Livescribe proves that the pen isn't dead yet

The Sky wifi smartpen from Livescribe makes a pen and paper work in a tablet world.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I'll admit, I was skeptical when Livescribe asked me to review it's new smartpen. Although I'd given high marks to their Echo smartpen in previous reviews ("Livescribe: Fixing note taking once and for all" and "Livescribe use models in special education"), that was back in 2010. Just a few months earlier, Apple had released its first-generation iPad to lots of hope for educational use cases but had hardly reached critical mass in schools. Now it's almost 2013, tablets are everywhere, and most of us believe that a tablet or hybrid is the device of choice for most 1:1 applications.

Tablets, in fact, are changing the ways in which we both consume and create content and the sophistication of apps for education is increasing at a blistering pace. So why would I possibly want a smartpen that writes on dead trees? No matter how smart the pen, that seems pretty old school, right? Not quite.

There are some pretty great handwriting and notetaking apps available on both iOS and Android. Penultimate is my favorite, by far, and, along with ArtRage (both of which are iOS-only), gets more use than any other app or feature on my iPad. Because Penultimate is now owned by Evernote, everything I write or draw automatically appears in my Evernote account. And Evernote, as it is for many people, is utterly indispensible for me.

So where does the smartpen come in? Even with a tool like Doceri's GoodPoint stylus (a truly awesome stylus that has both erase and write heads), writing on a tablet remains suboptimal. The slight lag between stroke and appearance on the screen is distracting and no matter how brilliant the display, the limitations of capacitive touch screens are such that you simply can't achieve the precision or detail of a pen and paper. The closest I've seen to a realistic writing experience on a tablet came on the Windows 8-based Dell Latitude 10, thanks to the built-in Wacom digitizer.

Livescribe's new Sky WiFi pen marries pen and paper precision with a few key digital features that make a whole lot of sense in an educational setting:

  • Like the smartpens from Livescribe before it, it digitizes all notes taken on proprietary Livescribe paper tablets
  • It simultaneously records sounds as you are taking notes, letting teachers create screencasts with audio simply by writing or drawing, letting students record lectures and discussions while they take notes, and even letting students explain their work verbally as they complete homework.
  • The last feature is pretty slick, but it becomes awesome when you realize that tapping anywhere within the notes plays the audio that was recorded while they were being taken. Thus, a student could tap a graph he copied in class and hear what the instructor was explaining about the graph while he was copying it.
  • None of these features are new; what is new is that all of these notes, recordings and all, are automatically synced to an Evernote notebook. The syncing is in near real time and synced notes retain all of the functionality of the paper versions. As the WiFi smartpen's name would suggest, this is all done over a wireless connection.

The Sky smartpen has been thoroughly reviewed and positively received around the general tech blogosphere. What interests me, though, are the educational possibilities this syncing opens up.

  1. Schools that can't afford 1:1 could, for a fraction of the cost, supply students with (or have them purchase) Sky smartpens and then rely on Evernote for content sharing, collaboration, studying notes, etc. (Evernote notebooks can be shared). Students can access their Evernote accounts on any web browser, any smartphone, or any tablet. While this approach doesn't give anywhere/anytime access to apps and the Internet, it very cost-effectively enables digital notes and content distribution. It also makes BYOD more effective, since the platform is device-agnostic.
  2. Schools with 1:1 programs (or some sort of BYOD program) suddenly have a much more effective and natural means of promoting notetaking, getting notes into the 1:1 devices, and enabling even the most technophobic teachers to create and share digital content with students and peers.
  3. All of those teachers who still use the whiteboard or overhead projectors? Their writing-intensive approaches translate very well to writing on Livescribe paper but can be enhanced with audio automatically for students whose learning styles don't sync well with writing-heavy note delivery (interestingly, most teachers are reading/writing-oriented while only around 10% of students learn best with this approach).

Livescribe has done a really nice job of making paper work quite well in a tablet world (and in broad cross-sections of the world where tablets simply aren't affordable). Within a couple of years, tablets will most likely have reached a level of ubiquity and touch screens will have matured such that the dual media (pen/paper and computing device) approach might not make as much sense. At that point, I won't be surprised at all if Livescribe begins making styli that bring their audio recording and screencasting technologies directly to tablets. For now, though, the Sky smartpen provides the best features of paper with an Evernote-driven twist that is very hard to ignore. It's just too slick and effective on too many levels for schools not to have it on their short lists of great technology, whether or not they have successfully rolled out 1:1.

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