College Days

My eldest started college last week, which has got me thinking about my own college days at Eastern. You’d think that a strong introvert would have dreaded moving into an entirely new social situation and forced to make relationships 1, but in many ways I’d go back to college in a heartbeat.

Maybe if I’d gone to a larger school, with the accompanying factory mentality that is too often part of undergraduate work these days, perhaps my experience would be different. But I didn’t go to a large school, I went to a small Christian college 2 which was seen as a bit of a black sheep among other Christian colleges for a variety of reasons 3. For four years my job was to read lots of books, try to solve all the theological problems of the world with my friends, or hang out in my professors’ offices after class. I got to hang around, and study, people who knew stuff, and expected me to be interested in the stuff they knew. It was metaphorical heaven. To this day I still strive to surround myself with people love to learn and muse. College revealed that side of me.

So as my daughter begins her college journey that’s what I hope for her. I hope she’ll discover the joy of learning rather assuming she already knows. I hope her biases are challenged, her convictions become internalized, and her ability to hear dissenting thoughts is strengthened 4. Because that’s what college should be – learning how to think well.

  1. And apparently one of the personality tests we had to take during orientation flagged me as someone who was likely to struggle, not continue my education, and possibly drop out. I still remember laughing at my advisor. 
  2. Now it’s a university, I never updated my degree. 
  3. No curfew, no mandatory chapel attendance, we didn’t immediately expel LGBT students (a stance with which I disagreed at the time, to be honest), etc. 
  4. As well as to recognize the difference between actual dissent and monstrous opinion. 

Taking Notes, Part III – Notes As Art

My first guest post! While people who lack the manual dexterity to draw like today’s author 1 today’s post is a good lesson on how our notes can, and should, be shaped by our personalities. Meet my friend, Antoine.

Antoine RJ Wright is an experienced organizational strategy and process designer who has worked with various people and business forward organizations. Found often on his bicycle or traveling to various corners of the globe, Antoine has found various ways to point towards insightful and imaginative uses of connected technologies to improve individuals and teams, while serving as a beacon towards its implications and outcomes.

Many of us could remember scribbling in notebooks in elementary or high school. Beyond the scribbles of the person we may have liked, the teachers we joked about, or the shapeless doodles we created during yet-another-lecture, notes take on the personalities of their authors. There is a logical nature which we foster while taking notes. Some of this is imposed by the ways our minds work. Some is imposed by the tools we use. And then there are people like myself.

My notes have evolved into what Wes and others call pieces of art. These “sketchnotes” are an evolution of the sketching and doodling of younger years, combined with a bit of talent and formal training in art and computer technical matters. This style of note taking is a lens into how I connect the dots and process a lecture or workshop. Both during and long after the conclusion of an event. In some contexts, these are shared to larger communities in order to enable others to share my the streams of consciousness. Artwork tends to have a more involved process than just the resulting interpretations.

History of This Different Pencil

I’ve been sketching on my notes for as long as I can remember (margins, back of pages, back of copy books, etc.). But it was with the 1st generation iPad that took off in a different direction. I purchased my first iPad about a month after the it’s introduction, and then took several months to play with various note apps. While I settled on Evernote, which I’d already been using, I wanted to push things a bit further when drawing connecting lines, graphs, or inserting images were part of the process. Penultimate became my notebook app of choice, later followed by Tactilis (a favorite, and recently released anew). Yet, it was with Adobe Ideas my story of “Notes As Art” transformed into more than just doodles.

While attending a virtual learning workshop at NC State University I decided to use Adobe Ideas to record the fascinating projects being shared. At the conclusion of the workshop, I showed the workshop leader my notes and he was quite impressed. He also wondered how was I able to draw notes so well while simultaneously managing to ask insightful questions. I couldn’t answer that question, but I was happy to share that sketchnote with him.

