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Experimenting with electronic lab notebooks

Posted by Melissa on October 7, 2014

I’m using tomorrow’s Global Physics Department discussion of electronic lab notebooks with Ed Price as a kick in the pants to finally write the post on electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) that I’ve been meaning to write since last spring. Unfortunately, Wednesday nights are busy on the homefront so I’m not sure I’ll be able to join the GPD discussion. Instead, I’ll throw out a few thoughts here, and hopefully catch the GPD recording later.

Last spring I taught our advanced lab course (Contemporary Experimental Physics), which is typically taken by majors in the spring of the junior year. For the first time, I asked students to keep an ELN instead of a paper lab notebook. I spent quite a bit of time exploring options (OneNote, Evernote, GoogleDocs) before finally settling on LabArchives. Although not free for students to use, students only pay $10 for an account, which is not that much more costly than  a traditional paper notebook, and I found the software features and the technical support from LabArchives to effectively meet my needs.

Why did I make the switch to ELNs?

I’ve heard more and more professionals (in national labs, in companies, in university research labs) say that they are using ELNs, and I want to prepare my students for type of experiences that they will encounter in their professional lives. However, I also switched to ELNs for a variety of pedagogical reasons.

  • It’s easier to collaborate with ELNs. Students in a lab group can share their lab notebooks with each other and write comments in each others notebooks. And in some experiments, where each group builds on the work of previous groups, students can access the lab notebooks of those who went before them, without needing to physically borrow the notebook. Additionally, the software logs which students are making comments, and when, so I can see how each member of a group is contributing to the lab notebook.
  • ELNs make it easier for me to keep track of what students are doing. Particularly in the advanced lab course, where final projects take four weeks, it’s inconvenient to collect the lab notebooks from students to see how things are going. (Plus,I hate lugging around a stack of 20 lab notebooks!)  With ELNs, I can check in on the lab notebooks at any time, and for extended projects where much of the work takes place outside of designated lab time, ELNs allow me to track project progress in a less intrusive manner.
  • Because the software time stamps everything, I can tell if the lab notebook is a genuine record of the work as it is being done or if the lab notebook is filled out after the fact.
  • More and more work is being done on the computer so why not keep the records electronically.  It seems strange to require students to print out spreadsheets and graphs and Mathematica notebooks to paste them in a paper notebook.

What worked well with the ELNs?

  • All of the above: easy sharing of notebooks with peers; easy instructor tracking of student contributions and project progress, particularly for work done outside of scheduled lab time; more real-time record keeping. Perhaps most importantly, I sensed that the notebooks were a more genuine record of student work than what I have seen with physical lab notebooks.

What didn’t work well with the ELNs?

  • The lab notebooks contained fewer sketches (particularly sketches of the experimental set-up, physical models, etc) than a traditional lab notebook. Next time, I am going to encourage students to do more sketching on whiteboards, or on paper, and then use their phones to take pictures of those sketches. LabArchives has an app for phones that makes it easy to upload pictures directly into folders in your LabArchives notebook, but I didn’t highlight that feature and few students used it.
  • Although I looked at the student notebooks several times each week, I didn’t comment in the notebooks frequently. More often, I would use my observations of items in the lab notebooks to start conversations during the scheduled lab time. However, in course evaluations, students mentioned that they would have liked more comments from me in the lab notebooks.

What am I ambivalent about with the ELNs?

  • I asked students to bring their own devices to lab for their record-keeping.  Depending on the particular experiment (and the associated  instrumentation, lab space, etc), at times it was awkward to have three laptops close by so that each student could be taking notes in their lab notebooks. As tablets become more widespread, I think this issue will become less of a concern.
  • Although LabArchives allows students to export their notebooks as a PDF so they can have a “permanent” record of their work, I’m not sure how many of my students actually exported their notebooks. Once again, I could have helped address this issue by being more insistent that all my students export their notebooks at the end of the term.

What features was I looking for when selecting an ELN?

  • Each student had to have his or her own notebook, with the ability to share the notebooks with others in the class. I also wanted students to be able to comment in each others notebooks, as well as for me to comment in student notebooks.
  • I wanted to be able to populate the lab notebooks with some materials at the beginning of the term, and I wanted to be able to push out materials to the student lab notebooks during the course of the term, without overwriting anything that students had done in their lab notebooks.
  • Since students were using their own devices, the software had to work on laptops and tablets with a variety of operating systems. I also wanted the option for a phone app so that students could take photos with their phones and import them easily into the notebook.
  • The software had to be able to handle equations.
  • I didn’t want my students to pay much more for the ELN than the would have for a traditional paper lab notebook.

What did the students think about ELNs?

  • Students initially had a hard time figuring out how to organize the ELN, but eventually, each group came up with a slightly different organizational approach. Once that was established, the student response was mostly positive.

I will certainly continue using ELNs when I teach the advanced lab course, and I plan on sticking with LabArchives unless I find something that is a better fit. However, I know that discussions about ELNs elicit strong feelings and I’m interested in hearing about the experiences that others have had. Let me know in the comments if you have you used ELNs in your classes or research lab. If so, what software did you use and how did you like it?  Finally, consider joining the GPD discussion on Oct 8th at 8:30 pm CDT about ELNs.


3 Responses to “Experimenting with electronic lab notebooks”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist said

    Thanks for this great breakdown! I’m often turned off by anything that costs, but I can see why you went with LabArchives. For me the sketching part really resonated. I’ve been using a Surface Pro for the last few months and now I wish all my students had one. Then I’d probably just have them use OneNote since it does the handwriting best. Would you be satisfied with the digital resolution on an iPad? I hate writing on those but sketching I think would work fine.

    By the way, here’s the direct link to the GPD meeting:

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist said

      sorry, I forgot that you linked to it in the first paragraph. Oh well, the more the merrier 🙂

    • Melissa said

      When I’ve tried sketching on the iPad, I’ve not been satisfied with the results, but I assume the digital resolution will improve with time. In the meantime, I’ll just be jealous of the capabilities you have with the Surface Pro pen!

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