Back in September, I stumbled across this New York Times article detailing the ways that students in Brian Licata’s Staten Island middle school were using Livescribe pens to review content in a math class that I’m sure I couldn’t even pass.

That introduction to Livescribe pens—digital tools straight out of Jetson’s cartoons that, when paired with special Livescribe paper, can digitally track every stroke of a student’s handwriting and pair it with a time-synched audio recording of whatever is being spoken at the same time—caught my attention.

Here’s the segment from the Times article—describing how one student used her Livescribe pen and notebook to complete a challenging homework assignment—that really resonated:

To refresh her memory, Dervishaj pulled out her math notebook. But her class notes were not great: she had copied several sample problems but hadn’t written a clear explanation of how exponents work.

She didn’t need to. Dervishaj’s entire grade 7 math class has been outfitted with “smart pens” made by Livescribe, a start-up based in Oakland, Calif.

The pens perform an interesting trick: when Dervishaj and her classmates write in their notebooks, the pen records audio of whatever is going on around it and links the audio to the handwritten words. If her written notes are inadequate, she can tap the pen on a sentence or word, and the pen plays what the teacher was saying at that precise point.

Crazy, isn’t it?  Imagine your students pulling out their spiral notebooks and clicking on any point on any sheet of paper and being able to listen to an audio recording of the lesson happening at that exact moment in class?

For middle school parents and teachers—charged with supporting students who are notoriously bad notetakers—that sounds like a complete digital dream, doesn’t it?


What I like even better about Livescribe pens is that they can be used by teachers and students to create digital tutorials—called Pencasts—introducing and/or demonstrating mastery of difficult concepts.

Here’s a sample created by one of Mike Kaechele’s students:


brought to you by Livescribe

Now, I know what the Interactive Whiteboard Nation is thinking:  “You can do the same kinds of tutorials with IWBs, Bill.  What makes Livescribe pens so much different than IWBs?

There’s actually three HUGE differences. 

First, IWBs and digital projectors cost well over two thousand dollars.  Livescribe pens—depending on the amount of internal memory that you want—range in price from $129 to $179.  Even when you count the cost of a lifetime supply of Livescribe notebooks, you’ll never even come close to the cost of an Interactive Whiteboard.

Second, Livescribe pens and notebooks are WAY more portable than IWBs—-and think about the advantages that portability brings:

  • Have a group of students that demonstrate mastery on the concept you’re teaching in class?  Hand them your Livescribe pen and notebook and send them into the hallway to design a Pencast tutorial that teaches the concept to peers in a new way.
  • Want to create a master copy of your classroom lessons and notes that students can refer to for review and/or refresher?  Assign a classroom scribe every time that you’re giving notes in class and let them record your lessons.
  • Need to get students caught up after a long absence or before a major test?  Send them to the library with your Livescribe pen and notebook to click their way through the content they struggle with the most.

Imagine trying to pull any of that off with an Interactive Whiteboard.  It just ain’t possible.

Third, Livescribe pens—unlike IWBs—carry no learning curve for teachers.  It’s a pen and a notebook.  That’s it.  EVERY teacher is comfortable with a pen and a notebook, right?

(Note to principals: If not, it’s time to find some new teachers!)

Buy a few Livescribe pens and notebooks and you can get digitally hesitant teachers creating warehouses of online tutorials and recordings of classroom lessons in no time and with no hassle.

How beautiful would that be?

Just last week, I scraped together enough cash to buy a Livescribe pen—-I paid $70 for a refurbished 2 GB model that came with a starter notebook of Livescribe paper—and I’ve been playing with it ever since.

My first Pencast is a recording of a 25 Word Story that I wrote:

Grand total amount of time that these suckers took to make and to get posted online:  15 minutes.

  • Just over a minute to write the Nightmares bit in my Livescribe notebook.
  • Just over 10 minutes to write the Reading Map in my Livescribe notebook.
  • One minute to drop my Livescribe pen into its USB holster and to import both files into my computer.
  • 2 minutes to select the files I wanted to upload to my storage page on the Livescribe website.

And the best part is that both of these bits are still written in my Livescribe notebook which I can give to students to explore anytime and anywhere in our building—or at home—without needing a computer or an Internet connection.

Whaddya’ think?  Is your mind racing—like mine is—with potential uses for Livescribe pens in your classroom?

Are you imagining groups of students in need of enrichment or remediation grouped around interactive notebooks in the hallways outside your classroom exploring and/or creating content with one another?

Are you excited about finally finding a tool that even the most digitally frightened teacher in your building might embrace?

Are you jazzed that you might just be able to afford more than one or two content creation devices per classroom?

I am—in case you haven’t noticed—and as my kids imagine new products to create with our Livescribe pen, I’ll start to share them here on the Radical.

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