Milanote is My Tool For Teaching in a Pandemic

This past spring semester, when all classes went online during the Coronavirus pandemic, I was suddenly in need of a way to keep my students connected and able to work together. I needed something that ideally would work for my discussion-heavy senior seminar that was working through some tough texts, and also be useful for intense group video documentary work being done in a visual anthropology class. Everyone was under a lot of stress so I wanted something to which everyone could quickly and easily adapt and that would allow for easy online collaboration in real-time. I wanted a virtual workspace where students in my class could work in groups to sketch things out, create task lists, and share work.

Students access the Internet in a variety of ways and may have uneven access to the highest speeds of connectivity, so it was also very important to have something that would load quickly and work on phones and Macs, PCs and even Chromebooks. Ideally, it would also allow me to observe students working, that would notify me when they made changes, and allow me to make comments directly on what they were doing. I wanted something intuitive, easy to use, robust, and polished.

The moment I tried Milanote I knew it was what I needed to make online teaching work. When the pandemic hit and everything got complicated and uncertain, my discovery of Milanote was a relief. Its no-nonsense interface, intuitive navigation, colorful icons and straightforward sharing tools were inviting during an otherwise stressful time. After only a few minutes of playing around with it, I was up and running with their free version and had decided to try it out in my next class.

Using video conferencing software like Zoom alongside Milanote made for a powerful combination that connected my class in a common structured and collaborative workspace and worked better than I could have imagined. It proved to be such a great tool that I got a subscription a few days later and ended up using it to structure mini lectures, notate guided conversations of texts, and take general notes on class discussions.

Of course, Milanote+Zoom wasn’t like being together face-to-face in the classroom. It worked very well, however, and if I’m being honest, for group work it actually offers some advantages over working together in face-to-face in a classroom. Students could access Milanote in multiple ways, make additions and changes on-the-fly and post relevant texts, images or videos. The workspace also made it possible for them to leave me questions or ask for feedback that I could then add at my convenience. I especially like the way it shares links and makes sharing and printing effortless.

While we don’t yet know what the pandemic fall semester will bring, one thing is certain—instructors will need to be flexible and adaptable. I’m already planning to use Milanote to structure lectures and other work for all of my classes as it offers an ideal way to connect things across any of the various ways we may experience teaching this fall.

I don’t even remember how I found Milanote, but I sure am happy I did. This past semester I created a very simple and effective workflow for teaching that I want to take a moment to share. I also have some solid ideas for how I may use it this fall. So, what is Milanote and how does it work? How did I find it useful during the suddenly-remote spring semester of 2020 and how do I imagine using it this fall?

What is Milanote?

Milanote is a shared online workspace structured on the idea of nested boards. The application’s workspace has a menu of basic drag-and-drop object types along the left side and some simple sharing tools in the upper right corner. The nested menu structure can be easily navigated from the upper left-hand corner. The interface is stripped-down, no-nonsense, and intuitive. Its instantly accessible and easy-to-use. This is a bonus for faculty that might not be familiar with technology.

The workspace object menu allows for the insertion of text blocks, arrows, images (with captions), video clips and links to web content. It thoughtfully allows for the modification of icons and colors so that workspaces can be visually distinguished. To get folks started, Milanote also comes with some predefined project templates for a wide range of tasks.

The contents of the workspace boards can be shared in a variety of ways: through a secret browser link; by adding individual accounts by email and assigning different editing privileges in various roles; or by exporting board content as laid out or in a linear document—PDF, DOC or TXT. This was great for times I used Milanote to structure online discussions, because after class I could easily share the boards with students. Students could also use boards to structure collaborative work in real time, and I could leave boards up or export and share them as necessary. While I initially wanted Milanote for online collaborative group work, I quickly settled on it to structure class discussions as a kind of dynamic and interactive white board—much more interactive than a simple online slideshow or video lecture.

Milanote has a phone app that allows for limited viewing of the boards in a linear format and has a “quick notes” feature that allows for clipping images or articles or videos from a variety of sources that can then be easily transferred to the computer-based application.

Milanote is so easy to use that I don’t really need to write much more of an introduction here. I encourage folks who are interested to give it a try for themselves.

How Did I Use Milanote In Spring Semester 2020?

