Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all

Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all

Summary: The Livescribe echo smartpen has the potential to change the way we teach, learn, and recall information.

A colleague once told me that you could always tell the graduate students in a meeting because they were constantly taking notes, writing as fast as possible to capture everything that was said verbatim. I've long since given up on that strategy as I find that writing everything down means that I miss the big picture of a conversation or meeting. I tend to just listen, taking a quick note or action item as needed. Other people draw or doodle. Some will mind-map. An incredible number of secondary school students don't bother taking notes at all and then wonder why they fail every summative assessment they encounter. My point is that we have many different ways of taking notes, whether in the classroom or the boardroom. For many of our students, note taking is ineffective at best and downright harmful at the worst. This is where Livescribe comes in. No, really...their echo smartpen is not like other smartpens out there that just digitize what you write. This is different, and really compelling. Livescribe released their echo smartpen last month and kindly sent me a review unit. I kindly set it aside and went nuts starting my consulting business. It wasn't until this past weekend that I finally broke it out for some hands-on time and I was blown away, thoroughly regretting not having this device with me constantly through a month of meetings and conferences. Let me step back for a minute though and point a few things out. As I said, everyone takes notes differently. My writing is basically illegible, so I tend to type everything and, when I do take notes, it tends to be in Google Docs or OneNote so that I don't lose the notes and so that I can read them in a week. That being said, I tend to be pretty visual, so as I'm working out a solution with colleagues, I'll tend to draw relationships, diagrams, maps, and "big pictures." Google Docs does not lend itself to this particularly well and, while there are plenty of software tools that do, none can substitute for the speed or immediate person-to-person communication of a back-of-the-envelope diagram. I'm just not capable of keeping those diagrams or remembering the context and discussion surrounding them in a week when I need to refer to them. I simply lack the organizational fortitude. That's why I have my wife, the world's most organized person. That being said, the echo pen accommodates my peculiarities quite nicely. However, it requires the grad student model I mentioned above to change completely. It throws it out the window. Good riddance, I say, and welcome to a new approach that will make sense to the vast majority of our students.

Next: OK, but how does it work? »

Here's how it works: First of all, you have to use Livescribe's consumables with the pen. They have journals, notebooks, paper refills, etc. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of the device, but the tiny dots and built-in controls on each sheet also give the pen its power, so the consumables are a relatively small price to pay. Here's where things get interesting, though. Click the printed record icon on any page of one of these Livescribe papers and the pen not only begins recording what you write, but also what is being said. The sound recordings are then synced with the pen capture such that at any time (once you press the printed stop or pause icons on the page), you can click a word, picture, doodle, or mark on the page and the pen will automatically start playing the audio recording from the point at which you made the mark. For example, if a student wrote down an equation and the steps the instructor took to solve it in his notebook, he could come back to the equation that night as he was working on homework problems, click the equation, and hear the teacher's instruction related to the solution. He could even hear any questions that were asked in class about individual steps in solving the equation and how the teacher responded. Taking this a step further, the synchronized audio and writing/drawing can be saved as "pencasts." The pencasts can then be managed on a Windows or Mac PC running the free Livescribe Desktop software from which users can search, label, and export the files. Connecting the echo to the computer via the included USB cable automatically launches the software and uploads the pencasts. These pencasts can then be shared in every users' free 500MB cloud-based Livescribe account, making them available to other users or to themselves if they switch computers. Here's one pencast that a teacher uploaded. Notice how the audio is really key with the writing (that appears on the fly) as simply visual cues: Some teachers have begun using their Livescribe paper with a document camera, replacing an interactive whiteboard, overhead projector, or slide deck with pencasts that get captured and can be uploaded for reference later on. Others get a little fancier and use them as supplemental tools as in the pencast above. Regardless, the possibilities here are extraordinary. Instead of needing to write absolutely everything and missing the forest for the trees, or writing nothing because students are overwhelmed or apathetic, students can now record the full audio of a lesson and cherry pick key figures, notes, dates, or items to write in their Livescribe notebooks. Then, the audio that prompted these notes is always available and students can engage in the way that makes the most sense. When I first started using the pen, I found myself trying to write everything that I was saying or hearing. It took me a couple of pages to realize that the real beauty of the pen was to simply write or draw what I synthesized from a discussion or a picture of what I wanted to get across and let the synchronized audio handle the rest. Once I made that leap, the pen became an efficient tool for me to supplement my typed notes with drawings, figures, audio, and jotted notes. Whether this becomes a teaching tool in your school or the note taking tool of choice for your students, it's clear that Livescribe's latest gadget can precede, supplement, or complement everything from 1:1 computers to smartboards. This is not the FLY pentop computer that Toys R Us markets, although it shares some of the technology. This is a genuinely disruptive tool that can change the way students and teachers interact in the classroom.

Topic: CXO

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Fitting in hand...

    Hi Chris,

    The Livescribe seems pretty thick; how natural does it feel while holding it in hand and using it? Is it harder at all to write with it? Is there a learning curve and how long does it take to start using it without noticing a bit awkward thickness near the bottom?
    • RE: Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all

      @illuminated.geek I have really small hands and didn't have any trouble adapting to it. My only trouble was adapting to a new style of note taking, rather than writing everything I said or heard. This would be particularly true in a lecture where I was using it as a presentation tool - your brain has to think in 2 directions - One on the lecture and 2 on the drawing/writing/whatever. Just a bit of a switch for a big whiteboard guy like me :)
  • RE: Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all

    Needs special paper to work = immature product

    Also, the website is pretty bad, with lots of hype while important actual information (like the need for special paper) is pushed back.

