Is the Pen Mightier Than the Mouse?


Recent technology developments confirm that pentop computing is set to make its mark in K-12 education.

IN 1991, PenTop magazine (long since defunct) quoted Greg Slyngstad, then general manager of Microsoft’s Pen Computing Group, as saying: “The impact of pens on computing will be far greater than the mouse. The two key benefits— extreme portability and ease of use—will enable tiny, low-cost PCs that will appeal to a broader spectrum of users than ever before.…Smart paper [will] do everything paper can as well as recognize objects, do calculations, [and] neatly organize, duplicate and transmit itself.” Although it has taken nearly 15 years for Slyngstad’s vision to materialize, the future is arriving. More importantly, evidence is in that the impact of pen computing on K- 12 education will be great.

Simply put, education provides a natural home for pen computing. Many subject areas rely on freehand input to communicate ideas that are difficult to express via mouse and keyboard. Whether used to explore mathematics (equations), economics (supply-demand curves), physics (inclined planes), writing (editing marks), history (map annotation), Japanese language (kanji character construction), or chemistry (molecular structures), the power of the pen is clear.

The smallest and newest device to exploit this power is the FLY pentop computer, recently introduced by LeapFrog Enterprises ( The FLY pentop computer leverages powerful technology developed by Swedish high-tech company Anoto (, which allows users to write on special dot-matrix FLY paper using a digital pen. The pen leaves ink on the paper, but also reads special markers on the paper to determine the pen’s position. LeapFrog has built upon this technology to provide a solution that promises to be popular with students. Using the FLY, for example, a student can draw a picture of a calculator on paper. The student then uses the special stylus to touch the keys on the calculator in order to input a mathematics problem. The FLY then calculates the answer and “speaks” it to the student. A variety of other student-centered applications, including a calendar tool that helps students keep track of assignments, will also ship with the FLY. Given that the FLY can run applications via cartridges that are snapped to the device (much like a cap is attached to a ballpoint pen), the range of its educational functions is likely to grow.

The FLY joins more established pen-based technologies in the educational arena. For example, several K-12 schools have made innovative uses of PDAs. One popular use involves attaching a special probe or sensor to the PDA. Using the probes, students can collect data such as soil temperatures at various locations in the schoolyard. Back in the classroom, this data can be aggregated, analyzed, and discussed.

The FLY and PDA are pocket-sized; however, most other educational, pen-based devices come in slightly larger sizes.

You may already know that a tablet PC is a pen-enabled laptop computer; less familiar are the tablet PC’s cousins—the graphics tablet and the interactive pen display. A graphics tablet is typically the size of a mouse pad, and plugs into a desktop or laptop using a USB cable. The user draws on the surface of the graphics tablet with a special pen and watches the corresponding cursor movement by looking at the computer display. While graphics tablets are not as easy to use as tablet PCs, for smaller jobs that require a limited amount of inputting, they offer a very low-cost (often less than $100) option. Interactive pen displays are essentially LCD monitors with a pen-enabled twist. After an interactive pen display is attached to a standard desktop computer, the user is able to draw directly on the surface of the display. When mobility is not a concern, these units provide a penbased alternative to the tablet PC.

Several software tools have been developed to exploit the educational power of pentop machines. While several of these programs also run on standard desktop and laptop computers, the full benefits of the software are only realized on penbased devices. For example, DyKnow’s ( patent-pending software solutions allow teachers to interactively transmit material to students during class. Content is transmitted in real time as the teacher types, draws, or imports material from other applications. Each student can make private annotations by writing or typing additional notes on or near the teacher’s content as it is received. Student work can be shared with the teacher or with the entire class to promote discussion. After class, the content can be reviewed and replayed by students and teachers.

Microsoft ( provides several free pen-based educational software applications that demonstrate the educational potential of tablet PCs. Physics Illustrator, one such program, allows students to sketch scenes involving objects such as springs and inclined planes. The system recognizes the objects in the scene and then animates them in order to illustrate the physics principles involved. Younger students can use Microsoft’s freely available Writing Practice Tool for Tablet PC to practice writing and spelling. With this program, students use a pen to write a given word, and then the student’s ink “flies” toward the bottom of the screen and assembles itself into a picture of the word.

Case Study: The Impact of Pen-Based Computing
The introduction of pen-based computing yields positive results for one Indiana school.

In the spring of 2005, Rockman Et Al (, an independent research company that specializes in exploring the impact of technology on learning, studied the impact of tablet PCs, laptops, and DyKnow teaching tools on students at North Daviess Elementary School in southern Indiana.With a former manager of education research from Apple Computer at the helm, and research staff with advanced degrees in education, cognitive science, and child development, the firm’s credentials in the field are prominent.

Rockman researchers observed several classes that used DyKnow software with laptops and tablet PCs. For example, the researchers attended a mathematics class that used DyKnow and tablet PCs to explore applications of counting, rounding, and cost comparison in the context of evaluating brands of chocolate chip cookies. The students compared the brands along many lines, such as cost per ounce. Because the students worked with tables, charts, and mathematical equations, the use of DyKnow on tablet PCs was ideal. The software facilitated easy entry of freehand material, small-group collaboration, and electronic sharing of handwritten work to promote discussion between members of the class.

Rockman’s report ( concludes that the DyKnow software solution results in a variety of benefits, including high levels of student engagement, better learning and retention of concepts, higher rates of homework completion, and fewer absences. In the report, North Daviess teacher Joan Weathers offers insight into some of these benefits by explaining that “the students are totally focused on [the lesson] when it is presented in this manner.…The panels are right in front of them and they can write and submit—they stay on task, are quiet, and stick with it.”

Judging from this kind of response, the future of pen-based computing looks bright.

Clearly, pen-based hardware and supporting software are teaming to provide stimulating learning environments for students. The future has arrived, and it is spelled P-E-N.

Dave Berque is a professor of computer science at DePauw University in Indiana. He is also an instructional technology consultant for DyKnow.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.