Digital Handwriting

The words Digital Handwriting written with an iPad and stylusRed ink in the margin used to be the standard for providing feedback on assignments. Hand-drawn diagrams helped explain complex information and detailed processes. Scientific and mathematical equations could be easily written by hand. As education became more digital, it became harder to manage these simple tasks with the tools that were available. Microsoft Word has reviewing and commenting tools that can provide feedback, but it is difficult to provide the same quantity of feedback electronically. Mind-mapping tools can create diagrams, but they lack the feel and spontaneity of hand-drawn diagrams, and they can be time-consuming to create. Scientific and mathematic notation can be created with specialized software or with very basic tools available in Microsoft Office or the Blackboard text editor, but again these tools are time-consuming to use.

However, there is a better way. Digital pens, previously in the realm of graphic designers and digital artists, have become more accessible for daily use. These tools can be used like a pen to sketch or write, but the products are digital, so they can be easily duplicated, shared, or posted for students to access.

There are many different types of digital pen devices. The two most common are:

Tablet computersiPad with stylus
Touch-screen tablets, like the Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab, can be used with a stylus for handwriting input. On these devices, specific apps, many of which are free, make the writing possible. The most common apps are for drawing on a whiteboard (which is great for creating diagrams), taking hand-written notes (which can be used to provide students with class notes or to create handouts), or annotating on a PDF (which is ideal for providing feedback on student work).

Pen TabletsWacom Bamboo Tablet

Pen tablets, like the Wacom Bamboo tablet, connect to a computer via USB. The tablets function similar to a mouse, but with added writing functionality. For example, at NIU, a faculty member in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures has been using a Bamboo tablet to add corrections to and to comment on her students’ written work using Adobe Acrobat X Pro.  Not only can pen tablets create handwritten work, but they can also help to create narrated lectures. By using a screencasting software like Jing or Camtasia, it is possible to record audio while writing or drawing.

The possibilities are endless for the use of digital handwriting. Just a few possibilities are:

  • Providing handwritten feedback on assignments that students submit electronically
  • Handwriting scientific or mathematic notation that can be time-consuming to create using text-based software
  • Creating flowcharts or diagrams without using advanced software
  • Providing notes on in-class work, like student presentations or performances
  • Creating narrated tutorials by using screencasting software to record the computer screen and audio as the content is written or drawn
  • Drawing or writing more easily on the whiteboard of web-conferencing software, like Wimba or Blackboard Collaborate

These tools can help to bring a stronger sense of faculty presence to courses because handwriting is more personal than type. For complex material, it is quicker and easier to write or draw by hand, but these devices make it easy to have an electronic copy of the result.

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