Updates to the site: Chromebooks and Note-taking

The start of term is coming upon us again soon, so I thought I’d update the advice on our Devices and Note-taking pages to cover Chromebooks.

Chromebooks are hybrids of tablets and laptops, offering the perks and flaws of both. However, they are not to be overlooked when choosing a device to bring to university. Certainly, if you are needing to use any form of specialist software (i.e. more than a web-browser and basic office-type programs), then Chromebooks are not for you. Yet, some of the newer models coming out boast battery life that is double that of a laptop, increasingly important if you want to bring your device to use in lecture rooms ill-equipped for charging laptops.

I’ve managed to get my hands on a Chromebook for testing and recently debated with myself whether I would buy that or a netbook-type laptop. Chromebooks are ideal for Google Docs – the cloud-based way of creating and managing files. In-class, Chromebooks have been used to facilitate collaborative working, sharing documents and doing on-screen analysis of data with add ons like the Fusion tables (see this video on Fusion tables). I tend to use Google Docs a lot, particularly when I’m creating documents or spreadsheets just for my admin, note-taking, or deliberately as ‘work in progress’ collaborative docs.

The limitation comes when you want to do photo editing, create complex documents or utilise specialist statistical analysis software – i.e. you want a real computer. As such, Chromebooks may be adequate for in-class use, but not as a general workstation computer. That informed my decision, so I got a netbook. Though low-powered, and not as much battery life, I’m not attending many lectures these days so for my use case it was more suited.

Anyway, I hope the new guidance and some of my thoughts will help inform your decision making:


Are you using the new tablets?

We’ve recently seen UK supermarkets releasing low-cost tablets to compete with Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Google’s Nexus and Apple’s iPad. We’re interested to know what you think of them. Have you bought one? What is it like? Is it well-built? Are the apps we suggest available on your device for reading PDFs or note-taking for example?

Share your thoughts and experiences here to help other students who are deciding what device to use.

Guardian write-ups:

Choosing a device to bring to university

For a lot of new students the choice between a desktop computer, laptop or tablet is a difficult one. What device is best for university?

The short answer is: it depends and there is no one device that does everything the best.

Choosing the right device

When thinking about a computing device, the following considerations may help you make a decision:

  • Does it need to be portable?
    • You may decide to have a ‘base’ computer (large laptop or desktop) for a ‘settled’ place of work, with a smaller device for on-the-go work, group work or for use in class.
  • How long is the battery life?
    • Different laptops have different battery life. It’s important to check this as usually the cheaper models have shorter battery life.
  • What sort of software will I need for my course and what files will I be expected to use?
    • Is specialist software only available on a PC or is it also available on a Mac or as a mobile App?
    • Does the functionality of programmes or files differ between versions/platforms?
    • Does you require a higher level of processor power, memory or disk space?
  • Will I need to print things?
    • It is difficult (sometimes impossible) to print from tablets and mobile Apps. However, most (if not all) institutions will have computer classrooms and printers.
  • Does it have a USB connection and can I back up my files easily?
    • Having a USB stick allows you to save backups of documents offline and in a physical form. Though you can also save to ‘the cloud’ (which is also highly recommended) this is dependent on having an internet connection to upload/access the files.
  • What activities will I be undertaking with the device?
    • If you will be primarily reading, you will want a device with a screen that is best suited to displaying and annotating documents (e.g. a tablet).
    • If you will be typing long essays, you will want a good keyboard to avoid uncomfortable typing positions (e.g. a desktop, laptop, or blue-tooth keyboard-compatible tablet)
    • If you are doing programming, multimedia work or data analysis, this may determine what device you can use by the platform or software you have to use.
  • How much is the device and how much is it to insure?
    • Insurance for theft and damage is a must for any computer equipment that is going to form an essential part of your study life.

Computer classrooms

At this point in time most, if not all, institutions have computer classroom facilities, which provide computers with specialist software for your course and printing facilities. Whilst these are provided, you are restricted by location and possibly availability if they are also used for teaching. Hence, most students do come to university with their own computer, if only to give them the flexibility to work where and when they want.

Mix of devices

Many students will use more than one device, whether that’s their own personal laptop and smart phone in conjunction with institutional computer classrooms, or a desktop with a tablet.

Take a look at our quick guide to the pros and cons of different computing devices for reading on screen to help you decide:

Current student/tutor? Share your experience

If you’re a current student or tutor, post a comment below with the devices you recommend or chose to bring to university and why, and help out new students starting this Autumn.

Reading on screen fatigue

We’ve had some feedback asking for more detail on how to overcome reading on screen fatigue and put those headaches at bay. If you are desk-bound, take a look at my top tips.

Working environments

However, most of the physical and health problems associated with on screen reading often come from expecting too much from yourself – we are not infallible and sometimes adjusting our own practice and working environments can make a huge difference. Take a look at the display screen use guidance issued by the Health and Safety Executive, or if you are in a medium-large organisation (including colleges and universities), you will have an on-site health and safety officer who will help you assess your current working environment and suggest improvements.

The right device for reading

If you have to read a lot of long documents, then a desktop computer is not ideal. You are positioned in an odd way, reading off a vertical screen. You should look at other devices which are more suited to extended reading, for example tablets (Kindle Fire, Galaxy Tab, iPad) or e-ink readers (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony Reader). Some research also suggests that using your desktop computer for different activities (e.g. reading and inputting) can increase your ‘cognitive load’ and it may be better to use one device for reading and another for reporting back/inputting so that you are not trying to multi-task too much on your computer screen.

Check our device guide for the pros and cons of different device types.

Matt’s top tips for desk days

OK, so we all do it… those days where you spend the entire day sat at your desk staring at that rectangular glare that seems to get brighter and more intense as the hours tick on.

We’ve already advised you to take screen breaks. It might sound obvious, but this means actually moving away from the screen and not looking at anything with an electrical plug attached to it for at least five minutes every hour. When you work at a computer, your eyes are fixed in one position for extended periods of time. Think about the last time you blinked whilst reading this! It’s amazing our eye balls don’t look like the parched sands of the Sahara. Dried out and tired eyes lead to headaches, and so does dehydration.

In addition to screen breaks, make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids whilst at work. Drinking plenty seems to me to be the simplest preventative measure against screen fatigue. I regret the days when I’ve forgotten to bring in my bottles of water, as come 2pm, I get sluggish and that headache brews – unlike the cup of tea I should have made myself earlier.

Finally, ensure that you’re working in a suitably lit environment. Don’t have the glare of the sun directly behind your monitor as you’re exposing your eyes to too many sources of light (different intensities and colours of light). Use blinds to block direct sunlight, use table lamps to illuminate your workspace, and learn how to set the brightness of your monitor to suit both the environment you work in and to make it comfortable on your eyes.


About the Reading On Screen site

New to the site? Download our quick guide first [PDF].

Who this site is for

  • Anyone spending lots of time reading on screen
  • Anyone looking to ditch pen and paper
  • Anyone wanting to know how to get the most out of their mobile device

What we offer

  • A ‘cheat-sheet’ to get you started: Reading On Screen Handout [PDF]
  • Helpful tips and tricks for different devices and documents (search at top)
  • Links to guides and videos

What you can do

  • Rate the pages that work for you
  • Comment with your feedback and suggest other resources we should link
  • Complete the form below to help with our research

We’re really pleased to launch this site available in direct response to student feedback at the University of York.

More than ever before, students have such a vast amount of digital literature available to them via the University Library and resources their teaching staff have posted on the Yorkshare VLE to support their studies.

We find that the techniques used for paper-based study are different from those required to engage with digital resources. What we have found from discussions with students is that these techniques are not taught, and are often unknown. Annotation, as one example, is a different process using digital devices than with pen and paper. At first, digital annotation may seem laborious, but, as with all things, practising the skill makes it easier. Similarly, the way documents are presented on screen can be improved with a few simple tricks such as using full-screen view or reading views built into software.

Our aim is to help students discover these tricks, tell us which ones work, and encourage comments and contributions with your suggestions and approaches to reading on screen.

Happy reading!

Matt Cornock
Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York

Blayn Parkinson
Elearning Development Team, University of York