This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

In search of pedagogical approaches that would create rich opportunities for peer learning, increase student motivation and encourage students to take an active role in the classroom,we found inspiration and innovation with the help of the Smartpen. Thanks to a SALTISE Grant, awarded to us in February 2016,  we were able to begin experimenting with the Smartpen and we have observed positive preliminary results.

The 4 Objectives Behind the Project

Johnathan teaches several courses in Humanities, including an Ethics course, which are part of the general education curriculum. He also teaches in the Arts, Literature and Communication program. He is passionate about technology and is rather tech-savvy. Pascale teaches Psychology in the Special Care Counselling Program. 

Our courses are composed of theoretical content and abstract concepts. We were looking for ways to improve our pedagogical approaches and enhance student learning by taking 4 objectives into consideration:

Create a collaborative classroom environment within a traditional classroom
The  arrangement of a traditional classroom can make it difficult for students to work in groups and share their results with the rest of the class, as there is only one whiteboard/projection screen in the entire classroom. Whereas a collaborative classroom has whiteboards/projection screens for each team. In brief, we were looking for a way to convert the regular classroom into a collaborative space.
Take into consideration the theory of multiple intelligences
We were looking for classroom activities that would allow students to use different types of intelligences according to their individual strengths. Thus, the activities will be more accessible to a wider variety of students. Using technology as part of our pedagogy provides us with different alternatives that favour this approach.
To revive longhand note taking
Students love technology, but using a keyboard limits students’ kinetic ability to actually write. Notes that are typed on a keyboard are often repeated verbatim from the teacher: this is a passive way of taking notes. A recent study found that students process information better when writing longhand notes, because it involves an active cognitive process. (Mueller & Oppenheimer, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, 2014). We wanted to find a way to make writing with a pen and paper “cool” again, but also keep the flexibility inherent in digital writing as well (i.e. easily edit and modify texts of all types).
To use smartphones and tablets in the classroom as a tool for learning
Despite the focus on handwriting, we still felt that tablets and smartphones had their place in a classroom. We just had to find a way to make students use them, not as a distraction, but as a tool for learning.

Discovering the Smartpen & the SALTISE Application

Pascale’s mother is an abstract figurative expressionist artist who teaches art. One day, Pascale noticed that she was using a Smartpen to create her works of art:

What she was drawing on paper was being automatically transposed on her digital tablet. I immediately imagined pedagogical applications for this tool.

Meanwhile, Johnathan had just acquired an iPad and had started to use it in class:

I had the application Reflector, that allows the user to project the visible content of a digital tablet on another screen. This was very useful for displaying teamwork in class, and I began to wonder about other uses this application could have.

During an Active Learning Committee meeting, we learned about the SALTISE grant program [PDF]. At that time, there was only one week remaining for the deadline to submit our project. In the beginning, we didn’t agree on which tool to favour in order to reach our objectives (Pascale wanted to experiment with the Smartpen; Johnathan preferred using Reflector). And then, we told ourselves: “Why not combine both?”

The SALTISE grant application was submitted at the end of November 2015 and we received the good news that we were awarded a grant during the 4th week of classes in the winter 2016 semester. This did not leave us much time to implement our project. We had to quickly plan pedagogical activities that we would experiment with, since we only had 9 weeks to carry out the experimentation and work with the digital pens in class. In addition, we encountered difficulties with the Wi-Fi network of the college, so Johnathan worked with the IT technicians in order to find a solution. Everything was resolved in a week, and the project was up and running.

Once the 8 Smartpens were ordered ($160 each), we decided that Pascale would experiment with her Human Development Psychology 2 course and Johnathan would experiment with his Contemporary Ethical and Social Issues course.

How the Smartpen Works

The Smartpen is used by many different professions, such as artists and architects who draw sketches outside of their offices. It is a pen with an integrated camera that records everything that is written on paper and transfers the information to a computer or tablet.

The Smartpen we used was the LiveScribe 3 pen which requires a special notebook that has pages lined with minuscule dots. This is how the digital pen determines the form and the location of the writing on the page (and in the notebook, as each page is numbered).

The LiveScribe 3 Smartpen (demo)

Hand-written notes are transferred in an electronic format and appear in the form of digital notebooks on the tablet or smartphone. The tactile screen allows for easy interaction with the content of different notebooks:

  • Make an image larger
  • Highlight
  • Circle
  • Etc.

By means of the Reflector application, it is possible to project the content of the notebooks to a second screen (such as a projection screen in the classroom) by using Wi-Fi, which eliminates the need for connections to other devices. During a collaborative activity in class, we have instant access to the notes from each team, gathered in the different digital notebooks, and we can project the content on the classroom projector for all the class to see. This makes it much easier for each team to share their results and they not only can project their writings on the projection screen, but instantaneously send it to everyone via e-mail. This helps create a collaborative environment in a traditional classroom setting.

The LiveScribe can also record your voice while you are writing which is not the case for Smartpen models from other companies. We were fortunate to have this feature as we have discovered new pedagogical activities thanks to the audio comments. These audio recordings are synchronized with every pen stroke so that when you play back the recordings you can simply click on the text to hear what the speaker says about that specific point in the text. This could be helpful for teachers to use when correcting a student’s work from home.

