Meet the Fantastic Four behind the OneNote Class Notebook Creator

Sometimes all it takes for an amazing project to be born is the ability to listen.

It was March 2013, and Jonathan Grudin was attending the Workshop on the Impact of Pen and Touch Technology on Education (WIPTTE). It’s not immediately apparent from his unassuming aura, but Jonathan is actually a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and somewhat of a legend within Microsoft and beyond as a pioneer in computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW). With years of experience and groundbreaking research contributions, Jonathan certainly has a lot to share, but on this day his ability to listen allowed him to truly hear the needs of educators around the world, planting a young seed in his mind that would come to be nurtured by passionate peers in the company to become the OneNote Class Notebook Creator, launching today. 

“I attended the Workshop on the Impact of Pen and Touch Technology on Education in March 2013. At the conference I heard people from three schools (Cincinnati Country Day School, Whitfield School, and Appleby College) describe a way of using OneNote in classrooms that was extremely difficult to set up,” Jonathan explains. “Each school had come up with something similar and gone about it in different ways, each of which required days of work by IT departments. They said they wished Microsoft would listen to them.”

Teachers know better than anybody else the struggles they face every day to facilitate engaging, collaborative, and effective lessons. They also know the minor inefficiencies in everyday tasks that add up to major frustrations because they face them firsthand– from grading to handouts, lesson planning to class prep, wouldn’t it be nice to have a tool that fits seamlessly into a teacher’s life to organize collaboration between students, effortlessly distribute handouts, and keep track of assignments?

Well, thanks to the work of Jonathan and the OneNote Fantastic Four, you have your answer. The Class Notebook Creator, launching today, was created with teachers in mind because it was inspired by teachers and the frustrations they voiced. What exactly is it? Ari Schorr, aka “The Evangelist” in the OneNote Fantastic Four and by day, a Product Marketing Manager on the OneNote team, explains:

“The Class Notebook Creator is an application for Office 365 that creates a notebook, a OneNote notebook, that has different sections for students, and then gives full visibility to the teacher, so that she can see what each of the students are doing, and then additionally has a collaboration space for those students to come together, work on projects with the rest of their classmates, and then also gives a place for the teacher to put out handouts to all the students. So really it becomes this sort of whole framework for the classroom, all within one notebook.”

This truly all stemmed from Jonathan’s determination to follow up on the problems the educators voiced and use technology to innovative and find a viable solution for it. “I invited them to join me for lunch and had them describe their thoughts and took notes,” he said. “It was clear that we should build a tool that would enable these notebooks to be created in minutes rather than days.” It was also clear that getting such a project launched would require both input and guidance from the educators who would be using this project, as well as the talented individuals at Microsoft who would be creating it.

“When I got back to Redmond I wrote up the notes and shared my summary with them and with people at Forest Ridge, St. Thomas, and Bellevue School District. From those I put together the initial design for the Class Notebook. Partner Directors of OneNote and Sharepoint, Chris Pratley and Rob Lefferts, liked the idea and interested the Sharepoint apps team in building it. Yana and Yue visited from China and the three of us visited 5 schools and districts in the area and showed them our prototype and modified it based on their comments. The notebook the tool creates goes beyond the models but is very heavily based on what they did.”

It was during this time that Jonathan found Mike Tholfsen, aka “The Sage,” a Principal Tester and OneNote Team alum described as a “fountain of knowledge about OneNote use in education” by Jonathan and the first person to really see the potential of OneNote for education many years ago. As the OneNote team began to get more cycles to devote to this project, Tom Wionzek, aka “The Conductor” and a Project Manager in the OneNote Team, and Ari Schorr joined to complete the Fantastic Four.

For some in the Fantastic Four, it was a great way to see their Microsoft journey play out in real life impact, taking them full circle by allowing them to realize what they had hoped for when they joined Microsoft.

