Friday, March 25, 2011

A Simple Kind of Magic

When Rita Skeeter coerced Harry Potter into a broom closet and forced him to spill his wizarding guts, little did she know that Livescribe’s Smartpen could have given her magic quill a serious run for her Gallions.

If you’re more of a Lord of the Rings devotee, I’m talking about the magic quill that Rita Skeeter dictated into. With a life of its own, the ebullient quill would absorb what the interviewees said and pour out fully fledged sentences.

In the real world, Livescribe created the SmartPen. This regular-looking pen comes with special paper. At the bottom of the paper, tap the word ‘Record’ with the pen’s tip. Next, write and speak at the same time. Solving a math problem? Utter your thinking process. Interviewing an AUSG candidate? Take brief notes and let her talk all she wants. Finally, tap the stop symbol at the bottom of the paper.

The SmartPen allows you to tap onto any word you’ve written and listen to the playback of what you were saying at the time of writing that word. What’s more, with its embedded camera, it lets you upload the notes and recordings onto your computer. On your screen, click on whatever note you want to revive, and watch as it gets animated before you. Magic.

The SmartPen is your memory storage outside your brain. It combines the archaic necessity of penning our thoughts—I’m thinking caves and walls—with the utility of audio tracing. Used right, it’ll help you take less vigorous notes, that are backed by the storage of exactly what you were thinking, rather than the elaborate coding I find in my notebooks long after I forget my meaning. From my Anthro class:

key distinguishes joking manner not from serious manner
secondary text needs to be framed as not misconceived as the primary text and cause butt offence

I no longer recall what I meant by ‘butt.’

The New York Times tells us, “A growing number of schools across the nation are embracing the iPad as the latest tool to teach Kafka in multimedia, history through “Jeopardy”-like games and math with step-by-step animation of complex problems.” (
Stanford professor, Larry Cuban however points out: “There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines.”

Tablets are novel because they are multi-functional. Being multi-functional is also what makes them forces of distributed focus.

Since the iPad can do things your brain can’t (like access the web), it sometimes feels like your own brain is not doing the doing. But in education, no tricks or artifice should replace a learner’s mental work-out.

There’s also a cognitive distance when we use a not-there keyboard  that somehow the pen in your fingers does not engender. Perhaps our traditional form of note-taking has been hard-wired into us evolutionarily.

So why not keep the $750 per iPad and invest instead in things like the SmartPen? It blends the agility of new, clever gadgets with the promise of old habits.

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