Sometimes the only way to make progress is to leave something behind.
Rob van Nood has skin in the smartpens game. Besides using the technology at home and in his classroom, he's among the first funders of the 3Doodler, a smartpen from WobbleWorks that creates a three-dimensional plastic model as users draw on paper and in the air.
"Smartpens allow me to be part of the conversation with my students," says van Nood, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at the Opal Charter School in Portland, Ore., which is currently piloting the Livescribe Sky Wi-Fi–enabled smartpen. The technology "allows me to really listen and fine-tune what they're saying. The Wi-Fi feature alone makes it beneficial."
Livescribe's latest innovation takes traditional smartpen technology a step further by digitizing everything students and teachers write or hear and then syncing and storing those files wirelessly over a school's Wi-Fi network. Users can access and share the files via Evernote, a note-taking and archiving app that's available for desktop and notebook computers, tablets and smartphones. "Rather than having to physically connect the pen with my laptop, I can go right to my paper notebook, tap a word I've written and call up a recorded session," van Nood explains.
At home, meanwhile, van Nood's school-age children use the smartpen to capture and play back the stories they tell as they draw on paper — an exercise that enhances their creativity, he says.
Dr. Sam Patterson, dean of student advising and outreach and an English teacher at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, Calif., also is a fan of the technology.
Patterson is piloting the Livescribe Sky with 40 ninth-graders to improve their understanding of difficult subject matter, such as antiquated vocabulary used by Shakespeare and Homer. The students write with the pens to augment their notes, while Patterson uses his to generate comprehensive files that he then shares with students who need help or were absent. He also creates mini-tutorials for certain lessons that students can refer to outside of class. "Using the smartpen clarifies instructions for students who might not have initially understood them," he explains.
Patterson says smartpens help him address the needs of certain students without holding back the whole class. "The technology gives you the opportunity to be more effective" as an educator, he says.
Both Patterson and van Nood believe smartpen usage ultimately will expand beyond their schools' current pilot programs.
Indeed, van Nood's faith in the technology is so strong that he contributed to the 3Doodler Kickstarter campaign earlier this year and will receive one of the first pens when they ship in early 2014.
Eventually, he says, smartpens like 3Doodler could be used to streamline student design challenges, such as making marble runs. "Rather than trying to find a part" — balls or track components, for instance — "we could simply draw it."
These innovative uses of the technology can make learning more engaging.
Smartpens aren't new, but exciting innovations are making the technology especially appealing to teachers who want to enliven the classroom experience for their students. Here are some clever uses worth considering.
If you have students of different learning levels, use color-coded stickers to record multiple versions of the same coursework. Direct students to tap the pen on the color that matches their abilities, and they'll discreetly receive a targeted lesson.
If, while grading homework assignments or tests, you find a number of students struggled with the material, record a follow-up session and share a link to it via Evernote, a note-taking and archiving app. This will help students get up to speed without monopolizing classroom time.
Use a smartpen while talking through a math problem. Then, photocopy the problem and share the file so students can revisit your logic — in your voice.