    I think ill wait until someone does this the right way.
    • RE: Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all


      Completely agree
  • Livescribe is a great technology

    I have been using the Livescribe pen since it's early days, back in Nov. 2008. All the things the author says are benefits are true. In regards to the paper, buying the paper is very cheap. I still have the 100 sheet notebook that originally came with the pen. I also have a journal that only cost $12. The one thing that the author doesn't mention is that you do have the ability to print the special paper yourself. This is great.
  • Livescribe as potential AD/HD solution

    My wife and children all have a heritable form of attention deficit disorder. Any distraction -- even the act of thinking about extensions of a topic or statement -- causes complete loss of context and the "big picture". Compensating for this included recording lectures and making sure the course had written material available. (All are top students!)<br><br>This device has the potential, assuming it works as presented, to completely solve the problem! I will be checking into this for my son (the only one still in school).<br><br>Thank you for the review!
    • RE: Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all

      @hnoyes ADD here, too, plus a kid with attention deficit issues. You're completely right - that's why I stopped taking detailed copious notes a long time ago - I could never really concentrate on what was being said, just the stream of words. I'll be sending this with my son in the fall.
  • Willing to try it again

    I jumped right away and purchased the Live scribe pen last year. Unfortunately, I found its performance was inconsistent. When it worked it was seriously cool. When it didn't it was annoying to say the least.<br><br>I've long been looking for a way to get ink into my computer. Sounds like the latest version of Livescribe is worth a try.
  • RE: Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all

    Students are buying and using this item very successfully. The special paper criticism is a non-issue. You have the template and just print the page from your normal printer paper. Check your notes!
  • OneNote does synchronized notes & voice

    MS OneNote also does synchronized audio with your note stream (has done for years). If you have a webcam, OneNote will also synch video stream with your notes. I agree this is a compelling feature, and is one of the features of OneNote I like the most.
  • RE: Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all

    That is pretty much what I can do in Microsoft Office OneNote on a Tablet PC, and it works great. The best thing is that there is no paper involved.
  • Re: Livescribe - I'm a firm believer!

    I bought a Pulse pen back in January of 2009. I have been using it for almost all of my college courses. I love it! It is not without faults, but in the end it has made my chances for success greatly improved! I also experienced a time lapse in my education so I had not been in good academic habits for a time. I also have been diagnosed as having ADD.<br><br>I am still on my starter notebook so needing to buy additional paper has not been an issue. I have recorded the equivalent of 24-36 credit hour courses over 4 semesters (3 credit hour courses X 8-12 individual courses) . I will have to buy ink refills fairly soon. I found I didnt use/need it for every class. There are some professors that did not want the class to be recorded or some classes that using the smartpen for wouldnt have been efficient or worth it.<br><br>Advantages:<br>* I can use it in classes that don't allow students to use laptops (no OneNote option).<br>* I've used laptops in the past, and it can be very easy to get distracted and venture off into cyberland and check Facebook or whatever. This eliminates that possibility.<br>* Tying the audio to the notes helps me feel more confident that I will understand the material when I review it after class.<br>* It is pretty discrete in the classroom.<br>* The Livescribe Desktop software was recently updated so now I can export the audio file (I believe as AAC) and then put it on my iPod/iPhone and re-listen to them as I am walking between classes or driving around and need to study.<br>* If I had to leave the classroom for something like going to the bathroom, I will be able to go back and hear what I missed during that time. <br>* Reviewing for exams has been much easier.<br>* I can easily share my notes and audio with other students via Livescribes online community.<br><br>Disadvantages:<br>* Other students can abuse the fact that I have the lecture recorded so they dont need to attend. At some point, if fellow students arent helping me, I stop helping them.<br>* You can hear the pen strokes or pages turning. I got used to this after a while. Dont expect perfect sound quality.<br>* The pen rolls off the table/desk when put down. It can also roll in a way that the mic gets covered. My work around has been the keep the case next to my notebook. If I need to do something else for a second, I slide the pen into the case slightly so it can roll and the mic will still face up.<br>* Sometimes the width of the pen can be uncomfortable. Usually that is because I wasnt holding it well or like I normally do. I have the Pulse and Im not sure I would want to change to the Echo since it is much wider.<br>* I have had different problems with the desktop software and pen firmware. Eventually I swallow my pride and call tech support. They have been knowledgeable and helpful in the end, but the frustration can get high. Advice - just call tech support when you are having a problem.<br>* I easily forget to recharge the pen and by the time I notice the blinking battery indicator on the pen, I only have a few minutes left which means I wont get the full lecture that day.<br>* Also I forget to remove sessions from the pen (leaves on the desktop software) and then Ill run out of data space.<br>* Linking audio with notes that werent originally done together has been a huge fiasco for me.<br>* The Apple App version of the desktop software is premature in its release. Maybe wait for some improvements. It cannot continue playback if the phone goes into auto-lock (work around is to change that setting in General Settings to Never and change back when done), wont handle multi-tasking since if you go away from screen it stops playback, and you can only view one page even if there are multiple pages linked - just to name a few.<br><br>I realize my disadvantages may outnumber the advantages in this review but that isn't how I view the product, I am just tired today. All in all, I highly recommend the Livescribe smartpen (Pulse or Echo is up to you) for students and others. There is room for improvement, but it was worth the purchase price.