In this curious interview, Eli Cohen shares what drove him to create an interesting piece of software that helps students take notes using hyperlinks, imported media, wikipedia and other sources of information on what he calls “leaves”. Read Eli’s story and have a look for yourself to see what Wiznotes might do for your students—or your own studies.
Victor: Why did you create Wiznotes?
Eli: There were three separate events in my life that clarified to me the necessity for a note taking productivity product for students like Wiznotes. Eventually, I saw that nobody was creating anything like it, so I taught myself to become a professional computer programmer with the intention to develop Wiznotes. Ironically my main inspiration for Wiznotes came from a place where, to this day, computers are hardly used at all!
Victor: I’m intrigued. Tell me about those events that caused you to start thinking about Wiznotes.
Eli: In 1980, I received my results for my O-level exams (national exams in the UK). I did very well in all subjects apart from German which I completely failed. I decided to try again, but I failed again. Even on my third attempt I still failed. By that time I had bought myself one of the first microcomputers. That was before DOS even existed and there was very little software available. I wrote a program to test myself on the translation of words. On my fourth attempt at German I finally passed. My parents were amazed! Up until then they viewed microcomputers as a toy. They then realized how useful it could be. I boldly told them that in time every home will have a computer and every pupil in school will use computers instead of text books and exercise books. My parents smiled, but I think that they were highly skeptical of my vision. One of the first features we put into Wiznotes is Test-Me-Tables. This allows users to enter a table of any information into 2 columns. Wiznotes will then test the user on the contents of one of the columns.
The second event did not involve computers at all, yet it was one of the biggest inspirations for developing Wiznotes. In 1985, after finishing at university, I left computers and went to study the ancient Talmud in Israel. I was fortunate to study from one of the leading Rabbis of our generation. In more than a decade that I was there, I never once saw that learned Rabbi go to a book shelf to find something that he wanted to study. He was constantly surrounded by devoted students who would always be there and ready to provide the great Rabbi with whatever book he needed and to open it to the appropriate page. Sometimes he would just start to quote an obscure passage and a devoted students would immediately recognize what the Rabbi was referring to. Within a minute the correct book would be open in front of the Rabbi on the appropriate page just in time for the Rabbi to read an exact quote of the information that he was teaching to his students. Not a second of his precious learning or teaching time was diverted with him having to search for information that he wanted. As I watched these seemingly orchestrated lectures, I realized that not only great Rabbis could have devoted disciples to enable their learning experiences to be euphoric without any interruption. With the right software, any student studying anything could have information at their fingertips whenever they needed it. In today’s world of Google and the internet that may sound quite obvious. However, my vision 2 decades ago was actually going beyond search engines. What I envisaged was computers providing students with the information that they needed, before they would start to look for it.
One of the places in Wiznotes where we try to give students the sort of treatment great Rabbis are given is in writing chemical equations. Wiznotes has a special autocomplete function that makes it very quick and easy for students to write chemical equations which get automatically formatted correctly. Wiznotes then takes an extra step and automatically changes every chemical into a link. When the user clicks on the link she will immediately see information about that chemical in Wikipedia. We managed to illuminate the ubiquities cut-paste-search-find process.
Victor: What was the third event in your life that inspired you to create Wiznotes?
Eli: In the early 1990’s I once again found myself in front of a computer when I was writing a book of the lectures of this great Rabbi that I mentioned before. I realized that eventually people would do most of their reading from some type of digital devise rather than books. It was obvious that this new media would allow information to be produced, presented and interacted with in ways very different from physical books. For example information presented on a computer can be terse and also provide readers with a tremendous depth of more information if they want it by using hyperlinks, popup notes and collapsible sections. Looking around me at that time I could not see any software that even came near to being a productivity tool for producing rich interactive information. I therefore decided that if nobody else is doing it, I would do it myself.
Eli: The name Wiznotes is a combination of ‘Wiz’ and ‘Notes’. ‘Wiz’ has connotations of both clever and fast, both terms are appropriate for our software. The clever aspect refers to the software itself that cleverly helps you without getting in the way or being a burden. Clever also refers to the user, that she will become cleverer by using our software. The fast aspect indicates that the user will be able to achieve tasks quickly. For example, instead of having to copy, go to a different application, paste and then search to look something up; the user of Wiznotes only needs to press a button to achieve her desired objective.
Victor: What is Wiznotes?
Eli: When someone writes notes, they do so for a reason. Students write notes in order to learn. Wiznotes is productivity note taking software that not only helps them to write notes—it helps them to achieve their objectives of learning and passing their exams.
Victor: Who created Wiznotes?
Eli: Although I have been the main person involved in the creation of Wiznotes, I had a small team of developers who not only built the software but also provided very useful input with regard to the design of the software. One of our developers’ mother is a lecturer of chemistry and gave us some very good advice when we were working on that aspect of the software.
Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?
Eli: Wiznotes provides a gamut of functions that help students studying almost any course. A small example of a few of these features are that after the user selects some text in their notes, if it is a name of a place, they can press on a button and see a map of that place. If it is an equation, they can see a graph. Similar they can quickly view a Wikipedia article or look up the definition of something. All of this is done without having to jump back and forth to other applications like an external browser.
