Mightier than the Pen
Pens are pens and pencils are pencils, except when it comes to LiveScribe’s remarkable Echo digital writing instrument. With the ability to capture hand-written notes and drawings as well as whatever is said in the classroom, Echo SmartPen has the power to transform the classroom for much less money that outfitting every classes with PCs.
At 1.3-ounces, and 0.8 by 6.2-inches, the Echo is bulky and heavy compared to the typical pen or pencil, but it has a soft rubber area where your fingers wrap around it. The difference is that Echo is actually a miniature computer that uses an ARM processor. There’s a tiny infrared camera in its tip to record everything that’s been written on special paper, an audio recorder and a small monochrome OLED screen.
It can be ordered with 4- or 8GB of flash memory for $170 and $200 that can hold thousands of pages of notes along with up to about 400- or 800-hours of audio, respectively. Livescribe offers educational discounts through its educational sales team for orders of 9 or more units that can reduce the price of the 8GB model by up to 15 percent.
All Echo pens come with a notebook of special paper, a micro-USB cable for charging its battery and moving data as well as an extra ink cartridge. It runs on either a Mac or Windows computer and the company also sells larger, older and less expensive pens.
Thanks to some innovative programming, the way it works is deceptively simple. As you write with the pen, its camera captures 72 frames per second of what’s being written as it records what’s said in the room. The two remain synchronized and can be organized and reviewed on the Livescribe Desktop. This is perfect for looking over and listening to the day’s notes on the major battles of World War II, the difference between adverbs and gerunds or a theorem on complementary angles of adjacent triangles.
The pen comes into its own when you convert the written and audio work into an augmented Acrobat .pdf file called a Pencast. The entire sequence is there but takes up less space and just any computer that can handle Flash animation, can play it like a movie. Almost like magic the writing appears as the words are spoken.
At the moment there are thousands of Pencasts on Livescribe’s site created by a small army of independent teachers. There are ones on graphing equations, balancing chemical equations and sociology. The video can be run on a small window or full-screen.
There are two major ways to update teaching with Echo. A teacher with the pen could record all his or her lessons with an Echo pen and then distribute them to the class with as Pencasts either via an email blast or by downloading from a school server.
But, if the whole class had Echo pens, they could capture the teacher’s words along with their handwritten notes, making for a richer and – hopefully – more fulfilling learning experience. Each child would go home with a pen full of notes and audio so that they could review the day’s lessons, work on weak areas and make note of any questions.
In fact, in this scheme, the original handwritten notes become less important once they’ve been written because the digital notes are much more useful. The pen comes with up to 500MB of online storage so that school servers or home PCs aren’t clogged up with the files.
The pen itself has a slew of built-in software, including a calculator and piano, which require that you draw the outline of a keyboard. The company’s online application storefront has 60 add-on apps, some of which are free, like the one that teachers guitar chords. An American Heritage Dictionary for the pen costs $15 and a cool stopwatch that can be helpful in the bio or physic’s classroom goes for $2.
It all works well and is surprisingly efficient for taking and distributing notes, but the microphone picks up a lot of stray noise, like the shuffling of papers, that can obscure the teacher’s words. It can take an agonizingly long time to get the hang of the system’s 5-way navigation system and menus. Unfortunately, its hierarchical structure is both a blessing and a curse. It’s predictable but can take many moves to get out of one section and into another.
All told, Livescribe’s Echo has the power to shake up the classroom, not with a keyboard but with a pen. Think of the Echo as the final evolutionary step in perfecting the pen for the classroom.
Livescribe Echo SmartPen
$170 (with 4GB of flash memory) or $200 (with 8GB of flash memory)
+ Excellent software
+ Ability to synchronize written class notes with audio
+ Mac and Windows compatibility
+ Pencast distribution of files
+ Lots of included apps
- Bulky pen
- Pen’s screen and menu can be awkward