First, a disclaimer-- I'm not doing organized research, performing a controlled experiment, or trying to prove anything. I am also not affiliated with Livescribe, and I have no financial interest in you buying, or not buying, a Smartpen. I'm just a student, and a veteran, looking for adaptive technology that will help me overcome PTSD, and get better grades in college.
If you've never seen or heard of a Pulse Smartpen, the idea is that as you are taking notes during a lecture, the pen is doing two things: recording the audio portion of the lecture, and making a digital copy of your notes as you are writing them. After the lecture is over and you're at home or in a library studying them, you can tap the pen on any point in your notes and hear the audio that was recorded while you were taking that section of notes. You can also upload the contents of the smartpen to a computer, and see a digital copy of your notes that includes audio-- again, you can click on a section of your notes, and hear the audio of the lecture matched to your notes. On the computer, can you also see your notes highlighted as you have written them.
What does this have to do with PTSD?
In previous semesters (before I transferred to my current university) I taped lectures in nearly all of my classes, first using an old school micro cassette recorder and later a digital audio recorder. At the community college I was attending, it was pretty common for instructors to either user Powerpoint, or to give handouts with skeletal notes that could be filled in during a lecture. With these types of prefabricated notes, I didn't have to copy everything; if I missed something, I could easily make a note in my notes that I'd tuned out and fallen behind, and then later go back to the recording and fill in the details. It was common that I would miss things here and there, usually because my mind had decided that it wanted to be in Riyadh or some other forsaken place instead of my calculus class. It's important to note that my class sizes were fairly small-- less than fifty students, normal sized classroom, etc.
Now, at a large university, my math classes are in noisy lecture halls containing 70+ students. My professors have a lot more to cover, and they do not use Powerpoints nor do they hand out skeletal notes to follow in class. Note taking is on your own. I started last semester with my digital recorder, and it just didn't work. I was able to record the lectures just fine, but I had to really scramble to just get everything written down that the professor had written on the chalkboard. While I was scribbling down the equations and such, the professor was saying things about the equations that I was missing. I often got a little anxious about missing points, and then there were distractions from noise and people moving around, and it tended to snowball into me missing most of the meat of a lecture.
“But you have the lecture recorded-- you should be ok,” I'd tell myself, and then when it came time to review the audio of the lecture, it turned out to be extremely hard to match the audio with my notes and figure out what went where. I spent more time trying to manage my recordings and notes than I did actually learning the material. And then the anxiety and the PTSD kick in, and the downward spiral moves faster. The difference when using a Smartpen is that you can concentrate only on accurately recording the stuff that's written on the blackboard. You can get the equation, or the graph, or the illustration written down correctly, and the pen will take care of capturing the audio of the lecture. More important, the pen will keep track of matching what you write, with what you hear.
Actually using the Smartpen
Over the past week or so, I've watched a few short lectures via YouTube and taken notes using the Pulse Smartpen. (I'm going to sit in on actual classes and take “live” notes in part 2). It takes a little getting used to. It's a good sized piece of hardware (bigger and heavier than a disposable pen), but it fits well in my hand once I've adjusted to the extra heft. There are two microphone options-- one is built into the pen, and faces generally forward. The other is built into the included headphones. I found myself occasionally covering up the microphone on the pen, and got much better results using the headphones.
There is also a speaker built into the pen for listening to lecture audio; the default volume when you turn the pen on is turned up about halfway. The pen not only plays audio, but it speaks menu items and gives audio feedback when you select controls (such as play, record, etc), so I make it a point to hit the mute control as soon as I turn the pen on. All of the controls are on paper. Input is all handled through the tip of the pen, by pressing controls in Livescribe notebooks. The Smartpen requires that you use preprinted Livescribe notebooks. There is a camera in the pen that reads a very small dot pattern on the page to keep track of where you are on the physical page. Notebook pages also include controls for recording and volume right on the page. (Also note, you can print your own notebook pages as well.)
The pen comes with a small docking station that provides charging, and is used to transfer notes from the pen to a computer. When the dock sees the pen, it starts up the desktop software and updates the notes stored on the computer with what's on the pen (so when you make additions or corrections on paper they are updated on the computer, too). Once you've transferred the contents, you have two options: play back the lecture from the computer, or from the pen.
In either case, you can either play back the lecture's audio in the same way as you would from a digital recorder, or you can tap on a point in your notebook (or on the screen) and hear the audio that was recorded while you were writing. If you've written down an example math problem, tapping the start of the problem with your pen will play back the lecture audio from the start of that particular math problem. I expect this will be very useful when I reach a point in a problem that needs a specific next step-- okay, I need to find the inverse of this matrix. I can look for the heading “inverse of a matrix” in my notes, click on the heading, and hear the lecture that talked about taking an inverse of a matrix. There is a search feature in the desktop software that allows you to search your notes by keyword, also very useful.
Okay, enough of me talking. Livescribe also offers a community section on their website, which allows you to upload the contents of your notebooks and optionally share them with the world. Here is one such notebook page, so you can see some of what I'm talking about:
Next: Part 2, “Live” trial in an actual classroom, complete with triggers and distractions. (Update: Part 2 will have to wait until fall semester starts. I wasn't able to get into a classroom lecture before I had to give my smartpen back to my university's disability resource center (I had one for a few weeks on loan). I'll have a pen again in September, and I'll write more about using it then.)