We believe that allowing students to perform functions with the least amount of keystrokes, mouse clicks and avoiding going back and forth to different applications is extremely beneficial educationally. There are times when students really get into a ‘studying frame of mind’. For many students this occurs more often near to their exams. In such situations, anything that moves the students’ concentration away from their studying and into ‘taking care’ of their computer or software can break that euphoric learning experience.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Eli: There are some other very good note taking products on the market. In particular OneNote and Evernote. However we have taken a different approach in designing Wiznotes and that has resulted in quite a distinctive product. We have tried to scrutinize even the most mundane and common feature that you will find in almost any editor software and considered how to implement it in a way that is best for students.
One example of this is a group of paragraphs. Many times students write a section of notes consisting of a few paragraphs all about a particular topic. When they review their notes before their exams, sometimes they will want to read all the information again, other times they will just want to skim over it and concentrate on something else that they do not know so well. Therefore Wiznotes allows students to insert collapsible sections that give them the ability to quickly rate how well they know that section. If they know it very well, it will be collapsed and they will only see the title of that section.
Another example are Wiznotes’ Test-Me-Tables. When a student enters information into a table they usually need to learn that information. Test-Me-Tables allow students to enter any information into a two column table. Afterwards they can press the test button at the top of the table and they will be tested to see if the know the information in the table.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Eli: Wiznotes started to be developed in 2006. However, I started planning it over a decade earlier. One thing that was particularly interesting in the development process was that in the 1990’s I knew what I wanted to build, but there were two things that I was lacking. The first item that I needed was an appropriate way of storing heterogeneous data since information and meta data about the information does not easily map to a table-like database or a regular text editor. The second item that I required was an appropriate tool for rendering the information. I knew what I was looking for, but at that time it did not exist. Without going into technical details, when xml came along at around the turn of the century as a new method for storing data; I quickly realized that xml was exactly the sort of data storage method that I was looking for. Then when Microsoft produced a new tool and methodology for rendering information known as WPF and Xaml; I was amazed to discover that I had access to the most appropriate tools to use to develop Wiznotes.
Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?
Eli: From the time that the first version was put on the market and now also, Wiznotes is available on our website at http://www.wiznotes.com/
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Eli: The price of Wiznotes is $79.99 per user. At the moment we are allowing university and college students to use it for free. Prices for schools and governments is less than the regular price depending on how many licenses they want to buy.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Eli: There are many university and college students all over the world using Wiznotes. Recently we have seen an increasing amount of traffic coming to our website from Facebook. We conclude from this that people are talking about Wiznotes more and more. Up until now we have done very little marketing. However, with each new version of Wiznotes we see how the quality and usefulness of the product itself is the best form of marketing.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Eli: Although we have had some professionals buying Wiznotes; at the moment it is particularly tailored for students. In the future we intend to produce other productivity note taking products for other vertical markets.
Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?
Eli: When I was 17 (in the early 1980’s), I heard a series of lectures from several science professors telling us high school pupils what technologies we can expect to see in the future. I raised my hand and asked the following question, “All this new technology sounds very interesting and exciting. However, will it be good for society or not?”. One of the professors answered, “When you go to university you will be able to stay up late at night and discuss that theoretical question with my friends. However, nobody can stop the advancement of science.” The other professors nodded. I listened to their answer, but I disagreed and I still disagree. I view technology like fire. It can be a very useful slave, but a very bad master.
I get the impression that sometimes educators or people involved with education try to follow current trends because that is what young people are doing. For example there are many educational videos on YouTube. Some companies and educators encourage learning on Facebook and Twitter etc. For sure a lot of educational value does come from this. However, I think that educators should be the ones to define pupils’ digital learning environments. Ideally I think these learning environments should be different to what pupils use for socializing and playing games. In that way it would psychologically put pupils in a frame of mind for studying.
Victor: How does Wiznotes address some of your concerns about education?
Eli: In various aspects of Wiznotes we tried to balance between giving students the ability to have rich interesting multimedia information, while trying to avoid them having things that would distract them from studying. Therefore in Wiznotes Wikipedia and chosen websites can be viewed by the student inside Wiznotes without going to an external browser. In that way students won’t be so easily tempted to check profiles in Facebook when they are in the middle of reviewing for their exams. Similarly we made it very easy for users to embed videos from YouTube into their notes in Wiznotes as opposed to requiring them to just add a link to YouTube itself.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Wiznotes?
Eli: I have already mentioned a few aspects as to how my own education had a major influence on the development of Wiznotes. Ironically, one of the main factors that has fashioned the way I design new features in Wiznotes comes from the typeset of a set of books that was printed over 130 years ago and the same layout is still widely used by its target audience to this day. That set of books is the Vilna Talmud. The Talmud and its commentaries were studied by the Jews for more than a thousand years before the printing press was even invented. The hand written books had a very different layout to the printed versions. However, the printed Vilna version of the Talmud was typeset in a very clever and extremely well thought out way that utilized the capabilities of the printing press in ways that were most suitable for the Talmud. This made a tremendous impression on me that with any new technology that is used for presenting information, a lot of thought should be devoted to consider the best ways of exploiting that technology in order to provide the user with the best experience possible.
Victor: What’s your outlook on the future of education?
Eli: Within a few years all students all over the world will write all their school notes on some type of computer device. The software that they will be using will be a productivity tool that helps them to succeed in their studies. The name of that product will be Wiznotes.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Wiznotes?
Eli: Give students productivity note taking software that will help them to succeed in their studies.
Victor: What makes you say that?
Eli: Consider what software most programmers use for writing computer programs. It is possible to write computer code in Word or notepad. However, they use productivity software that helps them with their job. The same is true for architects, graphic artists etc. I believe that students also deserve to have productivity software to help them to succeed in their courses!
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com