NECC ’09: LiveScribe

OK, fair warning. I went by the LiveScribe booth very late in the conference when I was tired and weary, and it took me a while to find them.  I went based on the description I got over dinner from Deven Black (Twitter user @Spedteacher), I’m  giving them the Bronze Medal for this conference’s most interesting products.

So the idea is that it’s a pen that records as you write.  You use the pen with special paper as you write, and the built-in camera records where on the paper your diagram, drawings or notes are.  The microphone records what is being said around you, and synchs those recordings directly with the lines on the paper as you draw them.  Then, when you synch the pen with your computer, it uploads your recordings — and digital copies of your pages — to a digital version of the notebook in your hard drive.  All the lines you drew, whether words, phrases or diagrams, become clickable links / hyperlines in your digital notebook… and clicking on those lines replays the recording.

It gets better. Let’s say you’re out on the football field watching a game, and you’re reviewing your notes.  You can hold your pen over a word or image in the paper notebook, and the pen will play back to you what it recorded when you wrote that word.  A series of printed images on the paper — record, play, stop, pause, and other ‘buttons’ connected with playing back the recording — can be used along with the pen and notebooks to slow down or speed up the recording for frequent re-use.

Here’s the difficulty, and the solution.  A $149 pen is a Waterman, and the $199 is a Mont Blanc.  Even with all this tech loaded into it, it’s still a very fancy toy.  This company needs to figure out how to produce this pen for under $50. Because then, you have the ability to get even poor families in on the act.  At a $200 price-point, some families have to make a choice between a Netbook computer and a fancy microphone… they’ll take the netbook.  At $50, they may be able to swing a desktop or netbook and the pen together. At $20 for the pen and $1500 for a school “pen portfolio server”. poor schools and poor families together can bootstrap into tech-based learning.

Now you’re talking.

Here’s how it works: The pen portfolio server (which I admit, and they admit, doesn’t exist as software yet, but only vaporware in my own head), resides on a cheap server at the school.  The kids write in their own notebooks at home, doing all their homework.  They bring their pen to school the next day, and dock it in the cradle at school. Their work gets uploaded to the school’s server and tagged with their name and date and other metadata.  Now teachers, parents, other students and anyone at all can browse, correct, comment on or manage the content from school and from whatever computers the school’s families have, whether at home or at libraries or other public access points.

You’re not putting a full laptop into a kid’s hands, and they’re still going to do a huge amount of work in handwriting, but you’re at least introducing the concepts of digital solutions to even very poor districts and families.

So… as a $150 to $200 tool, it’s fancy but not very education-oriented.  More of a gadget. As its price comes down, though, and the company builds some new tools, it may become a highly useful entry point for many schools and districts.

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