“I first heard about this concept of this tool from 1:1 and OneNote evangelist Rob Baker, who funny enough, I had dinner with tonight (the night before launch!),” describes Ari. “He came to campus and it was my first day I knew I was working on OneNote, transitioning from Excel. I sat in his speech to Microsoft education stakeholders and the OneNote team and was astounded by what he had implemented at his school, Cincinnati Country Day School. In many ways, this tool and its results are what brought me to Microsoft in the first place: Making individuals more productive and collaborating in ways that no one could imagine from a simple piece of software. It’s pedagogy!”

From conceptualization to realization, for Mike, the most rewarding part came from being able to come up with a solid answer to those frustrations voiced by educators at WIPTTE and seeing the benefits play out in the classroom.

“We actually saw the tool being used and being deployed,” Mike describes, “and the way that the children were interacting with the teachers or vice-versa, or the way the teachers were interacting with other teachers, that was very powerful, so seeing that come to life, to me, was the most impressive part.”

This is the story of four incredible innovators from different teams in Microsoft, supported by an amazing team in China and guided by the voices of educators, joining to combine their distinct skill sets to answer the needs of teachers and make learning more collaborative, creative, and efficient. It’s a human story because it’s the story of how individuals, fueled by a genuine belief in technology and passion for education, were able to create an effective tool that would improve everyday learning. It’s a human story because of how many teachers and students this tool will touch, the immeasurable impact it will have on sparking ideas around the world and inspiring even more innovation through the tool. Most of all, it’s a human story because it’s the simple tale of how Jonathan’s willingness to listen led to learning, and that learning sparked a groundbreaking change in how learning itself is done in the future. 

Wanna try it?

1. IT Administrator: Install this OneNote Class Notebook Creator app for teachers to use. Installation instructions here.

2. Teachers: Learn how to create a class notebook with step-by-step instructions.

by Minnia Feng, Microsoft in Education

This entry was posted in Information, Virtual Learning Environments. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Meet the Fantastic Four behind the OneNote Class Notebook Creator

  1. Yvonne Klaue says:

    Great start, I hope you don’t stop there. There are many different types of needs from Pre-K to higher education and continuous education. OneNote is such a great tool but can be so much better. It would also be great if it can integrate with Yammer to become a real collaboration tool as well as assessment. Looking really forward to see this grow and MS to become an all around tool in education. Currently, students discover new tools all the time but the integration, safety and backup is the big issue faced by us educators.

  2. Minnia Feng says:

    Thanks for the great feedback, Yvonne! We’ll forward your ideas to the OneNote team. Microsoft just signed a pledge this morning to safeguard student privacy- 🙂

  3. Pingback: Introducing OneNote class notebooks—a flexible digital framework for teaching and learning | Office 365 Deployment Autoblog

  4. Ari Schorr says:

    Following up on Minnia’s comment, we are definitely thinking about taking this further. I am talking to other education product groups, like Yammer, about potential integrations specifically for education! Additionally, if you didn’t hear, we announced OneNote integration with Chegg Study Q&A for students studying for exams:

    We also have a OneNote API ( for developers to build integrations with OneNote. We are pursuing education software partnerships as we speak!

  5. Walid Misli says:

    Just passing by to say thank you to the fantastic four for making OneNote Class Notebook Creator to happen! Teachers like me is grateful for your innovation and invention. Sadly, my organization (school) account doesn’t have permission for me to install it for now.. Would be great to test it.

    PS: Mind sending me the t-shirt to Brunei? hehe

  6. Walid Misli says:

    Thank you so much for your innovative invention. Teachers like me appreciate and grateful for your work and contribution to make our classroom alive. Sadly my organization (school account) doesn’t allow me to add it for now.

    PS: Mind sending me one of the purple tshirt to Brunei??

  7. Jeremy says:

    I am new to OneNote… somehow I have ignored it for years. This year, I am having all my 11th grade students use OneNote in class, especially with our research project. It would be AMAZING if there could be a plugin to generate proper MLA works cited pages from within OneNote. (Unless there is one and I missed it.)

  8. Maurice says:

    You guys rock. Please tell me where i can buy the One for all…. T-shirt. That would be my ultimate t-shirt! please….

  9. Pingback: Introducing OneNote class notebooks—a flexible digital framework for teaching and learning - Office Blogs

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