When the pandemic started there were some immediate challenges for teaching and delivering class content: how to connect, how to lecture, how to discuss and how to archive. Milanote really came to the rescue because I could prep nested boards of material—images, video clips or typed notes before class and then share the screen with students as we went through them. Instead of the linear structure that is forced by the use of a Keynote or Powerpoint lecture, I found Milanote’s nested boards allowed me to prepare material that I could then insert into ongoing class conversations and even create more material on-the-fly as conversations progressed in real time. In a sense the nested boards were topics that I prepared in reserve to bring out at various times during the class. I also used some boards to do brainstorming activities or to talk about key passages in the book.

For example, when we had a discussion of Anna Tsing’s fantastic book, Mushroom at the End of the World, I prepped for the conversation with my personal notes as I would for a regular in-person class, but also clipped images, made some basic diagrams of relationships and added notes with discussion questions and other prompts. I built all of these into boards filled with text and image objects. As we had our class conversation I referred to my notes, pulled up an image or just drag and dropped a new element as the conversation developed. It worked as a kind of dynamic digital whiteboard, but because it was manipulable I could bend it to the will and direction of the conversation.

Since Milanote’s boards are persistent I could easily share them after class by providing a secret URL. I could also print the boards as PDFs to share on Canvas, our university Learning Management System. Best of all, if we didn’t reach the end of a discussion during one class period, we could return to the board in the next class exactly where we left off.

But there is something else, because the boards are sharable and editable, I could assign students as editors and then have them finish the work on the board before the next class.

I really liked the way using Milanote made group work dynamic and engaging. Prior to class, I could create a board for each group of students to use as a workspace and restrict access and editing privileges to just the assigned group members. Then, during class on Zoom I would break the class into groups and set them to work. Connected visually and verbally through Zoom while simultaneously sharing the same workspace on a Milanote board they could work in realtime to make notes, accomplish tasks, create to do lists and manipulate all items in the workspace. As a bonus, because I was the owner of the boards, I could watch students work “over their shoulders” in realtime—observing their cursors flying across the screen and their ideas appearing as they created objects, wrote notes, or added images or clips.

This worked really well because I could follow student progress during class time and give them feedback on their boards either live or after class. Because the boards persist on Milanote, the student groups could work outside of class time individually or together whenever their schedules allowed. The convenience of the phone app also meant that a group member could add or edit an object or idea at anytime of the day.

Of course this isn’t like working in person—presence makes conversations much more engaging. But in some ways for structuing group work Milanote was so helpful that I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to use it in some capacity after the pandemic is over.

How Do I Imagine Using Milanote this Fall Semester 2020?

This fall semester looks like it is going to be a mess of uncertainty with some teaching in-person, others online and still others teaching a hybrid mix of both. (Our local K-12 school districts have all recently announced they will begin entirely online!) Regardless of how we begin the semester, it’s likely that things will change. I have agreed to teach my classes “hybrid,” with some in person work and some online work. Of course, if COVID-19 cases spike in our area we could be forced entirely online or there could be students who miss days of class.

Right now, the only thing that is certain about the fall is that things will need to be flexible. So that I can most flexibly address these challenges, I’m planning to continue using Milanote as a flexible structure for holding things together. It will work to keep us connected when we are online, as it did this past spring, but when we are in-person I can also use it in class on the main classroom projector and have students in class (at distance) annotate or make changes using their personal phones or computers. Given the difficulty of having discussions with masks at 6′ distance, this might facilitate conversations in person that otherwise might be impossible. Also, if we go online for a period of time during the semester, the class will already be familiar with the tool and we can just continue our work online where we left off—just as we returned to unfinished conversations in subsequent classes last spring.

I’m also planning to use Poll Everywhere as a feedback tool in my large Intro to Anthropology class so I can also get a sense of where students are and what questions they have at specific points. Actually, that is something that would be really great to have built into Milanote—a way to add a PollEverywhere poll as an object that could be dragged into a board. I’ll have to suggest this to the folks at Milanote.

So there you have it. Milanote worked like a charm this past spring when the Novel Coronavirus pandemic hit, and I’m excited to keep using it this fall to hold things together while also keeping things flexible. I’ll post updates on how things go. In the meantime I encourage you to try it and please feel free to post any questions, suggestions or comments on your experiences below.

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