I’ve never had to do distance learning or teaching. But, for a semester while I earned my Master’s in Writing, Editing, and Publishing, I had the privilege of tutoring an introductory college/university-level English literature class.

But, I broke out in a cold sweat when I realised I had to learn how to effectively use the learning management system Blackboard. I had used it as a student but had no clue how to use it as a teacher.

Head exploding at the thought of using unfamiliar technology

My head was exploding with how much I had to do: read (and understand) all the texts I was going to teach, create learning and revision materials, and attend lectures and tutorials too.

But I did it and you can too

I know how overwhelming it can feel to navigate new ways of teaching with new technologies.

Right now, many students and teachers are in the same position I was in a few years ago: stressing about how much there is to do and how they don’t know how to do it using technology.

But, in the words of Susan Jeffers, we all have to

Feel the fear and do it anyway

Susan Jeffers, 1987

So, while pencil and paper may be the best way for students to take notes (see here to find out why), these four digital note-taking tools could help teachers and students alike solve some distance learning note-taking problems.


ReadWriteThink has a free digital interactive outline note-taking tool that uses Adobe Flash.

Beneath the tool are example lessons using the note-taking tool. There are lessons from years 3 through to year 12.

Interesting high school lessons that may suit your classroom include:

  • Persepolis
  • analyzing grammar pet peeves
  • writing professional resumes
  • an introduction to Shakespeare
  • speaking patterns in poetry
  • analyzing famous speeches as arguments
  • The Hate U Give.

Advantages of using with students:

  • the program has a tutorial showing them how to use the tool
  • students can choose formatting (roman numerals, bullet points etc) of the outline notes
  • students can use it to take notes or to plan and organize their own writing
  • has up to 5 levels of information
  • the app has a notes area that students can use to track information that doesn’t fit in the outline
  • students can print/save/edit their work as the app creates an HTML file of students’ outlines
  • lots of flexibility in how it can be used
  • comes with examples of use from already created units of work
  • students of many different ages can use it
  • free to use

Disadvantages of using with students:

  • students can only edit if they know HTML
  • adobe flash installed and working on students’ devices
  • students need to have their own devices if working on it at home
Evernote icon


Evernote is probably the most well-known app for taking notes.

Users can type notes, but also record voice messages, clip web pages, scan documents, and save pictures.

Evernote has the functionality to set deadlines and it can be used collaboratively. Users can create tags to categorise information and sync their notes across devices.

Advantages of using with students:

  • students can keep track of multiple sets of information from the one app
  • users can create notes mobile device as well as desktop
  • students have many options of how to take notes: typing text, voice recordings, saving pictures, scanning documents, and clipping webpages
  • users can set reminders and deadlines
  • students may already have used it
  • users can use it collaboratively with other students and teachers
  • students can integrate it with other apps and sync their notes across devices
  • there is a free version
  • the app has note-taking templates
  • students can use different devices because the notes sync across devices

Disadvantages of using with students:

  • tech headaches if things don’t work the way you/students expect
  • students need reliable access to the internet and data to sync notes across devices
  • some formats of note-taking (taking pictures, scanning documents, clipping webpages) are not effective learning as students don’t need to process the information and put it in their own words
  • once users reach the free storage limit they have to pay to use the app

Squid Notes

SquidNotes is a note-taking app that captures users’ actual handwriting. Then the handwritten notes can be exported as a pdf.

At the time of writing, Squid Notes is offering schools free education licenses until the end of the 2019/2020 academic year.

Advantages of using with students :

  • students don’t need to know how to type
  • users can export notes as pdf documents
  • students have to process information and put it in their own words, which makes it an effective way to take notes
  • free for schools to use until the end of 2019/2020 school year
  • users can use a variety of note-taking forms (Cornell, mind-map, doodle, outline, chart etc)
  • teachers and students can use the app to mark up pdfs (which is excellent for distance learning and note-taking because teachers and other students can add comments to and mark student work)
  • students could use the app to peer-edit work
  • variety of paper types/sizes (eg-lines, bullet journal, blank, squares)
  • users can send/cast notes to others (so it can be used in presentations)

Disadvantages of using with students:

  • messy writing will still be difficult to read
  • only available on android
  • may have to teach students to use it
Simplenote logo


Simplenote is a note-taking app created by the team behind WordPress. The app has a clean and easy-to-use interface and is free.

Users can access the notes on a variety of operating systems on both mobile devices and desktops. Notes are stored on the cloud.

Advantages of using with students:

  • syncs across all devices
  • notes can be tagged and categorised (like a blog post) so that information is easy to find
  • students can share their notes and publish them online
  • the app keeps revision histories so that previous versions of the notes are accessible
  • it’s free
  • it works on many operating systems: i0S, Android, macOS, Windows and Linux (and can be used on both mobile devices and desktop) which is excellent for distance learning and note-taking because as long as students have access to a device they can do the work
  • no storage size limits for notes
  • students can use it for coding and online writing because they can write in markdown
  • students can use different devices because notes sync across devices
  • the notes don’t take up storage on devices and computers

Disadvantages of using with students:

  • relies on cloud storage to access notes
  • students need reliable access to the internet and data
  • the app has small advertisements (because it is free and needs to make money somehow)
  • may have to teach students how to use it

Your students don’t know how to take notes:

Now that you’ve stopped cold-sweating through your t-shirt, and you have a few distance learning note-taking options, you might like to check out some of my other posts:

Your students struggle with basic study skills?

You’ve tried teaching study skills, but your students are still struggling to get the memo? Check out the CrashCourse study skills videos and use them with our engaging, no-prep visual note-taking worksheets.

student at laptop text "4 simple solutions for taking notes while teaching online'


Blackboard logo: By HolohanAJ – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84821329

Simplenote logo used for purposes of identifying the company, as per the fair use laws regarding copyright. Sources from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Logo_of_Simplenote.png