Learning Tools

The Pen That’s Smarter Than the…Pen

You’ve heard of smartphones—now smartpens are taking a familiar classroom tool into the digital age.

A few years ago, science teacher Janice Crowley noticed a student in one of her classes who had failed the same course the previous year. She learned the student had failed because he had a full-time job and didn’t have time to study during the week. By the time he got around to the course material on the weekend, he had forgotten the lesson.

Concerned that things might not be much different the second time around, Crowley told him she would create a downloadable “pencast” of each lesson, essentially an audio recording of the spoken lecture synced with the notes she wrote during class, to help him re-experience the lesson at his convenience.

The Livescribe smartpen, the tool that makes pencasting possible, is essentially a mini computer that records what the user hears or says while he or she takes notes on specially coded paper that syncs the written word with the audio file. Users can replay the lesson either by touching the smartpen directly to the paper—at any point in the notes the audio file will sync up. Teachers can also upload the synced pencast to a computer, where students can hear the audio and see the written notes in broadcast fashion. Although Livescribe is relatively new to the K-12 market, teachers and students are already using the technology in a number of ways to improve student performance and extend teacher instruction beyond the classroom.

A Tool for Review
By the time Crowley interceded on behalf of her struggling student, she was already a convert to smartpen technology, which she was using in her high school chemistry classes at Wichita Collegiate School, a private K-12 school in Wichita, KS. For these classes, Crowley creates pencasts of her lessons, then uploads them to Moodle, where her students can access them at home to review what they learned in class, or what they missed if they were absent from class. She’s also slowly built up a library of her lessons, recorded during her planning period.

Because of their versatility, Livescribe smartpens are being used by teachers in every subject, but math and science teachers have found them particularly useful, due to the step-by-step nature of those subjects, according to Holly De Leon, vice president of sales for its Livescribe’s K-12 division.

“A lot of math and science teachers are using it to be able to ensure students get all the parts (of a lesson),” she says. “If a student got parts one and two, and then was stumped on three and four, they can listen to just the portion they’re stumped on.”

Crowley finds this especially true for her chemistry classes, where she uses pencasts particularly to explain difficult concepts. “When a teacher is teaching hard material, kids’ brains shut down,” she says. “I don’t want students not getting it and going home with only a blank piece of paper.”

Metacognitive Tools
The smartpen not only fills in gaps for the student regarding course content; it can fill in the teacher too on what the student’s doing.

For example, once Crowley posts a pencast, she can see if and when students access it to make sure they’re studying. Last year, one of her students who had gotten A’s before the Christmas break fell behind after the vacation, which is not uncommon, according to Crowley.

She sent a message to the student’s parents, who responded by saying their son had told them the material had gotten too difficult. At a meeting with the parents, she shared with them the student’s grades, explained how pencast worked, and then showed them that he had stopped accessing the pencasts around the same time that his grades dropped off.

“He admitted he wasn’t doing the work,” Crowley says. The parents “saw the tool. They loved it. It was a win-win. They were able to see he was successful when looking at the pencasts.”

Livescribe can also be a valuable tool to help teachers see how students are thinking about learning. Last year, Karen Blumberg, ed tech integrator at The School at Columbia University, a K-8 school in New York City, introduced the pens to four math teachers in a beta test. One of her teachers began letting students take class notes with the pen, which they then posted online and shared with their classmates.

Blumberg says that the advantage of Livescribe for students is that they can draw symbols while describing the process they’re going through, an important metacognitive process in learning math. And for teachers, they can see students’ metacognition in play.

“Kids can write down how they’re solving problems with sketching, with formulas, and talk through it at the same time,” she says. “Then the teacher can determine how fluid the child’s understanding is.”

Increasing Instructional Time
Livescribe works with school districts on two- to three-year plans to first test the pen in a few classrooms and then purchase more as teachers get comfortable with the technology. With the pens starting at $250 each, schools at this point are mainly buying them for teachers to use in the classroom, though De Leon says some schools have bought pens to be used by students in certain subjects, such as algebra.

“Increasing academic instructional time for under $300 a classroom is very appealing for a superintendent who’s looking at a reduced budget,” De Leon says. “They have reduced the teacher force so there are fewer teachers, but still the same number of kids and fewer specialists.… If you can provide a solution that’s cost-effective, they’re listening to that.”

When a school or teacher purchases a pen, they’re given online training, known as Smart Pen 101, that features videos showing how the pen can be used and hands-on activities to test their understanding. Livescribe also offers webinar training and on-site training for teachers.

Blumberg is encouraging continued experimentation with the pens this year, but she doesn’t expect her school to purchase one for every student, as an established 1-to-1 laptop program, where students take notes using Google Apps, is already in place.

Instead, Livescribe will be used primarily for remedial work and to act as a repository for students. “If they ever have trouble, they can go home and access notes from pens (put online),” she says.

And for many students, that makes all the difference. Take the student who failed the first time he took Crowley’s course. Using Crowley’s pencasts the second time around, he ended up with an A-/B+.

“The reality was he wasn’t going to be able to change his circumstances,” she says. “He didn’t have to hire a tutor. He was able to keep the schedule he had, but could go back and fill in the gaps.”

About the Author

Jennifer Netherby is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who focuses on technology.