U.Va. Engineers Leading Efficacy Study on 'Smartpen'

January 26, 2010

January 26, 2010 — Faculty from the University of Virginia Engineering School are leading a study to see how the Pulse Smartpen may be used in a variety of instructional settings and whether it would be useful for broader implementation at the school, including in U.Va.'s undergraduate distance education program, Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia.

Employing a small onboard computer, the smartpen allows users to capture and export writing and audio to their computers via USB cable. Equipped with a high-speed infrared camera, the pen reads dot patterns on special paper to digitally recreate the users' writing and also captures audio with a small microphone.

For instance, a student could take lecture notes and then review them with the accompanying audio on his or her computer. The speed of the recorded voice can be slowed down and users can jump to different points in the audio by moving the cursor to corresponding phrases in their writing.

In mid-October, Livescribe provided the Engineering School with 50 smartpen units, which are now in use by faculty members from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Curry School of Education, as well as by students in the Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia program.

Results from the users' experiences with the pen are being collected as part of a study to determine how the technology could be used in a variety of instructional settings, including creating interactive materials, supporting distance learning initiatives, grading homework assignments and as an alternative to tablet PCs, which also support electronic inking.

"Right out of the box, the smartpen has some very exciting applications that could be of use to our students and faculty," said Stephanie Moore, director of engineering instructional design for the Engineering School. "Through the efficacy study, we are seeing how useful the technology may be and also how it could be improved."

Moore was introduced to the smartpen by Ed Berger, associate dean of undergraduate students at the Engineering School and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Berger purchased a smartpen for himself in fall 2008 to explore how he might be able to use it in his classes. Berger experimented with the smartpen by creating "pencasts," in which a student was provided with a smartpen and notebook, took lecture notes during class and then uploaded the content for other classmates to review online. Berger and his students noticed that the software was able to accurately search for specific words in the handwritten notes, regardless of the quality of the student's handwriting. He sees potential in the development of interactive materials that could, for example, allow students to receive more detailed audio instruction about a problem in a textbook.

A shortcoming of the current technology, the students noticed, was that it was difficult to read other students' handwriting and the written notes didn't consistently synchronize with the audio or particular slides as they were shown in class.

After seeing the pen in action and learning about Berger's experimentation, Moore organized a workshop last May with Livescribe representatives and 20 faculty members drawn from across the Engineering School's nine departments and the greater University community. The workshop led to Moore's writing a proposal to Livescribe requesting 50 smartpen units with which to launch an efficacy study.

"I strongly believe in the tenet of having stakeholder involvement in the technical decision process," Moore said. "This project has been faculty-driven from the beginning."

Sheila Warren, a doctoral student in the Curry School's Instructional Technology Department who is also assisting with development of the Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia program, started using the pen during the fall semester as part of the study. She considers it, with further development, as a possible alternative to tablet computers and an enhancement to homework grading.

"For math-heavy classes, typing notes on a computer doesn't work very well," Warren said. "Equations take a long time to type into a computer, and graphs or diagrams are even more cumbersome. So, with a computer tablet, those sorts of tasks are easier to do. With one of these pens used as an input device, it could take the place of a tablet and be substantially less expensive."

Warren sees potential for faculty use of the pen for grading homework assignments. The ability to provide spoken feedback, as opposed to just handwritten notes, would allow faculty to quickly provide more detailed responses to students' work.

The efficacy study will be completed at the end of the fall 2010 semester at which point results will be shared with Livescribe to determine how the pen may be further developed for use in engineering and other instructional settings. Engineering School faculty members and administrators will also consider how the pen could be implemented in the classroom and to enhance the Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia distance education program.

— By Zak Richards