MIEE TV – Expert Educators using Inking in the Classroom

This week’s spotlight on our Expert Educators using tech in the classroom comes to us once again from guest writer Gerald Haigh.


At one level, equipping a tablet with a pen, for digital inking, might seem like a throw back to the days when a ‘PDA’ (Portable Digital Assistant) came with a stylus. It may be, indeed, that those Surface users who are slow to explore the possibilities of the pen still have memories of those rather hit-and-miss early devices in the backs of their minds.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of MIEE enthusiasts who are keen to put them right. Matthew Davies, Deputy Head at Treorchy Comprehensive says,

“The good thing about being able to write on the screen is that I am able to keep everything in one place. My typed and written notes are all on my Surface Pro 3. The pen along with OneNote has created an excellent environment in which I can organise and keep my notes. The ability to search hand written notes is amazing! Being able to use Office Lens to scan a document and then the inking feature to annotate them is also excellent, and it’s also great that I can annotate diagrams in documents without having to print them out.”

And, adds Matthew,

“The ability to annotate work on screen and not having to carry all of the books home has also saved my back!”

Annette Iafrate, teacher at Gryffe High School for example, comments on the MIEE Yammer feed that she finds the pen to be a time-saver. Students email work to her, she annotates it with the pen and sends it back.

“So students aren't needing to wait until they are next in my class to collect it, also they have less excuses of ‘forgot to put it in my bag’.”

Annette Inking

Yet another MIEE colleague, Mark Martin, enlists the pen to support his style of teaching, which is to be among the students, sharing the tablet with them and inviting them to contribute to the lesson.

“They use the pen with Python programming – students write their coding ideas.”

Then a really thoughtful and knowledgeable take on inking with the Surface Pro comes from Microsoft Student Ambassador Jason Brown, student at Microsoft Showcase School Wymondham High. I interviewed him in a call, because I was sure he would have some firm ideas. I was not disappointed.

“A Surface without a pen is like a dog without a bone,” said Jason. “The pen makes the tablet what it is – they go together perfectly.”

Jason is just finishing Year 12, about to embark on his A Level year. His Surface Pro 3 is a constant companion, proving its worth when it comes to taking notes.

“Instead of writing with a biro on lined paper I write on my Surface Pro with One Note and the Surface pen. It’s a fantastic alternative.”

When I spoke to Jason he was just back from the Microsoft’s ‘E2 Global Educator Exchange’ at Microsoft HQ in Seattle. One presentation gave him food for thought about his note taking.

“We were shown a chart that compared methods for taking notes – type on a keyboard or write on paper or tablet. Writing comes out best because you relate the movement of your hands to what you write, and you remember what you’ve written better than you do with typing.”

Surface 3 pens

There’s also some research suggesting that writing notes by hand forces the learner to be selective and focussed, whereas typing tends simply to produce an undifferentiated nearly verbatim record.

Pen Mightier than the Keyboard for Learning - Research Study from Princeton & UCLA on the benefits of digital inking to Learning. Student retain and learn more when writing longhand notes vs. typing.

(This is a fascinating area, which interests me as long-time advocate of the benefits of touch-typing. It’s worthy of a blog of its own, so watch this space.)

Jason is very impressed by the quality of the handwritten notes on Surface,

“If your handwriting is neat on paper, it’s the same on Surface. The pens are so well calibrated, a hundred percent accurate. And OneNote can convert your handwriting to formatted text if necessary.”

He’s at pains, too, to point out that the Surface pen is not just about writing.

“It’s a multifunctional device, and you can use the pen in Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. It removes the need for a graphics tablet, presenting you with a blank canvas where you can draw with the brush or the pencil tool. It’s a really free way of designing, just as you would on paper. We saw some amazing art by students at E2, even calligraphy. So why not introduce Surface and Surface pen for art lessons?”

Jason is clearly closing in on the idea that inking with the Surface pen is much more than just a useful tool. It’s actually a conceptual shift that can play its part in transforming learning. I know Andrew Howard, head of Microsoft Showcase School Sandymoor believes that; in an email to me he writes,

The concept of digital inking that comes with the Surface Pro 3 pen is a game changer!”

Would he expand a little on that? I asked. He certainly would, and over what for most of us was a holiday weekend he wrote this for us:

“The one thing that computers have always been bad at is the immediacy of feedback; the ability to interact with the words and pictures in front of you, as you can with a piece of paper. The screen becomes a barrier to rich learning. The introduction of touch screen technology broke that down somewhat, but it is the introduction of the touch screen pen that has, in my opinion, broken this final barrier. The concept of 'digital inking’, the fact of being able to write naturally on a screen as if writing on paper, is the real game changer. I now hold a device, no bigger than a pad of A4 paper and no heavier than a paper notebook would be, and have in my pocket a digital pen. I can now open up my Surface Pro 3, and with a click of a button, be writing notes on the screen as easily as if I were writing on a pad of paper.

But it is in the integration of pen, Surface and software (in particular, OneNote) that the real power lies. First of all, there's the ability of the software to include my handwriting in searches, so I need never lose an important note again (providing my handwriting is legible enough, but that is not the fault of the pen!). And, of course, the fact that I cannot lose a scrap of paper; it's instantly saved and synchronised into the cloud, so I can retrieve those important notes from any device, without worrying about sticky notes losing their stick. Finally, though, is the collaborative element; I can share a note with colleagues, and we can all collaborate, with pen, or keyboard, to highlight and explore ideas and concepts with ease.

For the teachers with Surface Pro 3 devices, marking is now so much easier; we already have digital exercise books, with students’ work being all online in OneNote, so annotating and marking work, with the Surface pen, is as simple as always; in fact simpler - the pen allows highlighting as well as noting, so students' work can be marked up and commented on without losing the original under the teacher's marks.”


Bonus content:

See the Microsoft Surface pen in action:

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