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This week Dr Neil Cooke introduces Electronic Laboratory Notebooks, and offers advice on whether they could be useful for your students.

Digital notetaking is becoming the norm in personal and professional endeavours due to the maturity and ubiquity of software and hardware devices   which provide capabilities beyond paper. In the laboratory or workshop in   undergraduate science and engineering education, paper notetaking and capture is common and often preferred. The Electronic Laboratory Notebook is a part of the bigger challenge to evolve science and engineering education pedagogies   into the digital age.

The ELN is commonly used in industrial research laboratories where there is a strong requirement for capturing Intellectual Property (IP). ELN use increasing in education. Several recent studies have evaluated the perceived benefits of ELN using contemporary hardware devices such as laptops and tablet devices with stylus. A non-exhaustive list of ELN benefits from   these studies includes graph plotting; rich media use; connecting to equipment for control and data capture; embedding and analysing raw data; automatically saving progress; revision capabilities, standardisation and neatness via templates, multiple device access; collaboration and sharing content remotely. For staff, ELN benefits include remote assessment;   annotation capabilities; auto grading potential; aggregation and searching of students’ work [1][2].

The ELN solution supported by Birmingham is the result of a Collaborative Teaching Laboratory project run by students and staff across   colleges in 2016 which builds on previous studies. We developed the required   architecture and conducted several user acceptance studies. Positive comments from academics included “Set out of information is good, input of data occasionally fiddly”; “It prepares students for the next academic and professional levels”; “Minimises paper use, allows rich content, interaction   and data sharing.”; “Makes it easier to prepare the lab work and facilitates group working.”; “Easy to mark”; “easy to keep protocols/instructions   updates”. Positive comments from students includes “Easier to organise, share and implement pictures, videos and record audio” and “It is neater. Straight lines are easier to draw, easier to copy image”. Further findings can be found can be found in our European Engineering Education society publication   [3] and, recognising that students are more likely to embrace the ELN than   overworked academics, the students produced video available to watch on YouTube which attempts to convince us to use it! [4]

Current advances in mass-market ipad/tablet/smartphone devices and cloud-based notetaking software means that ELN in education has moved beyond   early adopter stage. It provides us with a tool to enhance student’s laboratory sessions to take advantage of the graphing, data embedding and collaborative features. However, as with all new technologies, we recommend that you   introduce an ELN into your teaching incrementally and/or optionally and ensure that paper-based versions of your sessions are retained as options, at least during the first cycle.

[1] T. J. Puccinelli, “Bringing technology to the First Year Design Experience through the use of Electronic Design Notebooks,” American Society   for Engineering Education, p. 26:1, 2015.

[2] S. Guerrero, G. Dujardin, A. Cabrera-Andrade, C. Paz-y-Miño, A. Indacochea, M. Inglés-Ferrándiz, H. Nadimpalli, N. Collu, Y. Dublanche, I. De   Mingo and D. Camargo, “Analysis and Implementation of an Electronic   Laboratory Notebook in a Biomedical Research Institute.,” PloS one, vol. 11,   no. 8, 2016.

[3] N. Cooke, P Robbins, J Lodge, I Shannon, K Hawwash, “Recommendations for Electronic Laboratory Notebooks in Undergraduate Engineering Faculty: A student-led case study” 45th Annual European Engineering Society (SEFI) 2017.


Further reading/ further resources

Cooke, N.J; Robbins P.T.; Lodge J.M.; Shannon I.; Hawwash K.I.M; "Recommendations for Electronic Laboratory Notebooks in Undergraduate Engineering Faculty: A student-led case study." 45th Annual European Engineering Society (SEFI) 2017.

Student video: