Many Options for the Notebook­— None Without Compromise

I’ve been searching for a good solution for our team notebook this year, but it seems like every one has its strengths and weaknesses.

In Tipping Point, our Google Slides notebook (made after abandoning a tradition bound notebook) was sorely lacking and difficult to use. In Spin Up, we attempted to use the EDEN Notebook which we found cumbersome as well. After a few weeks we decided not to continue with a notebook for that season, which precluded us from winning any awards despite our good robot performance and strong interview.

Notebooks can broadly be divided into two categories:

Paper Digital
Pros
  • Lower latency from idea to record
  • Possible to satisfy most of the requirements in the Guide to Judging
  • Paper has been around for decades and works
  • In the unlikely event that a competition has no internet, it will be accessible
  • Easy to add hand sketches
  • Ultimate flexibility
  • Can't get lost
  • Neatness from typing and digital layout
  • Already digital for online judging comps
  • Easily insert photos, videos, and CAD
  • Faster than hand writing
  • Can collaborate over the internet with the team
  • Can use templates for each page for consitstency
Cons
  • It could get lost or damaged
  • Would need to digitize for online judging only comps
  • Difficult to add photos, videos, and CAD
  • Have to hand write everything (slow)
  • Collaboration is more difficult
  • Less streamlined workflow; cumbersome
  • Impossible to satisfy many Guide to Judging requirements
  • Hard to add sketches
  • Must be printable for paper only judging
Within those categories there are several of options, so some of the pros and cons don't apply to every one.

Paper:

Removable Bound Permanent Bound
Pros
  • Insert full printouts without glue/tape
  • Expandable with more paper
  • Can digitize with a sheetfed scanner
  • Option between 3 and 11 hole punched
  • Harder to edit
  • Keeps the notebook chronological
Cons
  • Sheets can be removed or changed out to edit history
  • Paper could tear out
  • Could shift pages around (non-chronological)
  • Have to glue in printouts
  • Might need multiple
  • Digitize by taking a photo of every page

Digital:

Slides (Google Slides) Document (Google Docs) EDEN
Pros
  • Templates available
  • Changes on one page wont mess up another
  • Easily convert to pdf
  • Can start an entry over
  • Arrange the content however you like
  • Nice table of contents
  • Using sections, can have individual date headers
  • Page number links auto update
  • Possible to verify when the changes were made
  • Can link to other headings
  • Native "draw" function available
  • Code Blocks addon makes pretty code
  • Fully immutable, signed, and timestamped after an entry is made
  • Headings and links
  • Each entry is distinct
  • Actually meets many of the Judges Guide requirements
Cons
  • Page numbers are fragile
  • Fomatting headings, sub-headings, etc. is cumbersome
  • Not immutable
  • Lacking in sketch capabilities(?)
  • Table of Contents is manual
  • Code highlighting appears limited
  • Formatting might shift around if changes are made
  • Limited to formatting in a document style, not as flexible
  • Forced into using all steps of the design process (pro/con)
  • The formatting of the final document was weird
  • Table of Contents was broken
  • Not many native functions (draw, equations, code highlighting)
  • Line by line formatting only

Please share suggestions or other options that your team has used and their benefits and drawbacks.

After making this post, I’m more interested in Google Docs and retrying EDEN, which I had previously dismissed. I think if EDEN had: improved table of contents, native code blocks (maybe with annotation), native drawings, improved formatting (like wrap text and math equations), svg support, a better UI, and native graphs, it would be perfect. Maybe I could use excalidraw for a drawings, codecogs equation editor for math, desmos for graphs. However, it would be better if it was all in one place.

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Nice post!

I have a few comments though.

This is also possible on Google Slides.

There is a draw tool as well as shape tools on Slides.

The text color, font, sizing, etc save when copy and pasting the code (at least from vexcodev5 to slides) Just plain screenshotting works too.
In my opinion, the “code blocks” thing inside of Google Docs takes up too much extra space.
—~—~—
What did you mean by “Page numbers are fragile”?
—~—~—

- Henry 344E

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Could you please explain these points in more detail? I have yet to come across any problems when judging/doing a digital notebook last season. In fact, if done correctly, a digital notebook can score the same amount of points as a physical notebook- especially since all that matters is the content of the notebook itself and not the manner in which it was done.

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Which judging requirements? I looked at the rubric and they all seem able to be done by a digital notebook except maybe evidence it was done in order with the design process. Also, I don’t agree with many of your cons of Google slides such as limited sketching capabilities, fragility of page numbers, and whatever you mean by “not immutable”

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I loved using EDEN as a teacher. Some of the features were added throughout the year last year, like the table of contents. It’s still not perfect, but it’s the best solution for me. I think the table of contents feature works fine now, but you have to do it as you go or you will have to go back and figure out that one step where you forgot to do it.

I have 20+ teams and EDEN makes it very easy for me to keep track of their progress on their notebook.

I think they were going to have the steps that you didn’t use in the design process disappear on the judging side, but I would have to reach out again.