Image: NC State Digital Learning Interactions
Image: NC State Digital Learning Interactions

Something clicked as left the workshop. If there was a place for the iPad in my life, it would branch from this ability to mesh taking notes and sketching. So I started sketching notes everywhere. I drew unprompted sketchnotes in various workshops, bible studies, and during sermons. With each of these I experimented with flow, colors, and content. I also had notes which were commissioned items. A few companies would ask for these as part of conference or workshop activities, and a few even would use these notes for official documentation when launching important endeavors. Sketching notes, something that I’d done in order to keep my mind occupied, had become the way others could connect back to events through the lines and colors on my shared canvas.

Unprompted Sketchnotes

Sketchnoting has become something of an internal challenge for me. I don’t ask for permission to do them, and the value for me is how they help me to later recall information. I might not make the decision to sketch until the event, workshop, or bible study has begun. And even then the process beings with me grasping at straws, trying to decide what might be the best fit for capturing information for later recall. But then I get going and there’s nothing but what I call the flow. When I’m finished I’ll share my note with the speaker, post it on Twitter or Flickr, or just keep it for myself in my notebook. Below are a few of the sketchnotes drawn over the years.

Image: GCIA 2011
Image: GCIA 2011

Image: Unplugged Charlotte: Fear Sketchnote
Image: Unplugged Charlotte: Fear Sketchnote

Image: Immanuel Church Sketchnote
Image: Immanuel Church Sketchnote

Commissioned Sketchnotes

What began as an experiment as an evolved note-taking format has turned into the occasional gig for me. These commissioned notes tend to have more text within them, and also lean a bit more into simplicity of information rather than depth. Commissioned pieces take a bit more thought regarding to colors and readability. But recalling information from even a readable sketchnote depends on how others are able to interpret the note. In some respects, when I’m creating a commissioned not I’m really just being a scribe for another’s memory. Let me share a few of these notes.

Image: ICCC and NACC Joint Meeting
Image: ICCC and NACC Joint Meeting

Image: Converge SE 2015 Sketchnote
Image: Converge SE 2015 Sketchnote

Image: ICCM Americas 2016 Session Sketchnote
Image: ICCM Americas 2016 Session Sketchnote

Textures of My Canvas

Aside from the introduction, you might have noticed there’s been little talk about what applications I use, mediums I prefer, or tools manipulate. This is on purpose. For me taking notes is much less about the tools and more about what is captured to be recalled later. My canvas is the 2016 iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. These days, I use Paper and Tactilis as my primary applications for notes-taking. Depending on the other forms of media needed, I might instead use Liquid Text or Penultimate so that images, other documents, etc. could be included into the note.

The iPad Pro has not been my only canvas. I have used the 1st and 4th generation iPad, the 1st, and 3rd generation iPad Mini as well. I’ve also utilized the Google Nexus 7 tablet and the Amazon Kindle Fire 7. Of all of these, the iPad Pro has been the best canvas for this kind of sketching. The integration with the Apple Pencil and the quality of the screen response has been nothing short of amazing.

Because my work tends to extend beyond sketchnoting some of the sketches serve as a solid starting point for projects I might complete in other apps such as Adobe Comp/Textastic (UI design and UX), Excel/MindNode (process and project mapping), or InVision/Marvel (UX and Service Design). I find that the artful nature of sketchnotes tends to enable better conversations about the information later on, and for notes that’s probably not a bad thing at all.

Putting a Cap on It

There’s a good bit of information in my notes. And to be honest, I’m not totally sure how I process things mentally in order to create them. I do know that it has something to do with being in a flow state of mind and when I’m able to tap into it, these notes more or less take on a life of their own.

There are others who use a similar workflow. Mike Rhode is credited with catalyzing sketchnotes into an applicable (and profitable) endeavor. His book, The Sketchnote Handbook is great for anyone who is interested in trying their hand at drawing notes and getting more value than simply “doodling to occupy the mind.” He’s got a great community around that book and some classes also.

