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Digital pens: Mightier than MSWord?

Digital pens are being used in classrooms to help students improve their note taking skills.
Digital pens are being used in classrooms to help students improve their note taking skills.

A significant key to students’ academic success is their ability to take complete and accurate notes during class–and recent developments in digital-pen technology might help students do just that.

A number companies have created digital “smart” pens that can digitize handwriting, convert writing into word-processing text, and even record the audio that corresponds to the notes students take.

Digital pens made by companies such as Livescribe, IOGEAR, and WizCom can be found in retail outlets and even in many campus bookstores. Developers say students who use the pens to capture and upload their notes to computers for review possibly could perform better in school. The pens also are a more convenient option for students who typically carry their laptops to class to take notes.

“The student becomes more efficient,” said Keith Renty, business development manager for IOGEAR.

With IOGEAR’s Mobile Digital Scribe, the pen emits an electronic signal that is attached to the student’s paper. The receiver has enough memory to store the notes on 50 standard-size sheets of paper.

Renty said there are several similar pens on the market, but unlike other digital pens, the IOGEAR Mobile Digital Scribe doesn’t require any special paper or ink. The receiver can be attached to any paper the user writes on, he said.

Livescribe’s pen, called the Pulse, is unique in that it not only records handwriting using a special dotted paper and a tiny camera attached to the pen, but it records audio as well, developers say.

“Taking complete and accurate notes is one of the hardest things to do,” said Andy Van Schaack, senior science advisor for Livescribe and a professor at Vanderbilt University. He said taking notes is, cognitively, as challenging as playing chess. “You have to listen, write, and as you’re writing you have to listen to what [else] the speaker is saying,” he explained.

By also recording audio while a student is writing, Livescribe’s Pulse enables the student to focus more on the lecture, as opposed to making sure he or she is jotting everything down, Van Schaack said.

“Usually students have to decide if they’re going to listen and understand or take complete and accurate notes,” he said. The Pulse allows them to do both.

“If you believe that a picture is worth a thousand words, when you add audio, it’s worth a million words,” Van Schaack said.

In addition to audio, the pen records handwritten notes written on the special dotted paper, which acts as a barcode for the pen’s microprocessor when digitizing the handwriting. Then, when students want to review a spot in their notes where the handwriting might be illegible or their notes incomplete, they simply tap that place on the paper–and the audio recorder plays what was being recorded at the exact time they were taking notes.

“It records everything that’s being said as you write, synchronizing what you write” with what is heard, Van Schaack said.

Though Livescribe’s pens originally were marketed to colleges and college students, Van Schaack said he saw K-12 educators gaining interest in the Pulse as well.

Carla Rody, who teaches science at Cross Creeks High School in Florida, said the Pulse allows her and her students to concentrate more on the speaker.

She and her students can “take immediate notes that we want to jog our memories, and relax and learn. Later, we can go back to anything that we marked as critical or need to review by tapping on the section in our notes, and we can hear what the speaker was covering at that time. We fill in or add to our notes, and we fill in the gaps and study,” she said.

Julie McLeod, a sixth-grade math teacher at Roundtree Elementary School in Texas, began using the Pulse late last school year as a way to digitally document her students’ thinking.

“Math is very procedural. So if the process is documented, we can pinpoint areas where they’re struggling,” she said, adding that she tried other technology but nothing was as natural as the Pulse for the students to use.

This school year, she will have 10 pens in her classroom, allowing students to work with a partner doing peer interviews in which a student coaches his or her partner to talk though math problems.

When students use a traditional pen and a separate audio recorder, it’s much harder for them to find the right place in the recording that matches their notes, Van Schaack said.

“You have to listen to ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ trying to find the spot in the lecture,” he said, referring to the high-pitched sound of the recording being fast-forwarded and rewound.

WizCom’s InfoScan TS and InfoScan TS Elite help students who are taking notes from a text they are reading.

“It’s what we call a highlighter with a brain,” said Chris Anderton, director of business development with WizCom. “It’s aimed at helping students with note taking and with being able to put together their study notes.”

The pens, which can scan up to 500 pages of text, have a touch-screen interface that allows students to edit the text they have just scanned. The pens also feature text-to-speech technology.

“The notes stored on the pen can be read out loud, so you can listen to the notes that you just scanned. You also have [a] dictionary blended onto it, so that you can highlight a word and it will display the dictionary definition to you,” Anderton said, adding that the InfoScan pens are being used in a number of K-12 schools to teach students life skills and note-taking skills.

Notes recorded with both the Scribe and the Pulse can be uploaded to a computer exactly as they were written by students.

“It’s not an exact match to your handwriting, but to the discernable eye it looks exact,” Renty said.

Van Schaack said the Pulse’s special paper captures everything that is written.

“Whatever you write down, the doodles in the corner, notes, charts–everything gets digitized,” he said. Once uploaded to the computer, “all the pages appear in front of you. It looks like you ripped a page out of your notebook.”

Both the IOGEAR and Livescribe pens also come with handwriting recognition software that can turn handwritten notes, once uploaded to the computer, into digital (typed) text ready for editing.

“Now the student has the workings of a paper, and he doesn’t have to look back through his notes and key it all in himself,” Renty said.

Livescribe’s Pulse also has a search feature, making notes easily navigated once they are on the screen. A student can type a search term, and that word is found in the student’s notes.

Notes scanned by the InfoScan also can be uploaded to a computer or smart phone, with the text being fully editable.

All of the pens on the market have the potential to get students excited about learning, something that McLeod said she saw in her students who weren’t generally fans of math class.

“I saw, in the short time we had the pens, that the kids cared very much to make sure that they were doing the problems correctly,” she said of her students using the Pulse. “Many of them would work it out beforehand with a pencil and call me over to talk it through and make sure they were doing it right. Some kids pushed themselves to do more work than I ever asked them to do,” she said. “They’re putting forth more effort on their own. And if you find something that gets kids to put in the effort, there’s definitely potential there.”


IOGEAR Mobile Digital Scribe

Livescribe Pulse

WizCom InfoScan TS

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