Universities review peer note-taking as assistive technology options multiply

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As offerings for assistive technology for note-taking proliferate, universities are deciding whether to supplant traditional note-taking programs with assistive technology and how to best shape accommodations for students with disabilities during the return to campus from the coronavirus pandemic.

Note-taking software company Glean published a white paper in May that surveyed staff at 95 higher education institutions about peer note-taking and assistive technology. They found a drop in those using peer notes as a primary note-taking accommodation from 43% in 2019 to to 25% in 2021.

Peer note-taking programs are when students are paid to take students are employed through a college accessibility office to take notes during class to provide to other students as part of disability accommodations. Assistive technology covers a broad swath of accommodations, including screen readers and text-to-speech tools, but also applies to the field of note-taking technology. That field is fast-growing, with Verbit, a leading transcription and captioning tool launched in 2016, gaining momentum during the pandemic and now eyeing an initial public offering.

‘Point A to point B’

Some schools, like Georgia Tech and Concordia University, generally slowed their peer note-taking programs in favor of a shift to assistive technology software, though peer note-taking remains an accommodation for those with hearing difficulty. While AI-powered transcriptions and note-taking tools can be helpful, how useful an assistive technology can be depends on the student, said Thomas McCoy, director of Student Disability Services at the University of North Georgia.

“The good way of looking at technology is considering it as a tool. It is an integral part of what we do, but ultimately is a tool that we use to get from point A to point B,” he said. “When I usually get somebody set up with our services, we get documentation, evaluations, and we review that documentation, but also sit down with the student to find out from them what has worked for them in the past and I’ll try to get an idea of how to interpret that into a college setting.”

A key difference between high school and college is the lack of an individual education plan for students with disabilities. When a student is going through K-12, students use an IEP to guide accommodations throughout grade levels. When those students reach college, they need to request accommodations. McCoy said the discussion around assistive technology for note-taking includes whether audio or video notes work best and whether the student has difficulty organizing information or needs to be able to play the lecture back.

At the University of North Georgia, the school maintains three note-taking accommodation methods. One is the traditional peer notes method, where notes are uploaded into a central system and then viewed by students who need them or leaders who need to review them. Another is Note Taking Express, a third-party solution where lectures are recorded and uploaded and then professional notetakers write up a set of notes. The last is Glean or Sonocent, which are audio notetakers that let students take notes and mark the parts of lectures where a note is relevant for later playback.

The difference comes in note organization — the peer or professional notetaker options are more helpful for students who need assistance in identifying key information. McCoy said most students use Note Taking Express, followed by Sonocent or Glean and then followed by traditional peer note-taking.

The distribution of which students didn’t change much during the pandemic, but McCoy saw far fewer students requesting accommodations throughout the pandemic.

“I think there were a lot of confusion going on, and a lot of people just didn’t follow through like we normally would see,” he said.

Notes like never before

There was an accommodation that came naturally through the coronavirus pandemic, though: recorded lectures. Georgia Tech’s Sara O’ Shea, a disability services coordinator, said during a Glean webinar in May that students who needed to request to record in classrooms before the pandemic were able to get that functionality through online learning.

“Nobody really requested a note-taking accommodation,” she said. “Professors were providing much more then they had in the past. Skeleton notes, PDFs, PowerPoints that they have never given out before.”

Shea said she explained to students they could screen-record lectures through Glean and often students replied that lectures were pre-recorded. Lecture recordings are a component of distance learning that surveys show students generally want when they return to hybrid learning. In an April survey from Top Hat, 75% of more than 3,000 students said they wanted lecture recordings in their future educations.

Universities are investing funding into hybrid classroom technology, like microphones, lectures and cameras to give students more choices when it comes to their learning experience even as the pandemic wanes.

“We’re looking into a new day where we have a lot more virtual and half-and-half, which is not bad. I think we’ll eventually get there,” McCoy said. “I think [the pandemic] just pushed us forward technology-wise about 10 years. It’s the way it it feels because we knew we were going to go in that direction, it was just how fast?”

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