For those who might have dabbled a bit and would like to know some more about the space, there’s a new podcast on deck called Drawpod in which Natalia Talkowska (@NatiTal) and Matt Ballantine (@ballentine70) have done an amazing job of bridging the audio-world of podcasting with the visual-space of drawing. What’s so interesting is how there are drawing thought challenges each episode to mature your drawing muscles. And both of them are accomplished sketchnote and mindmapping professionals as well. Natalia also has a creative agency in London in which sketchnoting is the core of her business. I’ve been a longtime admirer of her work in this space.

Finally, I maintain a gallery of items on Flickr ( for the items I’ve completed and want to share. I still do the unprompted sketchnotes, and from time to time am gifted with a commission opportunity. I enjoy how many have considered my notes pieces of art. For me, these are just the means through which I take the various layers of what goes on in my head, and makes it plain enough for me to recall as needed. It would have been great to have this technique taught to me in elementary or high school, but I think also that I appreciate it more now because of how its able to extend and empower others to see a different side of the events, meetings, or lectures they attend.

If you’d like to get in touch with me for doing a sketchnote for your conference, workshop, or meeting, feel free to connect with me here.

  1. Like me. I can’t say I’m not an artist, but I can’t draw worth beans. 

Taking Notes, Part II – A toolbox round up

Yesterday I wrote about the nature of taking notes on a laptop or tablet, highlighting some of the pitfalls which might arise when shifting to a digital platform for note taking. Today I’d like to highlight my three favorite favorite note taking apps as a starting point for anyone who’d like to make a successful jump from paper.


Notability is an amazing piece of software, and it works well with Apple’s Pencil. Its last update even added the ability to convert hand-written notes to text 1. I use Notability to take notes the way I did in college, I create flow-charts which organize a lecture or presentation into whatever structure I see fit. It’s slow 2, as is all long-hand writing, but effective. Notability is available on the iPad, iPhone, and Mac – though I only use the iPad app. It’s also an excellent way to annotate PDF’s. Notability’s iOS and MacOS versions cost $9.99 each.

A piece of a notability document.

My left-handed chicken scratch. But you CAN see how my notes are structured around snippets and thoughts, connected by arrows.
This note was created during a police chaplain training event I attended.


iThoughts is an elegant mind-mapping app for iOS, Mac, and Windows. It has easy shortcuts to create new nodes on the mind-map, which work with both physical keyboards and soft keyboards, and the export features are phenomenal. Because mind-maps have a hierarchical structure by design, I use iThoughts when a project fits that reality. It makes filling in my data simple and fast, and the notes feature allows me to interject my own thoughts at will. It is also possible to create a number of different mind-maps in a single document and create visual links between the different clusters. Creating the links between the different elements requires a number of taps, which can be daunting, but as each new element becomes a mind-map in itself this may be a good balance of both freedom and structure. iThoughts costs $11.99 for iOS and $49.99 for Mac and Windows, respectively. The expense for the desktop application might deter some users, but iThoughts is a productivity tool well worth the cost.

A mind map depicting a Maundy Thursday service.

A traditional mind-map, which works well when dealing with projects which have a defined structure.


Scapple is the application I wish I would have had back in college 3. While it is technically a mind-mapping app, that description doesn’t do the application justice. Scapple is a blank slate on which information can be placed in any way a user chooses. Links between different blocks aren’t hierarchical, but visual, which means the only structure a Scapple file has is what the user creates. This makes exporting into other formats a bit less simple than iThoughts, but the freedom inside the app makes the trade off worth it. Scapple is the closest I’ve gotten to utilizing a mouse and keyboard to create notes the way I use pen and paper. It’s a piece of art, and if it had an iPad app I might take all my notes in it. Scapple is the kind of app which makes me wish I was in a degree program, just so I had a reason to use it as often as possible. It’s available for both Mac and Windows for $14.99, and is only $12 for students! If you’re on a laptop instead of a tablet this is a great app to have.

A Scapple map depicting the various levels of managing a WordPress site.

A free-flowing Scapple file, the only structure is defined by the creator.


