One of the most common questions I receive from students and teachers alike is how I take notes in the classroom with low vision and dysgraphia, and what my favorite notetaking apps are for iOS and Android devices. I’ve been using the Microsoft OneNote app since I was a freshman in high school for taking notes across all of my subjects, and have found it to be perfect for not only writing my own notes but also for sharing notes with others and integrating classroom resources so that I can find everything I need all on one page. Here is how I use Microsoft OneNote with low vision and dysgraphia, and ways that I have used it in high school, college, and beyond the classroom.
What is OneNote?
OneNote is a free Microsoft Office software that allows users to create multimedia notebooks filled with text, images, videos, files, and more. OneNote goes beyond the standard Microsoft Word document and allows users to create an interactive notebook filled with content that can be accessed from almost any device. The OneNote app can be downloaded on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, though a (free) Microsoft account is required for use.
Organizing OneNote notebooks
There are a few different options for organizing OneNote notebooks that I have used over the years. Before I explain these options though, it’s important to understand the different elements of a OneNote notebook:
- A notebook, also known as a .one file, is a digital notebook that contains sections and pages. Users can have multiple notebooks open within OneNote and can switch between them as needed. Notebook names can be customized and color-coded.
- A section is a group of pages in a notebook. Section names can be customized and color-coded.
- A page is the building block of OneNote notebooks and can contain a variety of different types of content. Users can put their pages into sections and search for content within pages with the search bar
One of the primary reasons I use Microsoft OneNote with low vision is because it is so easy for me to organize my notes. While users may have different methods for organizing that they prefer, some of the methods I have used include:
- Having a different notebook for each subject and labeling each section with the unit name. Pages would be titled with the date and heading for the notes. For example, my Geography notebook has a section for Unit One, and a page for “1/29 Notes- Introduction To Maps”
- Creating a notebook for the semester and labeling each section with the class name. Pages would be titled with a heading for the notes or assignment name. For example, I would have a notebook for Fall 2019 with a section for CDS 301, and a page within that section for “Assessing Color Schemes in Data Visualizations”
- For in-depth research projects or final papers, a notebook is created for the individual assignment and there are sections for each project stage. Each page is labeled with a source name or other meaningful label. For example, I created a “PSYC 405 Traumatology Final” notebook and had sections for my raw notes, outline, and other project elements. Each page was either labeled with a source or topic name.
- When organizing a medical history, a notebook is created for the individual and each section is either a different year or diagnosis. Pages provide additional detail and give information such as dates or visits to specialists.
What can be added to OneNote Notebooks?
Text can be added by tapping anywhere on the page and beginning to type, or by copy and pasting text from an outside source. Just like in Microsoft Word, users can increase/decrease the font size, highlight text, add headings and special text formatting, and other tasks.
For users who are copy and pasting text from an outside source, the Format Painter tool can help make all of the text consistent. To use the Format Painter in Microsoft OneNote:
- Select the text that you want to copy the formatting of- this will copy the font type and size
- Use the keyboard shortcut Control-Shift-C, or click the Format Painter icon in the ribbon next to the font options, which looks like a small paintbrush
- Select the text you want to format- if the user clicked the Format Painter icon, the text formatting will be applied after the user selects the text
- Select the text you want to format and use the keyboard shortcut Control-Shift-V to apply the text formatting
For users that prefer to use dictation over typing, there is an option on the Home tab to dictate text, as well as set the dictation language. Users can also use the dictation shortcut on their keyboard if available, or use the keyboard shortcut Windows Key-H.
Have a Microsoft Word document that can be added to the notes? Need to link the latest PowerPoint? Users can attach files to Microsoft OneNote notebooks and have all of the relevant class files in an easy-to-access location. This can be done by going to the Insert tab and selecting the File icon, which looks like a paperclip.
Printout will insert a copy of a PDF directly into a OneNote notebook, which is helpful for referencing documents while writing, however, the printout itself cannot be read by screen readers. Users can add a printout by going to the Insert tab and selecting Printout.
There are several options for inserting pictures in Microsoft OneNote:
- Inserting images that are saved onto the device, also known as “Insert From File”
- Taking images using the device camera, also known as “Insert From Camera”
- Searching for images online using Bing within the Microsoft OneNote application, also known as “Insert From Online”
Whenever possible, I prefer to save a copy of the image I am inserting into OneNote onto my device so that I can enlarge the image in other applications if needed, or so I can use a tool like Microsoft Seeing AI to get additional descriptive information.
Alternative text, or alt text, provides a text-based description of images for people who may otherwise have trouble seeing them. Alt text can be added in Microsoft OneNote by doing the following:
- On any page in OneNote, right-click an image that has been inserted
- On the menu that appears, click Picture, and then click Alt Text.
- In the Alt Text dialog box, type a descriptive Title for the selected image, and type a 1-2 sentence Description in the text box below.
OneNote allows users to embed online videos into their notebooks from several different web sources including YouTube, Flipgrid, and TED Talks. This can be done by selecting the “Insert Online Video” icon on the Insert tab, and there is no time limit for how long a video can be. However, users will need an internet connection to view the videos in a OneNote notebook, and videos cannot be uploaded from a device.
