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Using the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen in the Chemistry or Science Classroom (Or Any Classroom)

By guest blogger, Dr. Dan Stasko, Natural & Applied Sciences Professor at the University of Southern Maine, Lewiston-Auburn College  [See also: Chemistry Pencasts + A Comparison of Pencasts With Other Forms of Lecture Capture]

Those of you reading this blog regularly already know what the LivescribeSmartpen is. But, for those unfamiliar, it is a device that records what is written along with audio present at the same time.  Wow! This is such a blasé description for such a game changing device in the educational arena, akin to the Grand Canyon being a hole in the ground. Unless they see it in action, it is hard to impress upon someone what a novel and ingenious tool this is.  I just want to take a moment to share the ways others and I are using the Livescribe pen to improve the educational experience for our students, particularly science, technology engineering and math students (STEM students). Much of what I will discuss below is shown in practice here or incorporated into my University of Southern Maine class website: danhasclass.blogspot.com.

One of the most straightforward application for the pen is it’s stated function: note taking. From the educators perspective, we apparently have limited control in this arena because not all of our students have the pen. But, if we extend the note taking concept to other areas, then  ‘annotated notes’ have a wide range of potential applications that an educator can implement.  Items like student-parent-teacher conferences (as described here ) and annotated flash cards (as described here ) are a few of the readily applied uses in this arena.  A simple extension of this annotated note concept takes advantage of the fact that the pencast is near ideal for quick tutorials. The instructor is able draw figures and charts or formula and equations that can be discussed and extended in an incredibly straightforward and natural way. If you have ever had the ‘pleasure‘ of using Mathtype or Microsoft Equation Editor to write an equation, you know that what should be a 2 second job with a pen and paper has now taken minutes.  It is the difference between calling someone on the phone and explaining how you would call someone on the phone. One is effortless. The other laborious and involves detailed description of a large numbers of steps.  The livescribe pen and the shareable pencasts that result allow the educator to quickly craft a series of examples that, literally, talk the students through problems and examples, such as the talking math exam solutions ( shown here ). These are all potent options for an educator.

Pedagogically, giving students detailed answers is not beneficial, but, rather than seeing the problem laid out for them, these pencasts offer the opportunity for the instructor to model and underscore the thought process and problem solving skills which the students can hopefully incorporate into their own attempts.   At the University of Southern Maine, I have been attempting to incorporate some of these techniques into my classroom by generating small ‘lecturettes’ dealing with review topics or extra worked out examples that students can access out of class.  Two recent examples of this include a few extra examples dealing with free-radical reactions in organic chemistry and a refresher review of the concept and uses of molarity for a General Chemistry class.  This moves some review and practice out of the very limited class time and allows for learner centered teaching, with students able to experience the review material they need (as needed) while accessing fresh content and still having the time to ask questions in class.  I worry less now about ‘covering content’ because I know that I can slip extra examples into the study materials for the class or pen an additional example as needed for those students that want it.

Example Lecturette:

Another way to utilize the pen in the classroom is as a simple lecture capture method. While tools like Camtasia Studio, Camtasia for Mac, and Screenflow have turned screen recording into a near trivial task and other options for classroom capture exist, it is the peculiar nature of STEM coursework that makes it difficult to effectively capture a live classroom.  Don’t get me wrong, there are a large number of schools out there that have pioneered video capture of the classroom, including demonstrations, producing extremely engaging content. The OpenCourseware of MIT springs to mind. Sadly, not all of us have the budgets that include three cameras, a tricaster, and several technicians that will run the cameras, film us and the boards each class period, manage the movies, edit them and post them online. Prepping annotated slides also presents many of the same challenges describe when dealing with crafting examples.