As you can see, each of these apps creates a way for note takers to utilize that crucial element of mental processing during a lecture or presentation. Whether through the natural slow down which comes with using a stylus to write, or though the visual cues of a mind map, notes stop being a copy was what was said and are transformed into an interpretation. In so doing, the material becomes internalized by the note taker.

The truth is, notes should be personal, as they a reflection of the note taker’s mind during a presentation as they are a representation information which was shared 4. The tools used to take notes should free a person to express their own personality and reflections, rather than constrain. This is one reason why I’m so fond of Scapple and Notability, these apps are true blank pages which leave the design of my notes up to me. iThoughts is also useful for notes which require a strong structure but even that app is capable of being used in a “blank page” methodology, it’s just not as intuitive as it is in the other two apps. It’s not difficult to treat iThoughts as a blank page, just different 5. I always tell people to find whatever note taking style which best reflects their personality, through either digital or physical means, and they will do well 6.

What tools have you used for successful note taking?

  1. Though it can’t do much with my terrible left-handed scratch 
  2. My writing, not the app. The app is lightning fast. 
  3. The mid-90’s. AKA, “The Dark Ages.” 
  4. In my case my brain always looks like a scary mess. 
  5. As a side note, Scapple documents can be opened in iThoughts, which I find very cool. 
  6. Just as long as they don’t think verbatim notes are helpful. They aren’t. 

Taking Notes, Part I

I’ve been seeing people sharing the idea that laptops are somehow to blame for students getting bad grades in college. When these shares come up it’s often met with the chorus voices bemoaning how easily distracted “today’s youth” are 1. It’s the early 21st Century’s “kids these days” moment.

But are laptops and tablets themselves the cause of bad grades? I don’t think so, and even the articles which highlight the negative impacts of laptops during lectures point this out. As the article quoted above states

The researchers hypothesized that, because students can type faster than they can write, the lecturer’s words flowed right to the students’ typing fingers without stopping in their brains for substantive processing. Students writing by hand had to process and condense the spoken material simply to enable their pens to keep up with the lecture. Indeed, the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than lecture summaries. The handwritten versions were more succinct but included the salient issues discussed in the lecture.

So, while there does seem to be a correlation between understanding a lecture and hand-writing notes, even the people running these studies didn’t believe there was a causal relationship. So what is going on?

The research is still being done, but the hypothesis put forward in the above quote requires more research – students with laptops tended to type out everything without having to think about it. It also confirms my own experience as parent, student, and teacher 2.

I will, on occasion, train people to learn a new peace of software or workflow in my different contexts. It doesn’t matter if the person is writing long-hand or typing, any time I see a person desperately trying to capture each and every word I say, without following what I’m doing, I know that person will be needing help later. They have all the steps down perfect, they just don’t know what any of it means.

As a parent I see my oldest child taking her notes in shorthand, she tends to retain information very well. My middle child types out his notes and tends to copy slides down without thinking, retention is more difficult for him.

As a student, I tend to ignore slides which present a dump of content on to a screen. Instead, I keep my eyes down and listen to what a teacher/presenter says. I summarize these words and jot them down into my notes. Because I’m a tablet user I will often mind-map by hand using my Apple Pencil. I tend to retain information very well, and can follow the train of thoughts in my notes later on with some accuracy.

The studies like the one referred to above, then, pose three different lessons to me.

First, in a world where just about everyone can manage to type out every bit of content on a screen before the professor moves on, we need a better way to make slides. I’ve advocated for years that slides should be used for illustration only, and the studies on laptop use in the classroom only make me utter that cry even louder. In the days when you had to write shorthand to keep up 3, teachers could afford to put all their content on to a transparency. Those days are over 4. It’s time to try a new approach.

