking for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People (22249VIC), from which note-takers might be recruited.

What are the payment arrangements for notetakers?

The pay arrangements for notetaking differs across institutions and is dependant upon the source of notetaking staff (agency v’s peer) and in the case of peer notetakers, whether the note-taker is ‘sharing’ the notes they have taken for themselves or has been employed to take notes.

Some institutions provide peer notetakers with vouchers in lieu of payment for services, particularly when students are providing copies of their own notes.

Contributors to this article also indicated that notetakers and notetaker services are most commonly paid in arrears for each class, lecture or tutorial for which notes are taken, for both agency staff and peers notetakers.

What are the alternatives to provision of a notetaker?

Developments in the post-secondary education and training sector paired with developments in technologies supporting delivery of educational content have, and will continue to, reduce the need for person-based notetaking services.

These include:

  • Sonocent Audio Notetaker – this application allows a user to create documents which include audio notes(recordings), text and images.
  • ‘Lecture Capture’ or equivalent - recorded lectures that can be viewed by the student in their own time and reviewed if necessary
  • live captioning and transcription services (which can usually provide a printed transcript within 24 hours)
  • numerous smartphone apps are also readily available and highly portable (e.g. AudioNote, Evernote just to name a couple)
  • provision of captioning, transcripts and audio descriptions for video resources such as YouTube videos
  • provision of slide presentations and/or teacher/ lecturer’s notes prior to, or immediately after class via online learning management systems
  • online learning and teaching offerings with a greater emphasis on text based material
  • provision and use of smartpen technology such as LiveScribe 3 which can convert some handwriting to text and digitise handwritten formulae and diagrams
  • use of free speech recognition apps such as Dragon Dictation for short explanations (although this works poorly in a loud environment, doesn’t cope well with accents and averages only about 85% accuracy over any length of time)

A number of institutions have purchased Sonocent Audio Notetaker licenses.  Where the online licence managing system allows an institution to assign licences to particular students for specified periods of time. Once the student has finished the loan the licence can be assigned to another student. Sonocent has the ability to draw graphs within an iPad to accompany audio notes recorded and now also is linked to a professional transcription service. The cost of transcription will be significantly cheaper than a whole lecture as only the audio recordings and summarised recordings will need to be transcribed for the student – not a whole lecture.

Although these technologies provide excellent alternatives to notetaking for some students, they may not meet the needs of all students.

The impact upon the student in terms of additional ‘work’ should be considered in light of equitable access e.g. a student with a learning disability may need to view a recorded class multiple times to develop a functional set of notes impacting the time that student has available to dedicate to other tasks. The student’s skill building and learning scaffolding should also be considered – as note taking is a crucial study skill outside of the lecture room, but primarily honed within the lecture room – hence some of the technical solutions can assist in building these skills.

Institutions across the sector appear to be in differing stages of maturity in terms of adoption of the above developments. Given this, and that there is currently no equivalent to person based notetaking services, notetakers will continue to have a place in the post-secondary education and training sector to support students with a range of disabilities and / or conditions.