Volume I Number 2, April 1994

C-Note: A Computerized Notetaking System for Hearing-Impaired Students in Mainstream Post-Secondary Education

Andrew Cuddihy
Brian Fisher
Rick Gordon
Elizabeth Schumaker
Queen's University


Computerized notetaking is an effective tool being used by hearing-impaired students at lectures and seminars in mainstream classes in colleges and universities. This article describes C-Note, a program that provides significant benefit over existing computerized notetaking. C-Note -- developed by a computer programmer who is a student with a hearing impairment and a learning specialist -- allows communication between the student andthe notetaker, independent use of linked computers, and production of hard copy notes from each. The C-Note system architecture is described in detail. Advantages of the system for the student with a hearing impairment are discussed.

Educational implications of using C-Note, and other computerized notetaking systems for hearing-impaired students in the mainstream classroom, are noted. Potential modifications to C-Note are suggested. The need to develop additional learning strategies to help students make effective use of the enhanced quantity and quality of lecture material is identified.


Students with hearing impairments can find the classroom a difficult environment. Classroom learning is predicated on the aural acquisition of information, generally from lectures, questions, answers, and discussion. However, this avenue is blocked for the student with a moderate-to-severe hearing impairment. Universities place a premium on aural learning. Without appropriate resources and support, many people with hearing impairments who want to study within the mainstream university system, find it difficult to pursue their educations.

This article describes C-Note, a recently developed system for overcoming some of these problems. C-Note is a communications package that is designed to allow a student with a hearing impairment to benefit from lectures and participate more fully in the educational process.

Problems Facing Students with Hearing Impairment

Accurate notetaking is exceedingly difficult for a student with a hearing impairment. Reception and transcription of lecture material poses a major challenge because one cannot take notes while simultaniously relying on a visual system of information acquisition. For instance, if the student is an excellent lip-reader, under the best circumstances only about 65% of what is said is received. Additional information is lost when the teacher turns to write on the board, looks down, or walks beyond the point of optimal viewing for the student who is lip-reading. Material presented in an audio-visual format, such as overhead projections, can sometimes be followed, but accompanying verbal explanations are lost.

At present there are a number of strategies being used by hearing-impaired students to acquire classroom, lecture material. For example, manual notetakers may be used, but their interpretation of the material may be selective or incomplete. Some universities use close-captioned systems where a court stenographer types at a keyboard and the text appears on a television monitor, but court stenographers require special training, and their services are expensive and difficult to obtain. Hearing-impaired students may not be able to respond or ask questions unless they and the stenographer are trained in the same signing system.

Some institutions hire oral interpreters or persons trained in sign language to accompany the student. These systems allow the student to follow the lecture as it is happening and ask questions through the interpreter. However, trained interpreters are expensive and scarce. These systems do not permit the student to derive a set of notes without the addition of a manual notetaker.

C-Note System Design

C-Note uses two linked laptop computers, one for the notetaker and one for the student. The computers are chosen for portability. On each computer the display is divided horizontally into two windows. The upper window displays incoming messages. Text and messages are entered in the lower window and are sent to the other computer.

During the lecture, the notetaker types in lecture material which then appears on both screens. Although previous systems have used this approach, the C-Note system goes beyond this by allowing the student and notetaker to communicate with each other via the computer. With the C-Note software, the student and notetaker can exchange messages over the serial line. The messages are appended into the workspace of each laptop and may be saved to disk on each computer as a permanent record of the session.

Other systems do not generally allow the student to review the lecture material during the lecture. With C-Note, the student can scroll back through the workspace while the notetaker continues to type, facilitating better consolidation of the lecture material.

Special Design Features

C-Note has specific features that assist in the notetaking process. For example, a typist listening to a lecture and typing has little time to make corrections or to observe margins. Simple editing functions are built into the program so that the typist can insert, delete or overwrite text. Automatic word wrap frees the typist to concentrate on the lecture. The word being typed when automatic word wrap forces a new line becomes the first word of that line. When the end of line is reached, the current line is automatically appended to the end of the body of text, i.e., the session log, on both machines.