Second, electronic devices make it easier to be distracted. While distractions and daydreams are part of the listening process, when you have the depths of the internet at your disposal it’s way too easy to zone out and scroll through social media feeds during a class. As a presenter I think I might encourage people to turn off notifications during my time, that way at least the passive distractions can be removed. Other than that, people are just going to have to work out some balance of discipline to minimize the distractions available through an electronic device 5. As a society we need to start training people to do this. And, no, I haven’t figured it out.

Third, people need to be taught how to take notes! Because of the dearth of information available online, so many of us have come to the incorrect notion that information equals understanding. It does not. There is no need to process data if you just want to duplicate it. But in high school note-taking seems to be a lost art form, as teachers have themselves become confused on the difference between information and understanding. Since lesson handouts are often available for download, class-notes become viewed as secondary. Worse, some teachers insist students take long-form notes since “that’s what you’ll be expected to do in college.” Instead, students need to be exposed to different forms of note-taking, like shorthand outlining and mind-mapping, and encouraged to make visual links between points and add their own conclusions and interjections into the flow. If this is ingrained in students early, then using an electronic device for the note-taking process will not be detrimental. Students can type outlines, use mind-mapping software, or take up a stylus to write out notes on a screen without a decrease in retention because the vial step of processing data into smaller chunks still needs to be done 6.

Tomorrow I’ll share the three note-taking apps I tend to use whenever I find myself in a lecture or presentation. Each has their own strengths, and I tend to use each one in different settings, but all require information to be processed before it’s recorded. And that makes all the difference.

  1. These choir members also tend to have their heads buried in a screen during meetings. 
  2. This could just be confirmation bias, so take the rest of this with a grain of salt. 
  3. The dark ages, when I went to college and seminary. 
  4. Also, most of the good professors I had knew how to read a transparency upside-down as it lay on the overhead projector. Because no one knows how to use presenter notes, speakers who use slides like transparencies tend have their back to the class for much of their time presenting. It’s a “great” communication style. 
  5. Though I will say I’ve been in rooms where Civilization: Revolution saved my sanity. 
  6. The electronic distractions still remain, however. I can see a case for all lecture halls being Faraday cages, but that also becomes a public safety issue. There’s not easy answer there. 

An Apple Education?

On March 27 Apple held an event celebrating their role in education. During the keynote they demonstrated some slick tools for classroom integration, a new iPad, and announced updates for their iWork suite. If you happen to be into geeky things at all, it’s well-worth the time to watch.

It’s no secret Apple has been having their tail handed to them by Google over the past few years in the educational realm. Cheap Chromebooks, combined with Google’s suite of web applications, have made a lot more sense to schools than pricier Apple products which come with a vendor lock in.

Google has worked hard to be platform agnostic. Their setup allows students to access their work from any connected device, and work without any limitations because the experience is the same everywhere. There is no hardware vendor lock in, but Schools can use cheap Chromebooks in their facilities to get devices in the hands of as many students as possible. While these computers are considered “underpowered,” Chromebooks are a snap to administrate 1. Google’s platform agnostic appeal is still real, but Apple appears to be moving in more agnostic direction. The best experience will still be on an Apple device, but new updates to the web versions iWork remove a number of the restrictions which had been present via the web interface. Keynote’s web application, for example, now supports object-level builds. While this is a feature which is obvious for any slide creation tool, it has been missing in the web version of Keynote since its introduction. The sudden inclusion, closing the gap between web Keynote and Google’s slides, is a huge development and long overdue. It’s not quite at the Google level of web-integration, and I’m uncertain if either Apple’s classroom or schoolwork apps work via the web, but it’s a step in the right direction 2.

Beyond Apple’s new “our web apps work from anywhere, just like Google” approach, the company has a good case for promoting their educational tools. The integrations are slick, and the ability to use the pencil on the new low-end iPad is a terrific boon. The tablet factor also makes a lot of sense for a number of classroom activities where technology integration is going on 3. Apple’s push on student privacy is also real plus, but I’m not sure its enough to get schools to go through the headache of jumping into the fold 4.

