Classroom Technology

Could Artificial Intelligence Automate Student Note-Taking?

By Benjamin Herold — February 26, 2019 6 min read
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Artificially intelligent digital agents are being marketed as a way to automate note-taking in the workplace, raising a big question for K-12:

Are classrooms next?

Take, for example, EVA, a “digital voice assistant” created by Silicon Valley startup Voicea. The AI agent can automatically read users’ calendars, dial itself into their meetings, and use natural-language processing algorithms to create real-time transcripts of what’s said. As a meeting progresses, EVA can also respond to voice commands (“EVA, add that to my to-do list”) and “trigger” words (“that’s a good point”) to highlight what’s most important.

In an interview, Voicea CEO Omar Tawakol described the technology as a way to help the masses employ the same listening and learning skills as top executives.

“Really good CEOs are 100 percent focused on their conversations, not looking at a screen,” Tawakol said. “Obviously, the same thing is true in classrooms. You don’t want people on their phones or opening up their laptops pretending to take notes.”

But for the time being, at least, even Voicea is keeping its distance from the education market.

There are practical concerns: Automated transcription in busy high school classrooms or large lecture halls is far more difficult than in a controlled conference room or online meeting platform.

In addition, an emerging body of research on computer-based note-taking offers reason to be skeptical that AI note-takers would actually help students learn.

And before adopting new tech, educators should drill down to specific questions on what problems they’re hoping to solve, for which students, under what circumstances, said Robert F. Murphy, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation who has written about artificial intelligence in K-12.

“I applaud attempts to think about applications of technology that can help students take more effective notes and highlight the key takeaways,” Murphy said. “I just don’t know if this particular application is going to provide that.”

Taking Notes With Tech

Before considering what’s technically possible, it’s worth asking whether outsourcing note-taking to artificially intelligent digital agents is even a good idea.

Big picture, taking notes can help students learn in two different ways, said Linlin Luo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Regensburg in Germany.

First, the mere act of taking the notes—listening to what’s being said, deciding what to record and highlight, and connecting that information to your prior knowledge—is valuable in and of itself. Researchers call this the “process function” of note-taking, Luo said.

Second, having a set of notes that can be reviewed later is also useful. This is note-taking’s “product function.”

The proliferation of digital devices in the classroom is already changing both, according to Luo.

Because students can generally type faster than they can write, for example, taking notes with a laptop tends to result in a more complete set of information. Laptop note-taking also reduces the cognitive load associated with multitasking, making it possible for students to process what they are hearing in the moment. And a study by researchers at California State University, Northridge suggests taking notes via laptop is particularly valuable when assessments are also delivered via computer.

At the same time, however, taking notes via laptop has its disadvantages. Students using such technology take fewer “visual” notes, such as charts, drawings, and maps, Luo said. Their notes also tend to contain more verbatim transcription, with less attention paid to expressing important or confusing ideas in students’ own words. And hand-written notes often seem to serve as a better long-term “product” for students to review later, especially when it comes to understanding concepts and ideas.

The ideal scenario, then, is likely a rich set of notes, that includes a mix of text and other forms of information, taken in a “generative” way that allows for deeper mental processing and connections to prior knowledge. And such notes should be something that students actually review later.

Could artificial intelligence help make that vision a more consistent reality?

Tools such as EVA could certainly help students take more complete notes, allowing them to pay closer attention to what is being said during class, Luo said.

But more information isn’t always better. Both the process and the product functions of note-taking could suffer if note-taking is outsourced to AI, she said.

“If something else is taking a complete set of notes for students, I don’t know if that will help them integrate new information with prior knowledge,” Luo said.

“How many things do we record, and think we’re going to go over it, but we never actually do?”

Limited Classroom Applications

From a practical standpoint, other AI-powered technologies already in use by K-12 schools—including adaptive software, automated essay-scoring tools, and voice-activated “smart” speaker systems—also offer lessons for what to expect from digital note-takers.

So far, the K-12 applications of such tools are mostly rudimentary, said Murphy of RAND. Few use machine learning and other advanced AI techniques that allow digital tools to discover patterns and identify relationships that are not part of their original programming. And while some educators are excited about the instructional potential of higher-powered AI consumer products, so far tools such as Amazon’s Alexa speaker systems are mostly being used for basic purposes like spelling practice and managing classroom transitions.

There are also significant privacy worries, Murphy said. And many schools’ broadband infrastructure is not currently equipped to support widespread adoption of such tools.

In plotting Voicea’s business strategy for its EVA note-taking assistant, Tawakol has been cognizant of such issues.

Compared with the workplace, “the problem with class notes is that audio capture is not always good,” he said, making the accuracy of AI notes worse than what students can often record on their own. It’s a big reason why Voicea is not currently going afer the education market.

Furthermore, try to imagine: Would teachers and students need to consent to have their every classroom discussion recorded and processed by digital agents? What might a real classroom look like if every student is busy telling their digital assistant what to notate during a group discussion?

Add all the questions up, and the best use cases for artificially intelligent note-taking systems in the near-term might be relatively limited, said Murphy of RAND.

“If you’re absent or have a learning need that makes it difficult for you to keep pace, I could see value,” he said.

And longer term, the companies behind artificially intelligent note-taking systems will have to offer more than just automated transcription if they want to break into the education market, Tawakol said.

That could mean making it easier to highlight what’s important, or to quickly navigate notes, or to share key bits with teachers or other students.

And hypothetically, he said, digital assistants could also be pitched as a way to alleviate students’ concern that their own notes won’t capture everything. That could free them up to use other tools—even pencil and paper—to capture in-depth thoughts and reactions to the material that most impacts them emotionally and intellectually.

“The innovation has to be in the user interface,” Tawakol said. “You could get the best of both worlds.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Automated Note-Taking Par for Business, But What About K-12?

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