Each laptop keeps a record of the entire session in its local workspace. Sometimes sections of a lecture must be changed or discarded, for instance, if a lecturer digresses or makes corrections to material presented previously. C-Note has a built-in, full-screen editor that lets the typist or student make large scale changes to the material very easily.

Modes of Operation

In a typical lecture situation, the program is operated in 'chat' mode, which is the default mode of operation. In chat mode, as text is typed it appears in the lower window of the typist's display and the upper window of the student's display. Simultaneously, the student can enter messages. These appear in the lower window of the student's display and the upper window of the typist's display.

The 'edit' mode lets the student scroll back through the material in the local workspace while the typist continues to type. If the student selects edit mode, the typist continues to operate in chat mode, documenting the lecture. Incoming text continues to be appended to both workspaces. If the edit window is displaying text near the end of the student's workspace, new lines of text will be displayed as they are received from the typist.

System Architecture

C-Note is based on a peer-to-peer model. Each machine runs identical software, and participates equally in the communications process. The null modem serial cable is wired so data sent by one laptop is received by the other, and vice versa.

The components labelled 'Popup', 'Editor' and 'PwrEd' are objects operating within the program. Two instances of the PwrEd object have been used. The first is labelled 'PwrEd(1)', to distinguish it from the other, which is labelled 'PwrEd(2)'. When a key is pressed on the keyboard, a scan code is generated. The scan code is selectively passed to the 'Popup', 'Editor' or 'PwrEd(1)' objects depending on the current mode of the program. The default mode is 'PwrEd(1)'.

PwrEd(1) is the power input editor. It handles the task of editing the current line of outgoing text, buffering the data and updating the screen. Scan codes received by PwrEd(1) are echoed to the remote system by passing them to the component 'Tx,' which represents the interrupt driven send routine.

At the other end of the cable, the interrupt driven receive routine, represented by 'Rx' receives the scan code. The incoming scan code is passed to PwrEd(2). PwrEd(2) responds to the incoming scan code in the same manner as PwrEd(1), so the lower window of the PwrEd(1) object looks identical to the upper window of the remote laptop, which is handled by PwrEd(2). This is how the windows are synchronised.

When PwrEd detects the end of a line, either when the user presses RETURN, or if auto word wrap is triggered, then the contents of its buffer are transferred to the local workspace. This is how a log of the session is maintained.

When 'Edit' mode is invoked the users can make changes to the local workspace. They can scroll back through the log, and add, change or delete lines of text. If the edit window is displaying text at or near the bottom of the log, incoming messages will cause the edit window to refresh, so the user gets a true representation of the contents of the log.

Advantages of the C-Note System

There are many advantages to this system. C-Note lets the student with a hearing impairment receive virtually all of the information presented in the classroom. This is increasingly important in a multimedia lecture environment where more emphasis is placed on interactive learning. The notetaker can not only enter lecture material, but also questions from other students, explanations that follow, and contextual commentary (such as sighs and groans). C-Note also facilitates interactive communication and encourages the student with a hearing impairment to be an active member of the class. The student can type a question or comment and the notetaker can direct it to the appropriate person and then relay the response.

A very important component of the program is the editor window. The scrollback feature (in edit mode) lets the student review portions of the lecture that were missed while copying diagrams or attending to visually presented material. The scroll back function allows the user to catch up and to relate the visual material to the spoken explanation or to a comment or a question. Switching between edit mode and chat mode is accomplished with a single keystroke.

The system is compact, easily portable, and can be stored anywhere. It uses IBM PC compatible hardware, which is easy to acquire and in no danger of becoming extinct. With C-Note, little specialized training is required. The notetaker must have excellent typing skills and be familiar with the course material. Often upper year, undergraduate students or graduate students can be employed.

Educational Implications

The implementation of C-Note pilot project which ran from June 1992 to May 1993 afforded an opportunity to explore the implications of the system.

