Digital pen answers challenges for class

Janice Crowley says a new generation of pen and paper has changed her teaching — and students' learning — for the better. "I own lots of expensive technology," said Crowley, an award-winning chemistry teacher at Wichita Collegiate School and a professor at Wichita State University.

"There is nothing that comes close to this pen as far as how it has helped my students improve their achievement."

Crowley spent about an hour Wednesday demonstrating her new favorite teaching tool, the LiveScribe digital smart pen, during a chemistry class.

Her goal, she said, was to show teachers, parents, school leaders and others the value of using new digital products and platforms — and not just iPods and iPads — in the classroom.

The LiveScribe system looks like a normal pen and notebook. It and similar products are available at most electronics stores, starting at about $100 for a 2-gigabyte smart pen and about $20 for four spiral notebooks with control icons on every page.

Here's how it works: The pen records everything written into the LiveScribe book, along with audio such as teacher explanations and class discussion. Later, when you click on a line in your notes, you can hear the teacher explain that concept again and slow down the recording.

Crowley syncs her pen with a computer and uploads "pencasts" of her lessons, which students can access for free online.

Students who miss class can catch up quickly, she said. Those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia perform much better when they're able to hear the lesson along with the notes. Shy students feel more at ease replaying the lessons at home.

"It's the answer to so many challenges," said Crowley, a Milken National Educator who was named one of "America's 100 Best" teachers. "It can make such a difference."

Sophomore Markus Phox said he uses his digital pen to take notes in chemistry and other classes and review them later.

"Sometimes when you're trying to write and listen, you don't catch everything," he said. "When you go back with the pen, it's like having a teacher right there with you."

Collegiate student Sophie Beren said she doesn't own a smart pen but listens to Crowley's pencasts at least once a week on her computer at home.

"I had no idea something like this existed," she said. "It's revolutionary."

Crowley said she knows many families couldn't afford another $200 in digital school supplies. Nor could cash-strapped schools outfit everyone on staff with smart pens and notebooks.

She just hopes her unpaid testimonial inspires other teachers to consider digital pen systems and maybe even apply for technology grants or other funding sources to pay for them.

"What's the saying: 'Penny wise but dollar foolish?' " Crowley said. "There are lots of things we buy that maybe we shouldn't buy.

"I'm just saying this is a tool, an investment, that's worth checking out because the payoff is huge."