In the digital age, what place does the pen have?

The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword. But is it mightier than the keyboard?

By Andy Howard, CEO & Executive Headmaster of Myddelton College

I have been a strong advocate of digital input, from the very earliest days. I know I am evangelical about this, but I feel I have good reason to be. Although I am not that old, I was taught to write in a very old fashioned primary school; the teacher who taught the class was himself close to retirement, and set in his ways. And I was left handed.

Although it is many decades ago, I can recall his tirade against my obstinate refusal to use my right hand, the intervention of my parents and the final washing his hands of the issue by simply stating that I would have to do the best I can because he couldn’t teach me. So I was not taught how to write properly and writing has always been something I have struggled with. I think faster than I can get ideas down and even when I do write things down, my script would embarrass a doctor in its unrecognisability.

So when I got my first computer, I used it all the time; everything was typed and printed out on  an ancient dot-matrix printer and I have not looked back since.

But there are controversies in the rolling out of digital devices. I have, in two schools now, introduced a 21st century curriculum, with students accessing their material via cloud technology, on devices. Both times, heavily reliant on the Microsoft Office 365 solution and the outstanding OneNote. From a strategic perspective, it is an easy ‘win’; the teacher prepares class notes online, the student accesses the material on an anywhere-anytime principle, and comes to the lesson ready to learn. If absent, the material is still there and accessible, including students who are absent for long periods for various reasons. Also, with the student then keeping their notes online also, the teacher can also mark and respond to student work in an anywhere/anytime mode, without the need to lug around piles of heavy exercise books wherever they go. The issues around losing homework, or not knowing what was expected are also eliminated, with the ability to share links to notebook pages, email activities and send calendar reminders due to the integrated approach of the Microsoft Cloud solution.  

But I have had both teachers and parents (less so students) complain about the lack of handwriting due to this approach. My reply is thorough, however. For generations, the only simple way for us to put down ideas and communicate them with others was to write them down. This does not make writing the best way to do this, nor does it give it any primacy in terms of communication; after all, the history and tradition of aural story-telling precedes the pen be centuries. The use of digital engagement frees up the communication of ideas with the art or penmanship. Yes, penmanship is a skill still worthy of developing and in both schools I have led, the concept of penmanship as a separate skill, taught and celebrated in its own right, has been an important aspect of the curriculum. But penmanship is does not hold any power. For dyslexic students, or students who require overlays to read clearly for whatever reason, or for that matter, awkward, left-handed kids who struggle to write with any speed or accuracy, the ability to get their ideas down in written words faster than they could with a pen, is a liberation and a celebration because they no longer feel thick because they are still writing when everyone else has finished. 

The integration of digital technology into schools provides options and helps students who feel marginalised because they struggle to put things down on paper with a pen find their voice 

And with modern developments, a digital ecosystem is even easier to defend. With apps such as Office Lens on a smart phone, a student who wants to write with a pen can and then just takes a snap of their work with their phone, before automatically uploading the work to their OneNote. This is then saved and safe, ready for the teacher to mark, with no risk of it being lost or damaged. And with the advanced word recognition built into OneNote, the ability to either extract the text or merely search it for key words, results in this being as good an option as typing directly into the device. But that is not all either; with a digital pen, a student can, if they so wish, write directly onto the screen, with their words being automatically recognised and stored for future use.

And whilst it is not necessarily suitable for a classroom environment, the advances in voice recognition makes the option of speaking to the device and the spoken word being automatically put down in text is now a reality. When I first started messing around with this technology, I remember it took a significant number of hours to train the program to recognise your voice, understand the words and correct errors. Now, in my car, I merely have to call out an my phone responds to my question.

A brave new world? Who knows – we’re still on that journey. But I do know that the integration of digital technology into schools does provide options and helps students who feel marginalised because they struggle to put things down on paper with a pen find their voice. Care is needed to ensure the technology doesn’t become the driver, but that is true of all initiatives. It should not be a barrier to investigating and adapting or innovating. 

About the author 

Andrew Howard. B.Sc.(Hons), PGCE, M.A., NPQH

Andy Howard is currently CEO & Executive Headmaster of Myddelton College, in Denbigh, North Wales. With over 26 years’ experience in education, working in all types of school around the country, Andy is now opening a brand new Co-educational Independent Boarding School, based on a completely re-written pedagogical framework, putting technology and 21st century ‘soft’ skills at the heart of the school. Andy is also a member of the Microsoft Education Advisory Board, providing advice to Microsoft on the development of their products for the educational market. 

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