Even in the OpenCourseware classes mentioned above, the instructor will often resort to the blackboard to write an example rather than rely on the Powerpoint slide to relay the information. Why? It is difficult to, on the fly, create digital representations of what is even the most simplistic mathematics or scientific notation.  The adept typist can quickly introduce the subscripts and superscripts required in some chemical notation, but, what about something as mundane as a decent looking arrow to show a chemical reaction?     – - – ->   can work in a pinch, but to put a true text arrow into a Power Point slide requires no less than four or five operations (and the default arrow is ugly, requiring additional steps to make it look ‘normal’).

The pen on the other hand with its familiar mode of operation (it’s a pen!!!) can be used in the live classroom as the major form of presentation. Ten years ago, this would have been difficult, but the near ubiquitous presence of digital projectors in classrooms allows for ready adaption of the Livescribe Pen to act in the same manner as a transparency projector.  The only additional hardware required is a document camera such as an Elmo or Lumens due to the fact that the paper/notepad is opaque and is a critical component of the pen experience. The document camera projects what you write with the pen and the students can see it.  (Note to livescribe: Better, thicker, ink cartridges would make this easier to implement).  Fast, efficient, simple lecture capture.  No real bells and whistles and almost no hardware to worry about.  If your document camera is up and running in the room already, you can walk in with the pen and paper and your notes and go.   From my year+ experience of doing just this activity, I can say that it is very workable and capable in class sizes up to 50.  Larger classes may have difficulty due to the finer text of the pen compared to a transparency marker.  The major drawback to this method is that you are limited by what you can write or draw. But, since you are using a document camera, figures can be utilize from prepared materials, or, many document cameras have a video line-in that can be utilized to feed video from a laptop at the push of a button, allowing for full multimedia capabilities with the pen capturing the major audio information.

The third major way I am using the pen in the classroom is by allowing the students to utilize the pen. As mentioned, not every student has access to the pen, so to address this, I acquired four pens and distribute them to students in the class.  The students (with a small point incentive) are then responsible for taking the class notes for that day.   The purpose of this is two-fold, by distributing the responsibility of notetaking, students hopefully are more able to faithfully reproduce lecture material.  Additionally, by making the student based lecture notes available after the fact, other students are able to see the interpretation of another student, providing a different insight into particular problems.  An extension of this is group work.  By allowing the students to problem solve in a small group with a dedicated note taker or passing the pen around, students are able to hear and follow different trains of thought as problems are chewed on and mulled over.

The price point of the pen is well within the convincing range of even the most stingy dean or lean faculty development monies, making it an attractive, adaptable tool in any classroom, but particularly in STEM classes.

So, in summary, three ready uses of the Llivescribe pen for and in the classroom are as a demonstration/lecture supplement (pencasts to share with the students), as a lecture capture device (live lectures for the students ‘pleasure’), and as an alternate notetaking strategy or for group work (seeing how others take notes).

For me, I can see three small issues that could make the Livescribe pen as common as the calculator in the realm of education.  One would be the ability to fully control your pencasts.  Hosting of the pencasts on a local webserver rather than restricting them to the Livescribe Community site would open up many unavailable options, like private conferences, study sessions, and no limitations due to traffic and file size.  Plus improve statistics tracking and tools to allow examination of student usage.  Another key factor to improve the further implementation of the pen would be completely portable pencasts.  Currently, pencasts can only be shared through the livescribe community.  A simple export to a mobile device such as the iPod or even a memory stick as a standalone object that any student could open would allow for recording of tutorial sessions, fast Q&A to email questions.  Students shouldnt need to be connected to the internet to replay content and as of yet pencasts can not be traded between computers easily as an *.mp3.  And lastly, pencasts can not be edited. I am far from perfect as an educator, and I do not mind the ‘warts’ and all approach, but even modest editing that would allow trimming extraneous information or merging podcasts together would be extremely helpful.

Dan Stasko
Assistant Professor of Natural and Applied Sciences
http://www.usm.maine.edu/lac
51 Westminster Street Lewiston, Maine 04240

Class website: danhasclass.blogspot.com.

class website: danhasclass.blogspot.com.
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