From the student's viewpoint, difficulties with previous systems included not having complete information to study from: ". . . There is a certain amount of bias and subjectivity on the part of a manual notetaker. It was difficult for me to determine just how complete my notes where. Often it was not until I was faced with an exam that I realized that certain information was not in the text and was also not in my notes. The computerized notetaking is a real boon for me. It never fails to amaze me how much I have missed out on while using a conventional notetaker."

The student, notetaker and lecturer must work as a team. The student and notetaker quickly develop an appropriate short- hand which expedites both note-taking and communication. The student is not a passive member of the team. For instance, one of the student's functions is to follow and transcribe visual material such as overhead projections.

The notetaker must be familiar with the course material, because words and symbols and formulas can be confused. The material comes too fast for the uninitiated to obtain a good verbatim account. Also, notetakers must record all information even if comments or questions by students don't appear to make sense. This gives the student with a hearing impairment a sense of where others in the class are having difficulty.

Clearly, with C-Note, the student's participation in classroom activities can be increased. The student can formulate questions and observations. This can serve to remind the lecturer and class of the student's participation in, and valuable contribution to the learning process. This system thus affords the student some control over the lecture process, and motivates the student to stay 'tuned-in' throughout the lecture. This gives the student a sense of competence, replacing feelings of disconnection and helplessness. Not only is the level of participation in the lecture increased, but after the lecture, the process of reviewing and revising notes from the almost verbatim transcript closely approximates the hearing student's learning experience.

The C-Note Experience in the Classroom

Careful introduction to faculty, staff and students was essential to the success of the C-Note program at Queen's. Objections to the system included concerns about the noise of the keyboard and the continuing distraction for the class because of the new and foreign activity. The student commented that ". . . The noise of the keys was distracting to professors and students early on, but people quickly grew accustomed to the scene and ignored it." Some professors tended to use the noise from the keyboard as a cue for pacing their presentation. The notetakers informed them that this wasn't necessary, and assumed responsibility for alerting the professor, as would any student, when a pause or clarification was necessary. As the school term progressed, some classmates took advantage of the system by sitting behind the notetaker so they could follow along. Consultation and cooperation among student, notetaker, professor, and class ultimately led to increased acceptance of the system. At the completion of the pilot project, the student with a hearing impairment was extremely enthusiastic about C-Note, and commented " . . . I strongly encourage anyone considering trying computerized note-taking to give it a shot ."

It is important to note that technology by its self doesn't solve all problems. The additional lecture information afforded to the student with a hearing impairment requires careful educational support to be properly utilized. If this is not done, the sheer amount of lecture material can overwhelm the student who is accustomed to a more passive role in the lecture process, where decisions regarding quantity and relevance of information have been made by the notetakers. Thus a program such as C-Note dramatically increases both the student's involvement in, and responsibility for, the lecture process. Future modifications to C-Note might involve generating symbol dictionaries, accessible by a single key-stroke, to facilitate notetaking during mathematics and science lectures. Post- lecture editing functions are now typically accomplished using a word processing program. Word processing functions could be incorporated into the program and tailored to individual needs. The day may yet arrive when professors request a computer of their own linked to the C-Note system to review what has been said during the lecture and perhaps to comment directly to the hearing-impaired student. The time has clearly arrived when technological innovations can reduce or eliminate the educational and social isolation of the hearing-impaired student who wishes to pursue education in a mainstream classroom, and at the same time, prove a benefit to all students.

To Obtain a Copy of C-Note

  1. CNote has been uploaded to CompuServ, IBMSPECIAL forum, to the 'Software' library. The file is called 'CNOTE.ZIP'. The distribution contains the CNOTE.EXE program and documentation.
  2. CNOTE.ZIP can be downloaded from the Internet, using anonymous ftp from Kirk.CCS.QueensU.CA,, in the /pub/special directory.
  3. CNOTE is available on the Queen's Campus at the Micro Information Center in Dupuis Hall. The program may be copied from a master diskette.
Cuddihy, A., Fisher, B., Gordon, R., & Schumaker, E. (1994). C-Note: A computerized notetaking system for hearing-impaired students in mainstream post-secondary education. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 1(2).