• iOS App Review - CourseNotes

    Using an iPad in the classroom has its benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, you have an unbelievably lightweight device that can hold digital copies of textbooks and class novels with a full sized keyboard, plus battery life to get you through the day (or two). Taking down notes quickly can be a hassle, however, and despite the ease of drawing diagrams with an app like Adobe Ideas, the humble lecture book and pen still takes the cake for drawings and sketches.

    There's also an important question to answer when you decide to use your iPad for work over endless Fruit Ninja replays: which text editor is the most suitable? Notes does the basics but quickly proves ineffective. Pages is a fantastic word processor but doesn't always work best in a lesson (there's no way to draw freehand or quickly access previous lessons). Then there's the App Store with its many note taking apps. One of those is called CourseNotes and may just provide the optimal solution for many students.

    CourseNotes allows you to create subjects with some basic information (instructor name and URL, though I prefer to fill in a contact email address here) and an appropriate icon. This creates a folder of sorts, accessed from the main menu and made up of Note Sessions, or lessons/lectures. Inside the sessions, you'll find a blank notebook with an icon in the top right corner to create a new note. These can be of any length and include some bonus features for advanced note taking.

    The attachment icon creates a blank grid canvas for drawing on with standard features (colour, size, eraser etc) but no control over the size of the grid. This can be frustrating for more detailed diagrams, but in this case, perhaps a more full-scale drawing app like the aforementioned Ideas would be a better option. Strangely, there's no option to add a saved photo to a note, a small addition with huge advantages for the user. Instead, each note has the option to create a to-do. This is, of course, the perfect place to type the lesson's homework or assignments and includes the option to set a due date.

    On that same ‘new note’ menu bar you'll find a print option, the ability to move the currently selected session to another subject or add a term to the lexicon which serves as a mini in-built dictionary of terms relevant to the course. This is especially useful where specific use of terminology is required. CourseNotes will even try to find the corresponding Wikipedia article to that term when asked through the popover that displays that list of words and phrases. Finally, the app can export notes to share with another iPad running CourseNotes or via email. One small gripe: attachments disappear when sent through email, which can be frustrating with diagram-intensive subjects.

    One particularly interesting feature is the backup to Facebook feature. By logging in with Facebook Connect, you can keep an online copy of all subject notes for yourself, your friends or everyone depending on your privacy settings. This might be useful for small study groups but I don't necessarily see the use in uploading pages and pages of information to your Facebook profile. As a personal backup, it's an interesting solution to a common problem. CourseNotes pesters you to backup regularly and while this behaviour might seem annoying at first, it is an incredibly useful feature to have in case your iOS device loses everything. It's unlikely, but always possible.

    Editor's note: I lost almost a month's worth of data on my iPad last week due to a combination of travel to the other side of the world, an enormous stack of work and Lion upgrades distracting me from regular backup. My CourseNotes information was mostly there because of these backup options, and so I'm especially grateful for this feature. The more this functionality is included in apps where data is entered and stored, the better.

    I'm not entirely satisfied with the navigation and design of CourseNotes. While getting to things is easy, it can take a while to dig deep enough and place a note in the right place. Navigation looks better in portrait but landscape is a much better way to type notes out, so some conflict is created there. And while I enjoy the pseudo wooden panel/leather book concept in most apps, I'm not entirely convinced it works well here. Another small gripe: very few text options exist in the word processing aspect to the app. It would be nice to change a font or a size here and there.

    However, CourseNotes is a solid utility. Organising lectures by session instead of a folder or group makes so much sense and eases the process of recalling information greatly. Sketches and todos complement a solid note taking application with many strengths and only a few weaknesses. Combined with the Mac application and a sync between all Apple devices, CourseNotes truly constitutes a complete and powerful note taking app, making the iPad a far more productive device than if it were left to its built-in abilities.

    Version reviewed: 2.5
    Price: $5.49
    Developer: Dear Panda LLC
    App Store
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