Monday, September 20, 2010

Cool Tools: Connecting Written Text to Recorded Audio

The New York Times recently picked up on an inspired piece of educational gadgetry which we have been recommending to many students and young professionals in our practice for quite some time.  The “smartpen,” manufactured and marketed by Livescribe in a couple of iterations, with varying features and price points, is a spectacularly handy device for note-taking in a lecture situation. It also has myriad additional uses, such as quick translation and mathematical-calculation applications built-in, and would be a useful tool in the arsenal of any business person or student who could benefit from a little support of their memory and materials-organization skills.

The current models, called “Echo” or “Pulse,” are affordably priced gadgets which essentially combine two age-old note-taking devices – the simple pen and the voice recorder – into one compact tool with intertwined functionality. The pen records lectures while you take notes as you would with an ordinary pen. It uses a proprietary notebook (a small one is included, additional books are sold separately, and the Times article implies that a “DIY” solution to creating your own coordinating paper is possible) to link the playback of your recordings with the written text you have entered while listening. Later, when studying your notes, a tap of the pen (it has a built-in sensor/stylus) can transport you back into the lecture hall by accessing the specific moment of the lecture that was being recorded while you jotted down your notes. Software (no additional charge) for your desktop or laptop computer can help you organize, access, and share your recordings. The pen and notebook system can even recognize drawings or mathematical equations that you sketch while listening.

For students with weak memory, attention, and organizational skills, the Livescribe pens can be a huge help and yield important benefits in the studying process. We have seen high-school students, college and post-graduate students, and even resident-level doctors praise the effectiveness of these sleek devices. The pens hold battery charge for a long time and are ergonomically designed, appearing no larger than a permanent marker. The bulkier size of the pen (when compared to a traditional pen) may even be a plus to some students who struggle with fine-motor issues. It charges simply via USB connection to your computer, and holds a large amount of audio recordings (variable by model and price); of course, you can upload your recordings to your computer via the supplied software, effectively allowing for infinite storage capacity of your recordings.

As with any new technology, there are certainly kinks to be worked out; for one, the pen doesn’t always trigger playback as instantaneously as you would like – sometimes you’ll have to peck intently to initiate playback. Another potential hazard is one that is not unique to the smartpen device but certainly symptomatic of much of the gadgetry of our time – the ubiquity of recording devices everywhere you turn. Whether you are a high-school student using the smartpen in class or a businessperson using the device to backup your notes on an important meeting, you will want to ensure that audio recording is acceptable in the specific situation in which you wish to use the device. Some schools and professors may not allow audio recording in their classrooms, so be certain to check with administrators prior to investing in this or any similar recording device (for example, any Mac computer or iPhone comes equipped with audio recording technology – although these devices lack the sensational cross-functionality that is built into the Livescribe pens). Also, looking into the future, it’s easy to imagine how the addition of speech-recognition software (such as the much more expensive but equally useful Dragon software from Nuance – to be discussed in a future post) to the mix would enhance the functionality of the device.

All things considered, we’ve found the Livescribe smartpens to be incredibly useful tools to help create important linkages between the spoken word and written text. Starting at just above $125 and available both online and in big-box electronic retailers, the smartpens should be fairly easy to obtain for many families.

-Jeremy Koren

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