(This replaces an earlier post)

Hannon, C. (2008) Paper-based Computing EDUCAUSE Quarterly, Vol. 31. No. 4

This article looks at some of the issues arising from electronic note-taking, prompted by the development of the Livescribe Pulse smart pen. This technology is aimed directly at the college student market. The pen points a tiny camera at specially marked paper, captures what is written, and converts the writing to PDF files and plain text in what is being called paper-based computing. The pen comes with microphones that capture audio and software that synchronizes it with the written notes. A student can replay an entire lecture at a later time, either by interacting with the written notes or through a computer. The pen’s software also makes it easy to share recorded class sessions with other students at the Livescribe website or through Facebook.

I have included this reference because is is a classic example of how technology should NOT be used in teaching (incidentally, I have the same view about clickers). This is the equivalent of putting a steam engine in front of a stagecoach, with two men in front holding flags so it won’t go faster than 5 mph. Technology can allow students access to the same information in different ways. Why do they have to be in the lecture theatre in the first place? Why are they passively taking notes instead of actively seeking and analysing knowledge for themselves? This technology may be useful for teaching office secretaries or court reporters how to take notes in shorthand – but these job functions don’t exist anymore.  The whole premise of using technology to repeat an activity that is inefficient in the first place shows how little we understand technology in education (or to be fair, how little the inventor understands education).

Now of course a case can be made for face-to-face lectures and for note-taking, but only within a design that considers the many ways in which technology can be used and the many kinds of learners that have to be reached, and then selecting the lecture or note-taking because they are uniquely suited to the task in hand – and I’ll bet the smart pen wouldn’t be needed at all in that context.


  1. I’ve been using the pen for a while now – i love it! I’m a college student with a bioengineering major and use the pen for all my engineering classes. Studying really is a breeze with it. I just re-listen to the parts I was hazy on/my notes weren’t as clear. I also share my notes with a lot of friends using the “Livescribe Online” feature so they can take advantage of my notes along with the synced audio.

    Let me know if you guys have any questions!

    Also, I’m actually a campus representative for Livescribe at UC Berkeley. Hence, I have a discount code for you guys: PULSE5A10 that works at http://www.livescribe.com


  2. I am not sure that this is a particularly effective use of technology but there is still an argument to be had about the role of ‘lectures’ in learning. I note that many ed tech luminaries who favour informal learning are still happy to accept invitations to present at conferences 😉 I think a keynote lecture (to introduce concepts) accompanied by by other more active learning activities still may have a place. And note taking is a valuable skill if students can learn to process and organise information whilst listening to a speaker. It comes in very handy when interviewing research subjects, for example, especially if backed up by an audio recording. That’s a very different skill from stenography.


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