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NoNotes: Furiously Scribbling College Students Take Note

College is hard. Not only are you waking up early to take classes to fulfill general education requirements that will make you a well-rounded individual, but during class you’re forced to walk a line between processing the words coming out of your professor’s mouth and furiously scribbling them down. The smart students bring a digital recorder to class, but then that only leaves you in the unenviable position of missing what might have been a memorable night of shenanigans because you’ve backlogged seventeen hours of recorded lectures and need to transcribe everything before next week’s final.

It’s no wonder that some students feel overwhelmed. You should be out there having the best years of your life. Sure, you’re learning along the way and preparing for the real world too, but does it have to take up so much of your time? Oh, well. It’s not as if there’s some sort of service out there that will take your recorded audio files and transcribe them, accurately and for a reasonable price, so that you don’t have to waste valuable Frisbee-golf time doing it yourself.

Actually, there is. It’s called NoNotes and it does precisely that. They’ll take your recorded MP3 audio files (most digital recorders record in MP3 format) and, for as low as $9.57 per hour, they’ll deliver you clear and accurate notes in 1-3 business days.

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NoNotes claims that their service allows students to focus on and participate in class lectures without the stress of trying to take notes at the same time. The idea is that you record the lecture onto a digital recording device (which they helpfully sell in a bundle along with 5 hours of transcribing time) and then upload the resulting audio file via the NoNotes.com website. You buy transcription time through the website, by the hour, according to the length of the audio file you uploaded. (If the uploaded lecture was 52 minutes long, you would buy an hour of time.) Within a few days, your notes will be posted to your online account, ready for highlighting.

Although NoNotes was created for students, it can be used by anyone, for virtually any transcribing purpose. Professionals attending industry conferences might use the service to transcribe a lecture from a keynote speaker, students can use the service to record classes they miss because of illness (relying on a friend to record the lecture), teams of professionals may record brainstorming sessions or meetings, or perhaps political candidates could use the service to transcribe their debates. The NoNotes.com website suggests several other uses, including having professors record themselves for the purpose of self-improvement. The possibilities are limitless.

I was somewhat shocked by how well-designed the NoNotes website was: clean lines, pleasing colors, and an abundance of smiling, attractive, multicultural co-eds holding up papers marked “A+,” all convene to make browsing the site a pleasure. The members’ area, usually a dreadfully utilitarian place on otherwise nice websites, follows the aesthetics of the veneer quite nicely. It’s easy to understand where to go and what to do. Payments are made through PayPal, quick and secure, and uploading an audio file is a snap.

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After signing up, I had to choose a file to upload. Since I’m not a college student anymore and I don’t bother to take notes when attending the few technology lectures that I’ve enjoyed over the last year, I had to dig around to see what I had. I eventually settled on a lecture that was taped for me by a friend who’s getting his doctorate in Eastern religious studies. The lecture was 45 minutes long and was about the differences and similarities between Buddhism and Islam. It also contained many Indian words referencing various obscure aspects of both religions and various cities and groups of people. It would be a challenge for anyone to transcribe accurately.

(I also briefly thought about throwing them a curve-ball by uploading a self-induced sleep therapy hypnosis audio file I found a few years ago during a bout with insomnia. The image of the transcriber trying desperately to avoid falling asleep while performing his/her job is very amusing to me. But in the interest of professionalism, I opted for the religious lecture.)

I received an email two days after I uploaded my notes, telling me they were ready, and I logged into the NoNotes website. My notes were available for me to download in both Microsoft Word and PDF format. I downloaded the notes and read them while playing back the original sound file. I had assumed that the transcribers would get the Indian words wrong, but they were, for the most part, spot-on. The notes were not the best in terms of accuracy, with many English words replaced by phonetically similar words (“smiling” became “smelliest”, “remnants” was “reminisce”, etc.), which was a bit confusing at times, but I think that, for the most part, the notes were very usable. I was left with blanks (——-) only a handful of times, where the transcriber hadn’t had a clue what to make of the lecturer’s spoken words. The notes, it should be noted, were not a word for word transcription of the lecture: many sentences were condensed, unnecessary words were removed, and some concepts were simplified. They were, in short, like reading a set of notes that I might take. Possibly better.

I have come to the conclusion (which I’d suspected all along) that the notes were transcribed by someone for whom English is not a first language, but would still be considered fluent. Judging by the remarkable accuracy of the Indian words, I am inclined to believe that the transcriber may be a native speaker from that region of the world. The notes might have benefited from a final once-over by a native English speaker, to help with some broken sentences, but, as I stated before, the notes were very usable and, more importantly, I didn’t have to sit there and transcribe them myself.

One thing that I would love to see added as a feature, perhaps at a later date, would be the ability to view the notes online, rather than needing to download them. An inline document viewer would allow access to the notes from a friend’s computer, which would be handy.

It occurred to me after getting my notes back that, in a strange way, the fact that the transcription service isn’t perfect may help students avoid using it as a crutch, which is one of the major criticisms lobbed at the NoNotes creators. The NoNotes website implies that the service is meant for instances in which you are forced to miss a class due to illness or were unable to take the notes yourself because you were too busy participating or focusing on the lecture, but perhaps the best use might be for the occasional day when you just didn’t have the mental bandwidth or clarity to take decent notes. Everyone has those days, whether you’re a student or a working professional. In this regard, the NoNotes service can be seen as more of a safety net than a crutch.

NoNotes offers a good, quick transcription service, much like medical or legal professionals use, for a decent price. It’s not perfect and it’s not a price that will allow you to use it for every class, but it might just swoop in and help save your grades when illness, family emergencies, football games, or general malaise threatens to sink them.

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