17 September 2010

Livescribe Pulse Smartpen and PTSD - Part 2

Part 1 is here, in case you haven't already seen it.

As stated in part 1, I'm not doing formal research, and I'm not hooked up in any way with Livescribe; I'm an older-than-average college student who happens to be a veteran with PTSD.  I attend a large state university in the midwest, where I'm a full time student.  I'm writing about the smartpen because a) it helps me deal with PTSD in school, and b) because there is a decent amount of material online about smartpens, but not a whole lot about using them with PTSD.

Before I start talking about the smartpen again, here's the environment it's working in:  I'm taking 12 hours of classes this semester, which breaks down into two math classes, one computer engineering class, one computer science/programming class, and one general science class.  Other than the general science class, all of my classes are upper level classes.  My smallest class is the programming class, which has about 40 students; the largest is the general science class, with 350 students.  All but the programming class are in lecture halls; that class is in a larger than normal classroom.  None of my lecture halls are the nice, carpeted, sound dampening kind; they are have tile floors, concrete walls, and wood and metal chairs and desks.  Let's just say they're noisy.

I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and one of the consequences is that I'm very tuned in to my environment, so much so that my brain wants to evaluate noises and movements.  All of them.  When I hear a noise, or a voice, or the mechanical sound of a desk being adjusted, my brain tries to evaluate what the noise is and where it's coming from.  In a room of 300+ people, that can be a lot of random noises, even if people in the class are trying to be quiet.  I also suffer from random flashbacks, which tend to occur whenever my brain things it's received a stimulus that relates to something bad that happened in the past.  My brain is running happily along doing all of these things while I'm sitting in class taking notes and trying to get what the professor is saying written down in my brain (and my notebook).

Only one of my professors uses PowerPoint, and he does so only occasionally.  One other professor uses handouts, but again, only occasionally-- so it's really up to me to record the details of the lectures.

Thanks to help from my local VA Hospital, and my campus disability resource center, I have a Livescribe Pulse Smartpen to use for the semester.  I am fortunate that the disability resource center was also able to provide me with Livescribe notebooks, and extra ink cartridges.  I also received a set of Livescribe recording ear buds.  Classes started the last week in August, and I've been using it to take notes in every one of my classes.

The smartpen is, so far, helping me in several different ways:
  • I'm more relaxed taking notes, because if I miss something due to being tuned out in the midst of a flashback, or processing some random noise, I always have the audio recorded.  When my brain rejoins the class, I can make a note within my notes that I need to review that section of notes.  Later on, I can tap that note to myself, listen to the audio, and fill in the blanks of what I missed.
  • Much of my classwork involves solving problems, rather than remembering lots of facts.  I'm able to draw arrows, circle numbers and equations, and add "flow" to my notes, which I can see played back when I view my notes on my computer.  Being able to follow the steps of a procedure makes a huge difference if I've somehow missed writing down the middle step (again, I can go back and listen to the audio and fill in the blanks).
  • I take a lot of notes, often several pages for each lecture.  While I'm pretty organized (I keep everything in three ring binders where it won't fall out and get lost), it can be hard to find the procedure for something specific.  Livescribe Desktop actually has a search feature, which works pretty well.  In the past, I used a digital voice recorder that also did a good job capturing audio, but the number of recordings quickly grew unmanageable.  The smartpen solves that problem.
  • When I go to talk to a tutor, professor, or teaching assistant, I can tap on and play back exactly the part of a lecture I'm unclear on-- which helps them, because they can immediately pick up on what I'm asking about (especially if it was a specific problem or example).
I have a few tips and tricks to share; again, these are just my observations.
  • I tend to get much better recordings using the automatic setting and high quality, and using the recording ear buds. I often like to speed up the playback when I'm referring back to lectures, and I've discovered that if the original recording is muffled, playback at a different speed will be as well.  No one's ever said anything about me wearing the ear buds during lectures, but in a smaller class setting you might have to explain that you're not listening to Daft Punk, you're really just recording the lecture.
  • It's a very good idea to set the Pulse down on the cradle and plug it into your computer once a day.  If you don't, it's very easy to run the battery down after a day or so and be stuck without a working smartpen (as happened to me this morning).
  • You should always ask your professor if they object to being recorded.  I've had a couple of them say no (although not this semester, or at this university), and the rest have responded favorably.  The ones that said no were concerned about intellectual property-- technically, if you share a recording without permission, you're sharing their hard work for free.  In those cases, I've made it a point to keep the recordings private.
  • It is another piece of hardware to carry around, but it eliminates having to carry a collection of pens, so the weight in your backpack stays about the same.  It's not easy to lose track of, but I tend to be very careful about knowing where my smartpen is in the world.
  • If you're not using the ear buds, your first step when turning the pen on should be muting the volume.  I also have the menu voice turned off.  Professors don't like hearing phones in class, and while a smartpen isn't a phone, it's still electronic noise, and it's distracting.
  • If you have your smartpen sitting on the cradle, make sure it's at a spot on your desk where you won't bump into it.  I have Livescribe Desktop set to launch when the smartpen is connected, but if you bump the smartpen off the cradle, that will launch Livescribe Desktop in front of whatever else you're working on.
  • I haven't used any of the applications, other than occasionally using the calculator that's on the inside of the notebooks.  I've downloaded the SDK from the developer section of Livescribe's website though... so maybe I'll look at applications at some point.
Overall: my Livescribe Pulse smartpen is really, really helping me so far this semester; I still have PTSD to deal with, and I still need to pay attention as best I can and take good notes.  Having the extra capabilities the smartpen provides has already been useful on my first round of homework assignments.   Highly recommended.

There's a newer version available now, the Livescribe Echo.   More info available at

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