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Journey with a magic pen

I like using a pen and paper for note-taking and for ideas generation.

Even though I’m a pretty fast touch typist, I find that making hand-written notes feels more expressive.

  • I like being able to annotate text I’ve already written.
  • I like the ability to make doodling/ diagramming part of the thinking process
  • I like using white space in my layout to help order and structure the text
  • I like the informality and aesthetics of hand writing


  • I end up carrying old notebooks around with me for ages because they still contain some material I need, even when I’ve moved onto a new notebook
  • If I forget to carry my notebook with me, sometimes I can’t access important information
  • It can take a long time to find a particular note that I need to access
  • It’s not very easy to cross check notes to find all the instances where a particular issue has been discussed

So I was quite excited when our Teaching and Learning Development Unit offered me the opportunity to take a Pulse Livescribe pen with me to ALT-C 2010 earlier this month.

The Pulse Livescribe smart pen contains a miniature camera and a recording device. When you write with it on special “dot” paper, it is able to track the coordinates of all of your pen strokes and record exactly what you’ve written and where you’ve written it.

Then when you dock the pen with your PC or Mac, it can upload all of your notes.

It then indexes them.

Oh, and it lets you make an audio recording. These recordings are synchronised with the stream of pen strokes that the device captures. This also allows you to use your written notes as an index into the recordings you’ve made.

So what was it like using the Pulse livescribe pen at a conference?

handwritten text, saying "neaten up"
First of all, I discovered that in order for the character recognition software to work, I was going to have to serious neaten up my hand writing. But for anyone who knows me and has tried to decipher post-it notes addressed to them – this is no bad thing.

Assuming I can actually write neat enough, getting all my notes searchable feels like a pretty powerful outcome.

Now I can do searches across all of my Alt-C notes for themes I was tracking at the conference. The image below shows the result set for a search of the term “feedback”:

Screenshot of search results

I had a seriously excited moment when I thought that I might be able to index all notes I took in all meetings, and manage my entire working life using this little pen.

But when I downloaded the MyScript tool to do this (available for a trial license from the Livescribe website) I found out that this was a bit optimistic. My handwritten phrase “the science of learning” became “the silence of turning”. Maybe my life wasn’t going to be transformed.

Why then did the search function work so well? The software is indexing any single hand-written word against a number of possible text matches. So whether I searched my notes for “science” or for “silence”, I would find the same hand-written word being highlighted in my notes.

SO, did I keep using the Livescribe pen? I had to give it back for someone else to use and I didn’t really miss it.

I think if I used audio recordings more as a way of making notes, I would find it very beneficial for my notes to function as an index into the relevant part of the audio.

If I was able to write neatly enough for the MyScript tool to decode my notes, I would definitely use it.

For now though, I’ll wait and see ..

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