The kids would do drawings in other applications and then just insert a picture. It worked well for the most part since you can’t edit it after the fact anyway. The only hiccup we had was when they would copy a picture straight out of their GMail it would show for them… and only them. So be sure to download and upload your pics. It might be something that they worked out at this point but I’m not sure, I haven’t been on the system in a couple of months.

They are continuing to add features and it’s gotten better since I’ve started using it. It’s also the ONLY application built from the ground up that is meant to be a digital notebook. Every other application is putting a notebook on top of something it’s not necessarily designed to do.

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Hi, Thanks for the Comment,
I meant that if you add a slide above, the slide number will not correspond to any page number added on the slide. Unfortunately I can’t edit my post so thanks for the corrections.

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It’s not in the rubric, it’s some I found in the RECF KB Guide to Judging. Whether that has any bearing or not, I don’t know.

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For #1, see my reply to EcstaticPilot. For #2, I meant if you want to add a hand sketch, you must scan it/take a picture or use a drawing tablet/ipad. The benchmark for “easy” is the standard paper notebook, sketches can just go straight in.

That used to be the criteria for a notebook but it has since been updated to make digital notebooks a viable option, which is why any of the things that are listed there that would usually only be possible in a physical notebook are not found in the current rubric found here.

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I wonder if they haven’t updated those guidelines since 2013, when changes made to US patent-law (first to discover to first to file) affected documentation requirements. Vex itself even notes these here:

Based on these changes to patent laws, some changes have been made to the use of engineering notebooks.

  • Witness signatures are no longer necessary because the notebook is not used for patent or legal reasons.
  • Crossing out unused parts of a page is no longer necessary because there is no need to show that nothing was added after the page was created.
  • Bound paper notebooks written in ink are no longer necessary because edits are now okay. Digital notebooks are now a valid option.

The rubric itself makes no mention of “Unedited entries, chronology, etc.” Instead, it says

Five (5) points if the notebook has evidence that documentation was done in
sequence with the design process. This can take the form of dated entries with the
names of contributing students included. The notebook should also include a table of
contents with entries organized for future reference.
If the judges and Judge Advisor believe that the majority of the notebook meets
these requirements, 5 points should be awarded. The Notes area below can be used
to note observations about the notebook (for example, entries missing from Table of
Contents) to assist in the deliberation process.

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Thanks for the clarification. RECF should update the guide to match with the current rubric.

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Awesome :sunglasses:
Given the “new” guidelines, what do teams at your organization use to create their notebooks? What has their experience been?

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Really impressed by your thoughtful analysis. I’ll agree with others, that the requirements changed a couple years ago, and there is no penalty for using the digital format. Agree that the linked KB article might be a bit out of date.

My advice as a judge advisor who has seen a lot of notebooks over the years? Do what works best for your club. I’ve seen amazing paper notebooks and amazing digital ones. Both kinds have won top awards, and as I read the guide to judging, there’s no preference for either format. Let your kids decide on a team by team basis? Recommend one format, to make it easier for your entire club submit for a given event? Push for the format that you think you can best support your students.

The design notebook is a way to allow your team to show their design process. It is an answer to “how do you come up with this amazing robot?” It can be a valuable resource for your teams in rebuilding a damaged robot and remembering the steps they took to arrive at their latest design. It can be really worthwhile for your team members, and hopefully not a terrible chore.

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My experience mirrors that of several other mentors…when RECF started allowing digital notebooks, I saw a big jump in the quantity and quality of entries for the teams I mentor. Notebooking became much less of a “chore”. My teams haven’t done anything terribly fancy - just a Google Doc

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Respectfully disagree. Our team has been using Microsoft PowerPoint for 2 years now, after a little initial setup using Master slides, as well as a couple hidden slides with frequently used tabs, headers, etc… It is very easy to make entries. The fact that you can edit a PowerPoint presentation from anywhere, even on a chromebook makes this the least cumbersome experience in note-booking I have ever had. I should know, during tipping point our team (98548-A) ended with 4, quality physical notebooks.

Due to the more streamlined workflow of our digital notebook, I think that our digital notebook takes much less time to record ideas than a physical one.

Digital notebooks do have their flaws, that is true, but I much prefer digital notebooks. Your workflow can be fairly seamless if you take the time to make it so.

Also, being able to have multiple people edit the notebook at the same time is very nice.

The only problem with taking pics of sketches is that the color of the paper you take the pic of will always be off from the background (especialy if digital in white), and trust me, i have to do it for art pieces for competitions all the time, and it always looks a lot worse than just hand drawing it on paper.

Some of the Judging requirements are that the notebook has to be permanately bound BEFORE the notebook was written/drawn, which means that a digital pdf file, satisfies none of that, so therefore you would get no points on one of the categories

Did the document eventually take a long time to load or lose responsiveness as it grew? I saw that Docs has a maximum word count and file size (1.02M characters/50MB). I’m curious to see if that’s real.

That is not true, see the comments above yours in this thread. The actual judges rubric found here does not award any points for any physical feature of the notebook and there are no requirements for being bound before record keeping starts or any other physical characteristic. Judging is now solely based on content and organization, not anything physical about the notebook, paper, or tool used.

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oh okay, I never saw the updated rubric, my comment was made on the last version of the rubric, thank you for clarifying