Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all

The Livescribe echo smartpen has the potential to change the way we teach, learn, and recall information.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor
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.
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