Pedagogical Uses of the Smartpen

Comic Strips

We both used the Smartpen to have students create comic strips that explain abstract concepts or theories in a simple, concrete way. For example, after reading a chapter from their textbooks, students are asked to draw a comic strip with 3-4 panels that best illustrate the theory:

  • In Johnathan’s Ethics course, students had to illustrate an event or conversation that gets at the core of one of the ethical approaches.
  • In Pascale’s Psychology course, students had to illustrate symptoms of dealing with, for example, the bio-psycho-social factors that contribute to depression.

Students transform their understanding of complex subjects into concrete examples that are personal to them.

A cartoon brain and a girl. The girl compliments the brain to cheer him up.

A cartoon exploring the symptoms of depression in an easy-to-understand way. Students had to show their drawing to the rest of the class using Reflector.

Finally, with the voice recording function, students then role-played the characters in the comic strip. Some did so in a humorous way. Although we cannot yet confirm that the Smartpen favours the retention of knowledge based on verified quantitative data, we are convinced that this type of activity contributes all the same to leaving an impression on our students’ memories.

This comic strip was meant to reduce an ethical approach to its most basic element so that anyone of any age could understand it. In this video, you’ll hear students experimenting with the voice feature of the LiveScribe.


In Pascale’s course, she asked students to create a mindmap that outlines the physical changes that occur in early adulthood after reading a specific section from a chapter. This allowed students to create connections between concepts and ideas and see how they are related to each other.

An example of a mindmap in which students explore the physical changes that happen in adolescence.

Audio Comments

This is a new avenue we would like to explore more this fall. The Smartpen allows us to offer audio feedback during the correction of assignments. For example, students can do their work in class using the Smartpen. The teacher then takes the pen and notebooks home and begins to annotate it with their comments. However, rather than simply write comments, the teacher could record him/herself speaking and writing at the same time. The teacher then simply sends the file to the student via e-mail and the student will get to hear and see the teacher’s comments.

This video illustrates the voice and writing recording feature of the Smartpen. After students completed the work in class, Johnathan took the pen and papers that they worked on home. He then used the pens to comment and provide feedback to the students and sent them the file via e-mail. By clicking on the green marks, students can hear the audio comment recorded at that point during Johnathan’s review of their work.

Additionally, audio comments could also favour peer learning: with audio comments published online, students can learn from their errors and those of other students. This could be useful during the review process in preparing for exams.

Finally, by using the audio comments function while writing, students can try their hand at explaining a topic like a teacher. This can definitely encourage other students to become “teachers” to each other which helps them appropriate their subject matter.

Preliminary Results and Feedback

At this stage, it is difficult to evaluate if this tool has completely resolved the 4 objectives defined in the beginning. In order to achieve this and to have scientific support, we will need to conduct a longitudinal study with test groups. We plan on beginning such research very shortly.

Nevertheless, at the end of the winter 2016 semester, we conducted a survey with our 2 groups of students in order to know what they thought of the Smartpen and if this tool had helped them in their learning process. The results showed several noteworthy conclusions:

  • The degree of motivation was relatively high (students found the tool interesting).
  • They appreciated the fact that they could keep a digital copy of their group work for later review.
  • They loved the fact that they could present and interact (zoom in, zoom out, highlight, etc.) their findings from their desks by projecting their work on the projector when using Reflector.
  • They did find it frustrating when the school’s Wi-Fi was not stable and they lost connections. However, this is only an issue when projecting their findings on the projector of the classroom. The Smartpens connect to the tablets using Bluetooth and does not depend on the school’s Wi-Fi.

New Objectives and Developments for 2016-2017 & Beyond

This year, our college purchased one more digital pen and will make the Smartpens available for all teachers who wish to experiment with them in their classes. When we are not using them, we leave the digital pens at the library. We are now in the process of informing teachers about these devices and offering them training and support should they choose to use them for their courses. Indeed, before classes started this semester (fall 2016), we were asked to present the Smartpens and Reflector to all of the teachers of our college in the hopes of generating interest.

We are looking for new pedagogical applications that could be used with the Smartpen. We would love to hear about your ideas.

About the authors

Johnathan Mina

Johnathan Mina (M.A., B.A. Honours.) is a professor in Humanities at College LaSalle in Montreal, Canada. He holds an M.A. in English Literature from Dalhousie University and an Honours B.A. in Liberal Arts and English Literature from Concordia University. He is the recipient of the 2023 CICan Excellence in Teaching Award for Faculty and the LCI Education Network -Teaching Excellence Award in 2018. His research interests are related to game studies, gamification, critical thinking, empathy and the integration of technology in educational spaces.

He is the co-author of a research report on the use of entertainment-based videogames in college classrooms, subsidized by Quebec Ministry of Higher Education (MEES). He also is the recipient of the SALTISE research mini grant in 2018, for the implementation of VR in the classroom, and a SALTISE research mini grant in 2017 for the implementation of smartpens in the classroom.

Pascale Warmoes

Pascale Warmoes has been teaching in the department of Special Care Counselling at College LaSalle (Montreal) since 2008. She holds an M.A. certificate in Education from the University of Sherbrooke and a B.A. specialization in Psychology. Her passion and interest in exploring new and innovative pedagogical approaches in her classroom, has led her to receive the College LaSalle Teaching Excellence award in 2018, the SALTISE research mini-grant in 2017 for the implementation of smartpens in the classroom, and the SALTISE research grant in 2018 for the implementation of VR in the classroom. In 2020 she was awarded the PREP research grant by the Quebec Ministry of Higher Learning to undertake research on the implementation of videogames in college classrooms which was published in June 2022.

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