Since I posted my review of Livescribe's echo smartpen on Wednesday, I've received several emails, talkbacks, Facebook postings, and tweets about possible use cases of the device for students with special needs. I was so excited about the device itself that I overlooked one of the most important markets for the pen.
No smartpen will be the magic bullet that lets a child who is struggling because of a disability suddenly succeed. Success is based on a lot of hard work for the student and parents and complete commitment for the teacher. The right resources and supports have to tie all of these elements together. That being said, there are several classroom models where students with disabilities can easily benefit from the echo smartpen.
The first case is actually being used in both regular education and inclusion settings right now. Some progressive teachers (in fact, whole schools have started doing this) have been willing to let students turn in their assignments as a LiveScribe pencast (via the web) in which they speak out loud as they work through assignments. Thus, if a student did a math problem with the pen and described his steps out loud, the teacher could hear what he was doing and provide feedback or partial credit even if he couldn't read the assignment or the student could organize speech better than written work. Even for regular education students, math teachers constantly struggle to get students to show their work; with a pencast, students must show and explain their work on the fly.
Taking reasonable notes can also be a serious struggle for students with disabilities. The average kid with attention deficit (speaking from my own experience here) won't be able to concentrate on both the writing and the speaking. If the student can be taught to focus their writing on a few big ideas, then the spoken lecture is always available to students and their parents.
The parental component is worth highlighting as well. Whether parents simply need a refresher on trigonometry or need to reteach and reinforce for students who struggle to comprehend in class, a recording of the lecture tied even to a few headings or key words on a page can make a parent's life much easier.
Finally, for all the talk about multimodal learning, it's a difficult thing to implement in class. Teachers using the echo immediate tap auditory and visual learners who can review with the sensory input of their choice at night if the instructor uploads pencasts to the web. Students using the echo, on the other hand, can receive the kinesthetic feedback they might need, again related back to auditory and visual cues later on.
The echo has the potential to level the playing field in many ways, not only for kids with specific disabilities, but for kids with learning styles that don't match an instructional style or who simply need to access and recall information in a non-traditional way.