Introducing Students to an Electronic Lab Notebook

By  //  July 28, 2021

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Technology has established itself solidly in the classroom, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic forced students to learn remotely. A laptop has long been a necessity for the modern college student; will an electronic lab notebook (ELN) also become a must-have?

Before you start worrying too much about having to purchase and care for another piece of technology, let us explain what an ELN is and is not. It isn’t a dedicated tablet for taking digital notes. It is instead an application, accessible via computer and sometimes mobile device, that duplicates the functionality of a traditional paper lab notebook as well as usually including other useful features for researchers.

Benefits of an Electronic Lab Notebook for Students

Why is an ELN a good tool for students? Is it a better choice than a paper notebook?

From a purely practical standpoint, it’s one less thing for a student to have to carry around and keep track of. Just like the digitization of textbooks, it saves students from having to lug a heavy backpack and hope that they remembered everything they need for class. 

Using an electronic lab notebook will help students prepare for careers in science. With many private and academic research labs implementing ELN systems, familiarity with them and their various features will be helpful for graduates as they enter the workforce.

Some ELN systems feature functionality that allows for the sharing of data, in-app conference calls, and other collaborative features. This can make it much easier for students to complete group projects, as there will be less need to coordinate schedules to meet in-person.

An electronic lab book may also be more accessible for students who find it difficult to hand-write lab notes.

Benefits for the Instructor

Many of the benefits enjoyed by students can also be experienced by the instructor. For instance, it cuts down on time wasted when students have lost or forgotten their lab notebook.

Professors need not wait for the students to turn in their physical notebook; they can access all relevant data through the system in order to check progress and grade assignments. Likewise, they won’t have to deal with messy notebooks that have been poorly cared for, stained by spilled drinks and dropped snacks.

Instructors may find that students are more engaged when they have access to an exciting application that has useful features that can improve their learning experience.

Drawbacks to an ELN

There are some drawbacks to an ELN. For one thing, either the university or the student (or possibly both) may have to pay for access to an ELN system. If the student has to pay, they may balk at the additional cost on top of tuition and textbooks.

If students either don’t have access to a laptop or mobile device, or are using an outdated model, there could be compatibility issues.

If students only ever use an ELN and never become familiar with a paper lab notebook, they may be at a disadvantage when they have to work at labs that do not have an electronic lab notebook (some grants, for example, require that data is recorded in a traditional paper lab book).

It is up to each institution and instructor to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of an electronic lab notebook before deciding what choice is best for their students.