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Michigan State University

Virtual Note Taking

Information about virtual note taking and annotation. Students with electronic course packs will find this information particularly useful. Last updated: 11/4/21.


What is virtual note taking?

Virtual note taking is the ability to take notes virtually on computers or mobile devices. This can be accomplished by using a number of different programs or mobile apps. In addition to creating new notes, many programs allow for annotation of other document types.

Things to consider:

  1. What type of note taking do you want to do? The capabilities of programs vary from simple ones that are best for jotting down quick notes and reminders to others that offer robust annotation and editing features.
  2. What platform do you work most with? Some programs are only available on one type of device while others have cross-platform capabilities. If considering a cross-platform program, consider how easy it is to sync notes between devices.
  3. How and where are notes stored? Most programs work with the most popular cloud storage services, but also look at whether or not notes and files can be saved locally to a device.
  4. Are there limitations to size or number of files? Some programs limit the size and number of files that can be used.
  5. What input method do you plan to use? Many of the programs for mobile devices can be used with a stylus and replicate writing with a pen and paper.
  6. What is the cost of the program? Note taking program costs vary widely. There are ones that are free, those that require an initial cost, and others that offer advanced features for one-time or incremental purchases.

This guide covers some of the major tools available for virtual note taking but it is not an exhaustive list - you may find alternatives that work better for you!

Transferring Documents to Mobile Devices

Files on a laptop or desktop can be easily transferred to mobile devices.

For iPads and iPhones:

  1. Connect the device to a computer using the USB supplied cable and open iTunes.
  2. Select the device and click File Sharing.  
  3. Under File Sharing, select the app to transfer a file to from the list on the left.  
  4. Choose Add and a file browser window will appear.  
  5. Search for the document on the computer to transfer, select it, and click Open. The file is now on the device and can be opened in the app.

For Android devices with a Windows computer:

  1. Connect the device with the supplied USB cable.
  2. The device is mounted as an external drive and files can be transferred back and forth just as with any other external device.

For Android devices with Mac OS:

  1. Install Android File Transfer (free download).
  2. Connect the device with the supplied USB cable and open Android File Transfer.
  3. A window will open with the contents of the device. Within this window files can be transferred in the same manner as using the Finder window.

Cloud Storage

Cloud storage is one option for sharing documents across devices. The most common providers are OneDrive, Google Drive, Box, and Dropbox, as well as iCloud Drive for Apple users. All offer online storage with sync capabilities, allow for easy collaboration with others, and integrate with most note taking apps or programs. The main differences are storage space and price of premium accounts.

Tip: Most of the cloud storage services provide 2-step verification. Typically, a code is sent via text message when setting up an account or accessing for the first time from a new device. It is highly recommended that this verification is enabled, as it gives an extra layer of security when using these services.

  • Free accounts offer up to 5 GB storage space
  • Premium accounts start at $1.99/month for 100 GB
  • Spartan OneDrive is included in MSU's Spartan365 (login with MSU Net ID)
  • Free accounts offer up to 15 GB of storage
  • Premium accounts start at $1.99/month for 100 GB
  • Google Drive is included in MSU's Google for Education (login with MSU Net ID)
  • Free accounts offer 10 GB of storage space
  • Premium accounts start at $10/month for 100 GB

  • Free accounts offer up to 2 GB of storage space
  • Premium accounts start at $9.99/month for 1 TB of storage
  • Free accounts offer up to 5 GB of storage
  • Premium accounts start at $0.99/month for 50 GB
  • Limited to Apple users only

Accessing Documents to Annotate

Accessing documents on iPads and iPhones can be done in one of two ways. If the document is saved to the device within a specific note taking app, then there should be the option to open that file within the app. If a document is saved in another app, look for the option to 'Open In...' or the Open-In Symbol symbol. Choosing this option will provide a list of apps installed on the device that the document can be opened in - search for the note taking app of your choice.

Working with Library Resources

Many resources from the MSU Libraries, such as journal articles and ebooks, can be used with virtual note taking apps if they are saved as a PDF first. The PDF file(s) can then be opened in or sent to your note taking app.

There may be some limitations to functionality depending on what type of PDF the publisher makes available:

Readable PDFs

If the PDF file is 'readable', meaning the content can be scanned and searched by other software, there should be no limitations on note taking functionality and any app may be used. If you can highlight individual words or sentences and use features like highlight, strike through, or underline in an annotation program your PDF is readable.

Flat Image PDFs

If the PDF is a flat image it may not be possible to make annotations such as highlighting or underlining, although freehand annotations and sticky notes may still be possible to add to the document.

One option to try is to first use a program with optical character recognition (OCR) to generate a copy of the PDF that is searchable and readable. Otherwise apps that support freehand annotations are the best choice to use with this type of PDF.

Protected PDFs

If the PDF is protected by digital rights management (DRM) it means that the content cannot be modified and annotation capabilities are limited. The best choice for annotating these PDFs are apps that allow for freehand annotations as the annotations are treated as a separate layer added on top of the original document. You may be limited in syncing or exporting these files beyond the note taking app.


Accessories can be extremely helpful when taking notes on mobile devices. A stylus can closely replicate the same experience as using a pen and paper, and an external keyboard may be easier to use than the one provided on the device's screen. Below are some reviews of styluses and keyboards that may help you determine which one(s) to choose.