Recorder pen prompts debate among faculty

By Eli Haims and Claire Hong

A policy regarding use of smartpens that record lectures while students take notes may soon be implemented, according the Head of the Upper School Harry Salamandra. Discussions are currently going on between faculty, some of whom use the pens, while others ban them in classes, and the administration.

“When new technology is available we’d like to address it and find out about it. This is a device that a couple students have asked to use in classrooms so right now we’re going to discuss it with the faculty and go from there,” Salamandra said.

He said that the policy may be similar to the one regarding students bringing laptops to school. If a student wanted to bring a laptop, they had to sign a contract that “outlined the do’s and don’ts on campus.”

Upper School Dean Jon Wimbish fears that students may potentially use the recording in inappropriate ways, yet he also believes that they would be helpful to many students.

“Are there students who would use a recording pen, who would then go home and have their studying for their next test be enriched by that? Yes. […] Would there be students who would put two teachers’ recorded lectures side-by-side, in order to indicate which lecture was good and which lecture wasn’t good?” he said.

Students are not the only ones interested and affected by these pens. Satterthwaitte has been using one for about 10 months. She finds it especially convenient during faculty meetings because of its ability to record conversations and link that part of the conversation to what she had been writing. This feature relieves pressure on her to keep track of the time and write down everything that is being said, which “frees me up to listen and engage in the conversation.”Although the pen has been very beneficial for her, she has “mixed feelings” as to whether students should be allowed to use them.

“I would certainly let them try it,” she said, “but students should never record without permission.”

Satterthwaite feels a “discussion should happen between students and teachers” so that students are aware of what their responsibilities are regarding the recorded lectures. She also has faith that the Honor Code will serve as a reminder for students of what is acceptable and what their duty is to both their teachers and their classmates. She also believes that rules concerning these pens extend beyond the school and its Honor Code. Legal issues could arise from potential abuse by students overlooking safety and privacy laws with the recordings.

The pen Satterthwaite has been using is one of the more popular brands, Livescribe. The pen operates by using a camera near the pen tip which tracks a series of dots that are printed onto special pads of paper that have to be used. The pen stores any information it collects along with the dot pattern at that point. Not only does this allow users to target specific sections of recordings based on their notes, it also allows the pen to create digital copies of the pages. Once uploaded to the computer, the notes can be searched, made into PDFs or made into movies with the audio from the class. These digital copies of notes also serve as an archive of the notes if the physical notebook were lost.

Devon Breton-Pakozdi ’12 has used a Livescribe since ninth grade, when he got it for Christmas. He used it heavily as a freshman, especially in history and science, but its use dropped off considerably once he got to the Upper School. He says that this is because many teachers haven’t let him use it in class, and it requires additional work outside of class, such as uploading the files from the pen onto his computer.

“Especially in lecture heavy classes, I think there’s a general stigma against it because they don’t necessarily want to be held accountable for things that can be taken out of context,” Breton-Pakozdi said. “I felt the payoff for me was not great enough, because I was only using it for a couple of my classes. Whereas, if I were taking other classes where I felt it would be really valuable to use the pen, the work that went into it, that would have basically stayed constant, would have been really trumped by the value it would have been to me for all those other classes.”

Because many of his teachers objected to his using the pen in class, Breton-Pakozdi brings his laptop instead.

“I would rather not have to bring my laptop and just bring the pen, but that’s been the way it’s gone,” he said.

“You don’t know how it’s going to be sliced up and where it’s going to end up and where your voice is, you know. There’s just that lack of control that I understand that makes people nervous,” Wimbish said.

Satterthwaite expressed some of the same concerns. She believes that with advancing technology, students are increasingly placed into a position where they could easily “manipulate” a recording to suggest something other than its true teaching purpose.

Wimbish also thinks that another aspect of the pen is that it may hamper students’ note taking abilities. Instead of having to process whatever a teacher is saying and pulling out the important points while still retaining enough detail, students would have the option of just writing a few main keywords through the whole lecture, which would each link to a section on the recording.

“We want students to learn skills here just as much as they learn content and so, if you’re going all about just getting the content and you’re going to record every word that a teacher says, you’re not learning how to take good notes. It’s the same thing as someone who wants to bring a laptop to class. Teachers are mixed on that, and I understand that as well. There are students who want to literally want to transcribe a lecture, well that’s not taking good notes either,” he said.

There are also potential upsides to their use, he said. He believes that anything that could potentially “make the experience of being in class more beneficial when you’re not in class” deserves a chance.

Chris Freedman ’12 thinks that for people who are not necessarily audible learners, being able to go back and listen to the recordings again would be very helpful.

“I know lots of my teachers don’t write on the board, and they just talk, and talk, and talk. I have no way to keep up with their speed writing it down.”