I have used the OneNote app in the classroom since I was a freshman in high school. I first used it on my laptop (more on that here) and then started using OneNote as a note taking app on my iPad in conjunction with Notability and other apps. As a student with low vision that uses large print and that has also been diagnosed with dysgraphia, I have appreciated all of the features that OneNote has to offer- read more about dysgraphia accommodations in the classroom here. Here is my review of the OneNote app, a tutorial on functions that can help students (especially those with low vision) and how I use it in the classroom as educational technology. This review is for Microsoft OneNote 2016, the latest version.
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. It’s much better than taking notes in Microsoft Word because it’s easy to flip through pages and draw on notes using a stylus. It integrates wonderfully with Microsoft Office apps as well as other apps on the iPad. The OneNote app can be downloaded on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, though a (free) Microsoft account is required for use. I strongly recommend integrating the app with OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage software.
The OneNote interface is very similar to other Microsoft Office products, with a toolbar at the top that can easily be hidden, and that supports large print in Windows- read more about Windows 10 accessibility features here. One of the more unique features is that text can be added anywhere, not just at the top of the page- just click and type. It works amazing with touch screens and the iPad app is compatible with the popular Pencil by FiftyThree stylus, which I use most frequently in my math class.
There are many types of content that can be added to OneNote notebooks, making them great ways to store multimedia and several different file types. The types of content that can be added include:
Pretty self-explanatory, users can input text easily by clicking anywhere on the screen. Font size and style can easily be changed from the toolbar, and text can also be copy and pasted from different sources. To make copied text the same style as other text, select the other text and press control-shift-c on the keyboard. Next, highlight the copied text and then press control-shift-v. This is a format painter and works in other Microsoft applications.
Pictures can be inserted from the device easily, but users can also choose to insert images from online sources. I prefer to insert images from my devices so that I have a backup of the image and can resize it easier.
Video can be inserted from online sources as a link from within the iPad app, or online from the desktop app, with no limit on video length- though an internet connection is required to access it. Speaking of OneNote and video, here is a video from the Microsoft Inclusion in Action series about how a father used OneNote to navigate his daughter’s medical crisis- check out the link here.
Users can use the drawing tool to draw complex symbols or write with their finger or stylus. One cool thing is that OneNote can recognize handwriting and convert it into searchable text so that information can be found easily.
Like most Microsoft Office products, graphs and charts can easily be inserted onto the OneNote document pages, and be enlarged as needed. I highly recommend adding alt text for graphs and charts so that they are accessible with screen readers.
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. Audio recordings can also be inserted from other sources, in case the user prefers to use another audio recording software.
My favorite function, users can attach printouts, which are carbon copies of other Microsoft Office files and PDFs. This way, I can attach copies of classwork, presentations, graphs, or teacher provided materials. I also will attach documents I made in other apps such as Notability- read more about Notability here.
OneNote has lots of accessibility features, including large print and high contrast displays, as well as the support of alt text and screen readers. My favorite thing though is the whiteboard camera setting, which allows users to take a picture of a whiteboard, and the software automatically crops the image and turns it into an OCR file, which can be converted into searchable text that works well with screen readers. It’s not perfect though- glare on the whiteboard can cause text to be harder to see or it may not read text correctly. I also use the audio function to record lectures, with instructor permission.
Tips for teaching OneNote
The OneNote app can be learned quickly and easily, and a student can be trained to use it in an hour. Students should first set up accessibility settings if they are using it as a desktop app (see “options” below for my settings). After that, learn how to create a notebook and save it to their OneDrive or their device. Next, students should add tabs and organize the structure of their notebook, as well as practice adding pages. Then, practice adding text and file printouts/images, which is as easy as uploading a picture. Finally, students can use the more advanced features such as audio recording, drawing with a stylus, and integrating with other applications.
Easy to access
OneNote notebooks sync across devices using a Microsoft account. I have the app downloaded on my laptop, desktop, iPad, and Android phone. I use it on my laptop and iPad the most frequently, though I also review my notes on my desktop computer after class- read more about why I brought a desktop computer to college here. I use the Android app when on-the-go or when the internet is out.
Default page settings can be edited in the Microsoft settings section- I set my default text size to Arial, size 22. Users can also change the page color, or choose to add lines or grids to the display in the “view” settings. In addition, I change the app color to dark gray to decrease the amount of blue light on my screen- read more about reducing eye strain with technology here.
Because of the point and type interface, it’s easy to create many types of different pages. Normally, I type out all of the information first, and take whiteboard scans while I am in the classroom. I also write out data to convert into charts and add links as need be. After class, I go back and convert data into media, rearranging it so it fits in a logical way, often using audio recordings for reference.
What I’ve used it for
I have used OneNote for many years, especially in college. Here are some examples of notebooks and documents I have created:
- Writing notes and adding symbols with a stylus in math class
- Taking a picture of the whiteboard in Java programming class to understand a diagram
- Creating an outline with sources inserted for a project in global health
- Taking notes from a website for English
- Combining my notes and the teacher’s notes in one document for environmental science
- Creating an interactive study guide for finals
- Making a portfolio of my assistive technology articles
Integrating with other Microsoft apps
It should come as no surprise that OneNote integrates great with other Microsoft apps. Printouts/copies of Microsoft Word documents can be inserted into pages, or as their own page, so that students can reference materials without editing the original document- read more about creating accessible Word documents here. Links to PowerPoint presentations can also be added so that students can review copies of teacher notes- read more about creating accessible PowerPoints here. The OneNote app on iPad also has technology for Microsoft Lens built in so that users can scan in images, documents, and whiteboard images- read more about Microsoft Lens here. Finally, it’s easy to add in links to Microsoft Sway presentations, which are screen reader friendly and easier to access than PowerPoints- read more about Sway here.
How my teachers have reacted
At my first high school, my teachers hated that I would use OneNote, because it seemed so different to them and they had no training on how to use the software due to limited technology resources. I would frequently be asked why I couldn’t just use Word.
My second high school embraced technology and I used OneNote in all of my classes. I was invited to do a presentation on educational technology for my school district my senior year, along with two of my friends, and we talked about how we use OneNote and other note taking apps in the classroom, and how I specifically used it as assistive technology.
My college professors don’t care what software students use, but my professors have spoken positively about OneNote and how much it can help students. One of my professors was especially fascinated with the Microsoft Office Lens integration and how I could scan in images of the whiteboard with complex diagrams.
I love using OneNote and it has helped me with keeping large amounts of files organized for my classes, as well as making documents accessible. Every student should be using the OneNote app to take notes in the classroom.
If you have found my Microsoft OneNote review helpful, please comment below. Thank you for reading!