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Teaching the Pen a New Trick

Sky_wifi_smartpen_heroRather than building a digital classroom around tablets or notebooks, there’s another way: get students a digital pen that records classroom audio while it captures everything that is written, from words and drawings to math equations and chemical formulas. At $150, the latest Livescribe Sky WiFi Smartpen can do it all, potentially transforming the way kids learn.

The most advanced pen available, Livescribe’s Sky pen is equal parts writing instrument and advanced computer. More than a mere pen, the 1.2-ounce Sky has a 600 dot per inch camera in its tip to take in everything that is written. Inside is an ARM 9 processor as well as flash storage and a small battery; it comes with a Micro USB cable for charging. The Sky pen starts up faster than any computer can and has a tiny OLED monochrome screen to confirm that it’s connected, has battery power and is doing what you want it to.

About the only thing it lacks is a clip for a shirt pocket or attaching to a loose leaf notebook. I was, however, able to quickly make a lanyard out of an old USB cable that worked just as well.

Sky_student_class_2012Like its predecessors, Sky requires writing on special paper to work. The kit comes with a 50-page notebook, extra ink cartridge and a cover to protect the camera. A teacher can create blank sheets for the class to use with a classroom printer.

The big step forward from Livescribe’s Echo pen is that rather than needing the move the data from the pen to a computer with a USB cable, all the data flows wirelessly over a WiFi network to an Internet server and then back to a local computer. It seems convoluted, but it works remarkably well and there’s a bonus: you not only have the digital version on demand, but the original paper notes as well.

The pen I looked at comes with 2GB of internal memory and room online for 500MB of notes and audio every month. There are versions with 4- and 8GB of internal storage for $200 and $250. Evernote software is the key to making Livescribe work. After connecting with Livescribe’s Web site, you’ll need to download and install a free copy of Evernote on a computer. While the less-expensive pens come with a basic version of the software – which displays advertisements – the 8GB version provides an upgrade to the ad-free Evernote Premium.

Because there’s no keyboard, you’ll need to press the pen onto different patterns printed on the notebook’s inner cover to tell it what to do. The pen provides audio feedback along the way. The process is a little awkward but it gets the job done.

Once everything is loaded, the final setup step is to connect with the school’s WiFi network and set the date and time. All told, set aside about 15 minutes to figure out the pen and get it started.

Sky_wifi_frontTo get going, just tap a page number at the top, press record and start taking notes. The pen takes it all in, including the sounds of the classroom, reinforcing the notes taken. It all gets sent to Livescribe’s servers and then onto your Evernote account where it can be opened on a variety of computers. The synchronization process takes anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes, depending on the material, but everything arrives intact. There are versions of the software for the Mac, PC and iPad with an Android version coming in 2013.

The LiveScribe interface is clean, functional and quick to figure out. It shows all the pages that have been transferred as well as any tags or descriptions attached to them. Each page can be saved as an HTML file for posting on the school’s Web site, a great way for LiveScribe-based classroom activities to be shared with parents and sick children stuck at home.

The audio sounds surprisingly good considering the size of the pen, but it tends to capture a lot of extraneous noises, like a seat-mate tapping on the desk. The pen has a crude speaker, but using the headphone jack works much better. The pen can be plugged into a classroom amplification system for the whole class to hear.

I used Sky for lessons like marking up sentences, balancing chemical equations and drawing a map of the settlement of the western US. The good news is that you can go back and make corrections to what’s been written and it can all be shared with the class, parent or administrator via email, Facebook or a Dropbox account. Unfortunately, it’s no better than the user’s handwriting and can only work with one color digitally, although there are blue or red ink cartridges.

Sky_student_group_2012At the moment, it’s not a collaborative tool, but this is something that Livescribe is working on as well as using the special paper to create self-correcting worksheets or quizzes. But, by far, the biggest shortcoming of the Sky pen is that it can’t be linked with a projector to write directly on the screen for the whole class to see.

Its $150 price tag might seem steep for something that is an adjunct to a notebook or tablet in the classroom, but Sky does a great job of updating the pen for the 21-st century classroom. If that’s too much, the company continues to sell its older USB-based Echo pen for $90. Either way, Livescribe’s pens are a great classroom alternative that puts the emphasis on words and writing.


Livescribe Sky WiFi

Price: $150 with 2GB


+ Captures audio while it records writing

+ Thin and light

+ Links with Evernote

+ Can share work


- No colors

- Doesn’t work with projector

- Need to use special paper





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