OneNote supports several different embedding options for web content, including Wakelet, Microsoft Forms, Quizlet, Repl.it, and others. However, links from anywhere on the internet can be added to OneNote pages by selecting “Link” on the Insert tab. For websites that support embedding, users will be able to interact with web content directly within OneNote, while other websites will open with the default web browser.
Audio can be recorded in real-time and attached to OneNote pages so that users can read along with their notes, which is great for people with print disabilities. This can be done by selecting “Record Audio” on the Insert tab.
Equations and Math
Equations can be added to OneNote pages by selecting Equations from the Insert tab. From there, users can add symbols from the Equations Tools menu or use standard MathType notation to add equations. This is different from the Math tool on the Insert tab, which converts written equations into math.
Users can hand-write text with a stylus such as the Apple Pencil or Surface Pen, and OneNote will automatically convert the handwriting to OCR so that users can search for the text at a later time. The Draw tab in the ribbon has several options for customizing the ink color and size. If a user does not have a stylus, they can use their finger or mouse to write- this can be enabled in the Draw tab.
Besides handwriting, users can also draw shapes, diagrams, and charts with their finger, mouse, or stylus and have the drawings added to their OneNote pages. Users can configure options for ink on the Draw tab.
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Application integrations in OneNote for low vision
One of my favorite things about OneNote is that I can use it with a lot of my favorite applications and other tools. Some of the integrations that I use frequently include:
- Scanning in copies of the whiteboard or documents with the Microsoft Office Lens app that can be edited and cropped so users can view information more easily
- Microsoft Sway presentations can be embedded- these are similar to PowerPoint presentations, but I personally like them a lot more than PowerPoint because they are easy to read and have lots of accessibility options
- Adding information to a OneNote notebook via email- users get a custom email address that they can use to send information to a notebook, such as lists or short amounts of text. Users can customize what section they want to have the information added to, and the email is inserted as a new page
- ScanMarker Air can add scanned text to Microsoft OneNote when the OneNote application is open
- The OneNote Web Clipper can save web pages from the browser into a OneNote notebook, which is helpful when working on a project with several sources.
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- Creative Uses For Microsoft Office Sway: Post Round-Up
- ScanMarker Air for Print Disabilities
- Ways To Read Webpages Without A Traditional Screen Reader
How I set up OneNote for low vision
When I am setting up a notebook or pages in OneNote for me to type notes in, I use the following settings/display preferences so that I can read my notes more easily:
- I set the default font and font size to Arial and size 22. This is set across all of my notebooks and can be configured in the Settings menu, in the Options section
- I change the page color in the View tab to be a light yellow or a color that isn’t white so that I can read for long periods of time- white light hurts my eyes
- While I don’t use this every time, users can set Dark Mode within the Settings menu, in the Options section. Users can also choose to invert their device display or use a high contrast theme.
- Once I’m finished taking notes and want to read what I have written, I can open Immersive Reader in the View tab and read my notes in a simplified reading display with large print, print disability-friendly fonts, and high contrast. Immersive Reader can also read text out loud.
Some people who use OneNote with low vision prefer to have Rule Lines on their page, which mimic notebook paper and can be configured in the View tab. However, I have poor contrast vision and can’t see these.
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Taking notes in class with OneNote
With all of these options, it seems easy to get overwhelmed with using OneNote with low vision, as it can be difficult to figure out what should be inserted when. Here is my typical notetaking process for taking notes in class with OneNote:
- After creating a new page, I attach a copy of the class PowerPoint or links that I need for class in a text box at the top of the page
- If I have approval from the professor, I turn on audio recording for the lecture before I begin writing
- I write down whatever seems important using either a text box or using my stylus with the handwriting option
- If the professor draws something on the board, I attempt to draw it myself or take a picture with Office Lens or the camera to reference later- admittedly, I’m not the best at copying drawings from the board
- For video lectures, I will take screenshots of graphics or visual information and paste them into my OneNote notebook so that I don’t have to draw
- If a math equation is mentioned, I typically type it out in my notes and use the Math tool later to convert it to MathType that I can read
- After class, I go back and format text so that my notes are organized into sections that flow well together, add videos and images, and clean up any typos or things that don’t make sense.
- Creating Inclusive and Accessible Video Lectures For Visually Impaired Audiences
- Common Classroom Accommodations For Low Vision
Summary of how I use OneNote with low vision
- OneNote is a free Microsoft Office application that allows users to create digital notebooks
- Notebooks are made up of pages that are divided into sections. Users can organize notes for their classes by having each subject be a notebook, or having all of their subjects be sections in one big notebook.
- Several different types of content can be added to OneNote notebooks, including text, external files, images, links, online videos, math equations, drawings, handwriting, and more
- Users can also integrate other applications into their OneNote notebook, such as Microsoft Office Sway, email, Microsoft Office Lens, and web extensions
- Some examples of ways that users can set up OneNote for low vision include increasing the font size, changing the font style, changing the page color, using Immersive Reader, and enabling Dark Mode or Page Rules.
- When taking notes with OneNote, it is helpful to start audio recordings at the beginning of a lecture and to include relevant files at the top of the page. Users can then type out notes and add content at the end of class.