Seven things you need to know about digital pens
A white paper from Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State

At a glance

Digital pens provide a means to electronically capture handwritten notes and drawings, often supplemented with audio recordings. These devices can be used for:

  • Note-taking
  • Fieldwork
  • Creating instructional content

Who to contact

Elizabeth Pyatt or Brian Young, Teaching and Learning with Technology

References and resources

Research team

Michael Ganci, Teaching and Learning with Technology
Elizabeth Pyatt, Teaching and Learning with Technology
Jacqueline Ritzko, Teaching and Learning with Technology
Brian Young, Teaching and Learning with Technology

With contributions from:
Kent Matsueda, College of Information Sciences and Technology
Alexa Schriempf, Teaching and Learning with Technology/Office for Disability Services

1. What are they?

In the broadest terms, digital pens function to capture a digital copy of your handwritten notes. These digital notes can be saved on the pen device, to a computer, or automatically to the cloud.

Livescribe page with sample of handwritten “This is a test page” and hand-drawn diagrams

Livescribe page with sample of handwritten “This is a test page” and hand-drawn diagrams

Some digital pen devices record everything you hear, say, and write, while linking your audio recordings to your notes. Most also allow you to save, organize, and play back interactive notes from your Mac or Windows computer or tablet/smart phone device.

Pens tested:

2. How do they work?

The pens themselves function as normal pens, but how the digital notes are captured varies. Some have cameras in the pens themselves, while others rely on an external device clipped to the paper to capture the pen’s movements. Some of the pens require specialized paper, while some do not. The cost of the paper is minimal.

All of the pens require software to be installed on a computer. This allows for syncing/saving of files locally, or setting up the pen to send the digital files to the cloud.

3. Why are they significant?

An instructor teaching a course can use pens to quickly capture a diagram to share with his or her students. With Livescribe, an instructor could also make demos of a complex concept while at home or in an office. Although some video processing is required to export the video for online use, it is quicker than reserving studio time on campus. The pen can also be used with student consultations to capture notes about student projects or issues and post them to one location.

A student with a Livescribe pen could use the pen to digitally capture lecture notes for all classes taken and organize them on a computer or a cloud-based storage system such as Dropbox. A student who is assigned homework which is handwritten, such as an engineering problem set, could submit the paper copy to an instructor, but have a digital copy as a backup. Some pens, such as the Inkling, are designed to be taken in the field and can capture notes or drawings on paper attached on a clipboard. Students with different assignments such as interviews (journalism) or field observations (anthropology/sociology/psychology) could also use the Livescribe pen to make recordings while they take notes.

4. What are the implications for teaching and learning?

Digital pens are primarily designed for individual use by note-takers. A student in a classroom could use his or her digital pen to record class notes digitally and then upload them to a central repository. Handwriting recognition programs can then convert handwritten notes to text. Depending on the repository, these notes could then become searchable.

Livescribe pens in particular are sometimes recommended for students with certain learning disabilities because they can capture both audio from the instructor and images of the notes. Students can then later listen to the entire recording to reinforce concepts. Institutions which support Livescribe for these students include Penn State and Auburn.

Digital pens can also be used by instructors to enhance content. One usage is that an instructor could capture a handwritten diagram in a method that would not need an instructor to access an illustrator program. Fidelity between what is put on paper and what is captured can be quite good. With Livescribe, an instructor could create a mini-video lesson or demo in which instructors review a process, such as steps in solving an equation, with voice-over matching each part of the process. The configuration may be more portable and intuitive than with traditional video cameras. Penn State’s College of Engineering is evaluating the effectiveness of instructor-created pencasts.

Some institutions, such as Portland Community College, are piloting note-taking services via Livescribe. In initial surveys, 90 percent of students considered Livescribe notes more effective than written notes alone.

5. What are the downsides?

  • Wireless integration was not possible with a Penn State wireless account. The team was therefore restricted to those models in which content could be synched via USB to a Mac or Windows machine.
  • A user is locked into the digital pen ecosystem. Some pens allow export of images, but exporting Livescribe video requires an extra step and software.
  • Usage needs some commitment, as each device functions somewhat differently with varied learning curves.
  • Users need to get the permission of instructor/group participants before recording notes. Penn State students may be allowed to record notes, but are prohibited from distributing the notes to others for a profit.
  • If an instructor were providing content via a Livescribe pencast video, captioning and description for the blind would be an issue as it is for any video. The same is true for providing alternative (alt) text descriptions for images created by a pen and inserted in a web page.
  • The cost of individual devices may be high. Students may need to invest in special paper which is designed to capture the images accurately.

6. Who is using them?

7. Where are they going?

There are many instructors, staff, and departments using digital dens at Penn State. Each device has very specific benefits for each user. Investigations will continue as the technology continues to improve.

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