Electronic lab notebooks useful for teaching, but not ready to replace paper

August 31, 2005

DURHAM, N.C. -- Electronic laboratory notebooks can be a valuable part of a college science education but are not yet a substitute for traditional paper laboratory notebooks, according to a Duke University chemistry instructor.

"The reason it is a big year for electronic laboratory notebooks is that several of the major pharmaceutical companies are ready to provide their scientists electronic laboratory notebooks," said Todd Woerner, who manages chemistry teaching laboratories at Duke. "So suddenly they're a huge deal for universities."

However, he said, "It's advantageous at this point [for college chemistry instructors] not to make the jump completely to electronic, because academia and industry research labs aren't there yet either."

Woerner will speak at the latest national meeting of the American Chemical Society at 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, in room 151B of the Washington D.C. Convention Center, during the session on "Bridging the Gap from Paper to Electronic Laboratory Notebooks."

According to Atrium Research, a scientific research consulting company, 12 percent of the potential market for electronic notebooks uses them, with the amount of money being spent on them increasing at 30 percent per year. Most of the buyers are businesses, not universities.

"We're crossing over from what I call the 'earlier adopter' market to the 'pragmatic' market," said Michael Elliot, president of Atrium Research.

Over the last four years, Woerner has integrated electronic laboratory notebooks into three advanced undergraduate chemistry laboratory courses at Duke, having received a grant from Duke's Center for Instructional Technology to start the program. Each semester, he estimates 25 chemistry students at Duke use the electronic notebooks instead of paper ones.

Duke is "nearly unique" in using electronic notebooks for undergraduate chemistry education, according to Paul Kelter, director of the International Center for First-Year Undergraduate Chemistry Education. In a survey of the group's 150 members, he said none indicated they use electronic notebooks (Duke is not a member).

The electronic notebooks Woerner uses are Microsoft Word documents created on computers already in place on laboratory benches to record data from electronic sensors. Teaching laboratories, he acknowledged, can use such basic software for notebooks because undergraduate classes have different security and authenticity needs than academic and corporate research laboratories, which need verifiable records for patents and publications.

Electronic notebooks have enhanced chemistry laboratory courses, Woerner said, but have also created some pitfalls for students.

One success has come from the ability to require students to submit electronically their pre-lab write-ups 24 hours before coming to class -- which is logistically difficult with paper notebooks.

"The teaching assistants can read the pre-labs and get some idea of what the students do understand about this experiment and what they don't understand," he said. "Then, when the TA comes in to give a ten- or fifteen-minute briefing about the experiment, he or she can tailor it to the issues seen in the pre-labs."

Also, electronic lab notebooks can give students access to their data outside the laboratory, since they can upload their laboratory notes to individual web pages in the Blackboard online course management system that Duke uses. Then, when students turn in their work, the Blackboard system records the time of submission and does not allow the file to be altered, which helps minimize opportunities for cheating.

There are two main drawbacks to using electronic notebooks, Woerner said. For some students, the convenience of inserting computer-generated data, graphs and charts directly into an electronic notebook is outweighed by the difficulty of manipulating and formatting files. Also, students often prefer paper notebooks for writing equations and drawing diagrams, which can be difficult to produce in a word processor.

"Electronic notebooks haven't gotten yet to the point where they're easier for everybody," Woerner said. "But everybody looking into the future sees that this is where things will go and so it makes sense to commit to doing it better."

Duke University

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