One of the issues that I have had as a documenter of my student's work is that its always a struggle to find the right tools for the job. As a technology buff I am always on the look out for tools that have multiple uses, are easy to use, have design elegance and allow me to integrate them into my work flow. Over the years I have used photography (and in the last few years video) as a quick solution for documenting what is happening in my classroom. I have moved from film based cameras, to digital aim and shoot ones, to smartphones which allow me to easily upload to Evernote, Dropbox and the cloud.
While taking, storing and uploading pictures has become really easy, the same can't be said about an equally powerful tool, the narrative handwritten note. While a photograph can set the context and even record the evidence of a piece of work and learning, I always want to have a record of the conversations or the observations that I have made. Over the years I have tried notecards, notebooks, typing apps, photographing my notes into Evernote with the Moleskin notebook, and a variety of handwriting apps on my iphone and ipad. Nothing has stood the test of time because all of these solutions tend to “stand alone”. I want and need something that is a combination of documenting solutions.
I have been aware of Penultimate for many years and never thought much of it. It is touted as the “most popular” handwriting app but handwriting apps on the ipad always seem great theoretically but when you start using them, they have a major drawback, most styluses on the market are terrible. They are too fat. The rubber sticks so it feels like you are pulling a rubber thimble across the screen. It is hard to not have horribly messy handwriting. This all changed for me recently when one of my students gave me a stylus that her father was given to review for the New York Times but since he didn't have a tablet he had no use for it. The stylus, from Justgosmart, has the best “pen-like” feel of anything that I have used. It has a funny looking tip that gets a lot of attention when I use it but it is well balanced and even is magnetized so it stays in place when I set it on my ipad. The best part is that it writes smoothly. This great stylus opened up a new possibility for me in terms of using handwriting apps.
Once I had solved the stylus issue I started to experiment with Noteshelf, an app I found in the Evernote Trunk but hadn't done much with. I like its robust features. It has a multiple of pen color choices (you can even create your own colors), pen nib sizes and types of pens. Additionally it has a lot of paper templates that you can use. You can also send pages to Evernote. All great features. As an app it fits my needs in the classroom to document student work and conversations. With Noteshelf you can add photos as well, a big plus. This feature allows me to not only take notes but I also allows me to add context making images.
I really like all the options that Noteshelf provides, except one feature. I don't like how it integrates with Evernote. I can upload notes and notebooks to Evernote, but once they are there they can't be changed or added to. I have to import the entire notebook again if I added anything to it. This might seem like a small thing, but it isn't. I want my notetaking app to be fully integrated with Evernote. I love all the features of Noteshelf, but this was a deal breaker.
Penultimate, because it is now owned by Evernote, has the advantage of being fully integrated with my Evernote account. Every time I make a change in my Penultimate notebooks, they synched in Evernote. This is a vital feature when documenting my students work. While it doesn't have the same robust features as Noteshelf I don't find myself needing an unlimited supply of pen colors and nib sizes. I have found a work around to be able to make my own page templates as well.
Recently I have been using Penultimate to document the work and discussions that I have been noticing in my math classes. I can quickly snap a picture of work and make a quick note about it for later review. This has been invaluable when going over a lesson on my own or sharing thoughts and ideas with parents and other colleagues. (These notes can also be sent to my students portfolios by email). As the Evernote Education Ambassador I am also able to test out the latest Penultimate Beta apps that are in the works. This has been great because I get to offer feedback and also see what Evernote is up to as it improves Penultimate's usability. The next feature I would love to see is the option of adding audio recording as well. In that way I could photograph work, record conversations and make notes about what I hear and see. This is an amazing tool that I imagine will only get better.