SmartPen as Digital Ethnography Tool

This little smartpen from livescribe just might revolutionize my note-taking in seminars, discussions, and ethnographic interviews.  If you have never seen it before, check out some of the demos on YouTube.  In short, it records audio as you write and links what you are writing to the audio (by recording what you write through a small infrared camera near the tip of the pen).  When you are done recording you can actually tap the pen anywhere on your page and the pen will play the audio that was recorded at the time you were making that specific pen stroke.  Students are already sharing lecture notes in the community section of  As recording devices become increasingly embedded into everyday objects the days of protecting lectures from being recorded seem numbered.

Embedded below is my first use of the pen in my Digital Ethnography class.  This was Day One of midterm research updates by my research assistants (“students”).  As you can see, you can click anywhere in the notes to hear what was being said at the moment I was writing.

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I feel like this is one of those “Rear View Mirror” moments in which a new technology comes into our lives with enormous potential and we just don’t know what to do with it yet.  We think of it in terms of what we know (pen and paper) and fail to recognize the potential.  It is impressive as it is, but I’m especially excited to see what happens as they become more popular and people start building new applications and new ways to use them.


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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25 Responses

  1. CoCreatr says:

    Infra-cool! Thanks for tweeting this, @mwesch.

  2. Chris says:

    Hi Dr. Wesch,

    How were you able to embed the pencast? I see from your source that it’s just an object tag. Did you have to write the code yourself? Or is there a WP plugin you used. I didn’t see one in a cursory Google search.


    Chris (@crafty184)

  3. Prof Wesch says:

    Chris, thanks for reminding me. I forgot to give a big thanks to Tim Fahlberg for posting the instructions for embedding pencasts at

  4. Chris says:

    Wow, that’s more involved than I thought.

    I really hope Livescribe will add an embed feature, as is so crucial in this web 2.0 world.



  5. Prof Wesch says:

    I agree. If they want their product to go viral they need to make it easier for people to share their creations.

  6. Sarah Hurlburt says:

    I think I’m actually twitching. This is 46 different shades of awesome.

  7. Vincent says:

    Well… a cheap pen and the need of plenty of expensive notebooks. I already know this story with printers…

  8. Prof Wesch says:

    Notebooks are $5 each for 100 double-sided pages – seems reasonable to me.

  9. DK says:

    Great tool and the simple embed option is a must – thought you might be interested in this story and the cross-over with this post:


  10. Tania says:

    I saw Marco Torres demo this pen and as much at it intrigued me I also thought ‘yet another technology tool’ that I want but have no idea yet how I would use it. I do like the way you can save notes-and keep on scribing which seems to be a bit of a lost art these days…

  11. Rebecca Schwartz says:

    Cool tool, but I have a really low-tech question. I am a terrible note-taker myself so I’m intrigued by your 3-column format and how you were using it. Would you be willing to share more about that? Possibly note-taking will be obsolete in my lifetime but I could certainly stand to upgrade my skills in the meantime.

  12. Julie McLeod says:

    Tim Fahlberg connected me with the livescribe pens as well. As a researcher, I really like your idea, Michael, of using the pen for qualitative/ethnographic interviews. As a teacher, I’m using them for students to create mathcasts. The students think it is really cool, the parents are thrilled their kids are getting exposure to this technology and I’m gaining a lot of insight into the kids’ thinking! Win-Win-Win! :)

    Also, to Vincent… you can print the special paper on a printer as well.

  13. Larry Irons says:

    This is a very interesting technology.

    Kelly should look up E.P. Thompson’s essay “The crime of anonymity”

  14. Bill Selak says:

    Thanks for the demo. This looks like a powerful tool for both students and instructors. My Evolving Educational Technologies class is going to read and discuss this blog post on Monday night. I’m interested to hear their thoughts on this.

  15. Rea says:

    Profs already have a beef with recording devices, this ought to set them off ;-)

    Love it though!

  16. prof says:

    Actually, some profs have already adopted. I got a grant last summer to record every example I do in my Engineering class using the pen. The embedding is trivial once you’ve done it a couple times. It makes a great way to show how someone else to do a technical problem.

  17. Sam says:

    This sounds absolutely fascinating and I am intrigued to see how it will take off. However, I wonder how it could be adapted for deaf people like myself – how could it have subtitles!!?

  18. Gregory says:

    What about the legal implications of recordings made without people’s consent?

  19. Prof Wesch says:

    @Gregory, for most public events, this is not a problem. For private or semi-private interviews, the same protocol that is used with any other recording device should be followed.

    @Sam, hopefully voice-recognition and transcription will continue to improve and perhaps one day be a standard feature.

  20. mpryde2 says:

    A must for conversational analysts like myself

  21. Dave Paulson says:

    Perhaps this could be useful for legal proceedings, such as a court scribe, or someone signing a bill into law. A great documentation to progress.

  22. vrobinson says:

    Digital Ethnography Pen, this will revolutionize, a students Note taking and create create an expanded innovation and usage for the digital pen. If you can keep its cost modest..its definitely a winner.

  23. Emmanuelle says:

    What about using smartpens for graffiti ? Imagine if some cities dédicated walls, along with its smartpens, so that citizens can express themselves in physical public spaces ? Or likewise express their emotions related with such and such area of a city ?

    Juste une idée… :)

  24. SusannahS says:

    What a fantastic tool. I’m going to tell the H800 class at the Open University UK all about it but as I’m usually the latest adopter, It’s a great way to combine audio and notes for our Elluminate conferencing.