From a personal perspective I am ecstatic over the iWork updates Apple announced. The return of facing pages to the Pages application was something I never thought would happen and the new pencil integrations are very cool. But, while Apple’s new web apps are a step in the right direction, I do have to consider if doing so could still set up an exclusion zone for members of my congregation not in the Apple hardware ecosystem. We’ll have to see.

  1. Our school district, for example, has one full time IT person. The ability to have the majority of the district’s hardware updating automatically is a huge selling point. 
  2. An earlier draft of this piece heralded the platform agnostic stance of Google’s apps, pointing out the limitations Apple’s online iWork suite had. The disparity used to be so great I found myself wondering why any school would want to jump into Apple’s fold, but with the most recent updates that divide is no longer so pronounced. Apple’s iWork web apps are pretty-much feature parity with Google Apps, and are much more slick to use. At the same time, Google Docs can be edited on an Android phone, which will not be happening for iWork any time soon. 
  3. The virtual dissection they demo’ed was very cool. 
  4. Though privacy concerns would be a good reason for doing so. 

Moses, Texas, and Social Outrage

Yesterday, I saw a post on Facebook in the form of a blog entry which claims Texas has voted to list Moses among the Founding Fathers in their new educational standards. I have learned to be skeptical of sensational blog posts, especially if I’m moved to immediate outrage by it’s headline, so I went looking for an actual source. I found one on NPR which shows a vote on Texas education standards did take place last Fall, right about the time the blog post was first written. Unfortunately, the blog post sensationalized the content of the actual vote. This actually serves to undermine it’s critique of the real problems which were included in the standards.

No, Moses was not suddenly included among the Founding Fathers in Texas’ education curriculum 1. On the other hand, Moses is listed among the key influences of the Founding Fathers.

Generally speaking, I suppose you could make a case for inferring Moses must have been an influence upon the Founders. After all, even though very few of the Founders believed in anything approaching Orthodox Christianity, these were by and large religious people – and their religious background would have been nominally Christian.

From a historian’s standpoint, however, stretching history to say Moses was a key influence is troubling at best. Moses really doesn’t play into the actual writings of the founders – he is neither cited in their letters nor brought up in the record of debates as far as I can tell. His absence does seem odd, now that I think of it, given the way the founding debate revolved around the desire to escape tyranny. A frequent ploy, and special favorite of Patrick Henry, was the threat of slavery to England should the war be lost 2. The point is, despite the obvious opportunities for Moses to be tied to the American plight, he doesn’t seem to have been drafted. “God” and “Providence” we’re certainly employed in the Patriot cause, Moses was excused.

So, I guess the vote back in November was a “victory” for conservative Christians. Being as it’s based on a reading of history which is stretched so far as to be considered a lie, though, I don’t consider it a victory for either Christianity or education. Equally at fault, however, is the blog which is first linked on this page. It brilliantly paints who the bad guys are, but only by twisting the truth in a way reminiscent of how Moses ends up in a list of key influencers in the first place. It rallies the troops around a lie, when there are plenty of legitimate problems with the standards 3.

The point is, I really don’t care if you are conservative or liberal, when you see an incredible statement in any forum do some actual research before you type in a snarky reply or forward the link on. If you do, you may actually be able to contribute something valuable to our public discourse. Something other than the shriek of outrage.

  1. Though, I admit it’s a catchy blog headline. 
  2. Given the percentage of enslaved people in the Colonies at the outbreak of hostilities, to say the Founders had a blind-spot at this point of their rhetoric is a fantastic understatement. 
  3. Moses as a key influence is only the tip of the iceberg. Climate change receives some dubious treatment, and slavery is downplayed as a key cause of the Civil War (to be honest, at this point both the folks who want to downplay it and those who want to make it the cause are wrong. Slavery was a huge issue, and became the main right many of the confederate states felt they were fighting for was slavery, but it wasn’t the only issue. The sentiment was also more prevalent sentiment in the deep South. Virginia, for example, had been toying with various emancipation proposals before the raid on Harper’s Ferry).