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Re: [Phys-L] query: digital lab notebooks

On 07/25/2014 01:39 PM, David Strasburger wrote:

A colleague and I are discussing possibilities.


It seems to us that there
could be some significant advantages over the traditional forms of
handwritten record-keeping in the lab.

There are.

These advantages might include
sharing records with a teacher who can comment remotely without collecting
the books,


and more seamless inclusion in the record of digital files such
as photos, video, or most importantly, data tables and graphs acquired from


(2) Word processing documents are editable; lab records written in pen are
permanent. We prefer a solution in which records, once made, may be marked
up and commented upon, but not erased.

Actually the digital lab book has the /advantage/ here,
because there exist revision control systems such as git.

You can "commit" the previous version, sign the commit,
and then edit the new version to your heart's content.
The current version can be whatever you like, highly
polished or not, while any-and-all older versions can
be recalled at the push of a button.

Note that the cryptologic signature is incomparably more
powerful than a pen-and-ink signature, because it is bound
to the /content/ of the document, not merely to the page.
Any attempt to change the signed version after signing
would be instantly detected and defeated. On the opposite
side of the same coin, you can freely make copies and begin
new versions without disturbing the signatures on the old

I've been applying this to my own work for decades, since
before it was fashionable. There are lots of funny stories
about the looks on the patent attorneys' faces, back before
they knew how to deal with such things, back before digital
signatures had been fully tested in court. But don't worry
about that. Nowadays digital documents stand up just fine
in court. The detail in the digital log book can be used
to crush anybody who dares question the authenticity of
the work. Been there, done that.

Another advantage is that git is fully concurrent, so team
members can edit stuff simultaneously. This would be next
to impossible with an old-fashioned dead-trees logbook.
Also it means that the teacher can be ex-officio part of
the team, and can see who's been committing stuff and who

There are additional lesser advantages, too numerous to

(1) it's much easier to draw a quick lab diagram by hand in a notebook than
it is to do so in a google doc. Students could take photos of apparatus and
paste in, but we believe the act of drawing requires students to make
decisions about what is important and what to leave out. We want a solution
in which kids can draw.

That's a good point. That's a concern.

Drawing tools such as inkscape are not particularly hard to
use, but learning the tool does take an investment of time,
and time is always in short supply. OTOH it's an excellent
investment in the long run.

There's a related problem that is often underappreciated:
With a digital document (text and/or graphics) there is
always the temptation to fiddle with it, to make it ultra-
perfect. This can become a horrific time-sink. Students
need to discipline themselves to stay out of this trap.

For reasons I do not fully understand, people are
less tempted to fiddle with non-digital documents.

You (the teacher) need to warn them about this. Then you
need to follow through as follows: Identify situations
where a rough sketch is appropriate, and make it clear
that no rewards will be given for ultra-beautiful diagrams.

Provide "clip art" of standard lab objects so they can
drag-and-drop such things onto their diagrams, rather
than creating them from scratch.


Once a git repository is up and running, routine day-to-day
usage is reasonably simple.

One fly in the ointment is that /setting up/ a git repository
is laborious and tricky. Get somebody to help you the first

The topic of digital logbooks was discussed on the PHYSLRNR-LIST
a few months ago. I suspect some of those guys have up-to-date
info on the advantages and pitfalls.

Here's another thing to worry about: You probably should
not assume that every HS student has a computer at home.
With pen-and-ink books, everybody was equally able to
work at home. I'm not sure it is a good idea to impose
a penalty on students who don't own a computer.