Why develop a pen when you can use a pencil?

There is a story from the early days of the space era about how the US and Russia independently tackled the problems of writing in space. The story goes that the Americans realised that a ball point pen was not going to function in space because the ink needed a gravitational force to move the ink to the ball. In space where you are weightless this is effectively the same as having no gravitational force so far as ballpoint pens go. The Americans then spent million of dollars in developing a pen that would function in space, so US astronaughts could write down their space data on paper.

The Fisher Space Pen – The US’s solution to writing with ink in space (http://www.spacepen.com/)

The Russians used a pencil.

Whilst this story is not entirely true it brings up a question we as educators need to ask ourselves when we attempt to utilize technology in a lesson: Are we using this tech because its going to make learning better, or are we using this tech because its there? I have discussed this several times during my blogging, discussing for example where writing notes is often more effective than typing notes. The SAMR model gives us four categories in which we can ‘rank’ tech integration and realistically only the top two of them are consistently worthwhile.

For my own part tech integration in my classrooms takes a few main roles:

  • Lets Physics That, my online physics practise site is used extensively by students to help practise the physics we do in class. Technology allows me to auto generate new questions every time they open a new problem set and it allows me to gamify that learning experience. Whilst these are things which I could do offline, using this interface makes it much easier for students to access around the clock.

    A screenshot of a student area in Lets Physics That. Students click on the objective to reveal the learning task.

  • Quizzes I have now moved entirely online for small quizzes, although I have kept big tests offline. Using Google Forms I have managed to give my Friday quizzes online, which has saved (this semester only!) about 1700 sheets of paper. This has also allowed me to use things like flubaroo to give unprecedented speed of feedback, whilst retaining depth of feedback.
  • Simulations are the key to bringing some labs to the classroom. In Vietnam where I teach, radioactive materials are not allowed in the classroom. This is an example of where simulations are great as it allows us to conduct experiments and collect data despite not having the equipment to do so.
  • Collaborative data collection is super useful when you can use Google Sheets to create a class set of data. It enabled huge experiments that take a lot of time to be completed in a single lesson with enough data to analyse individually by making a copy of the document.

Other tech based activities crop up on an ad-hoc basis when they are relevant, and I am also looking at using coding much more rigorously next semester to enable students to build their own simulations of physical concepts. With all this though, students do not use tech all the time in my classroom. Although we are a 1-1 laptop school, when they enter the room they do not open their laptops, they get their notebooks out. When I am talking in the middle of a task that requires their laptops, they have to close their lids. The reason is that I do not want students to be distracted when important information is being delivered, and thus to help enable them to have their full attention on me. But this is maybe not the best way… perhaps there is a more elegant solution.

When I joined my school I was baffled at why Facebook was not blocked on the school network. Facebook I see as a huge distraction – I know this from my own experience and my understanding that Facebook employs psychologists to help make it as addictive as possible. It is not our students fault per se, that they cannot switch off. A study a colleague did when I conducted my masters showed that allowing Facebook during study hall dramatically undermines a students ability to be productive. This is because Facebook has devised itself in a way that will seek to re-engage students constantly. Thus, the more elegant solution might tech breaks. Tech breaks essentially bow to the implication that students are going to try and social media in a class if they have their device (or be thinking about it if they don’t). This solution would give students x minutes every segment of time in which they are allowed to use social media and to ‘catch up’ on what their friends are doing. This is kind of a happy medium, as breaks are good for learning anyway and why not let them do something they want to do?

Another problem highlighted in this TED talk is how we cant always manage the distractions either – for example if someone messages us to get something such as a weblink, that undermines our concentration. An interesting idea for how we can help manage these distractions is where students set a ‘focused’ mode in their chat application which halts any incoming messages until they have completed the piece of work they are currently working on. The hard part about this is the willpower students must engage. They must take the step to turn on that ‘focused’ mode, and to keep it on until the task or time period is done.


Technology in the classroom is an important part of the modern educational world. It is expected of graduates to have a good grasp of technology and most jobs will now require at least basic computational literacy. The US state of Maine recognized this and implemented its own 1-to-1 laptop scheme, and saw a sizable boost in English and Math results as a potential result. By issuing them as a state, this bought the poorer and richer students together on to a more level playing field in terms of what access they had to journals, websites and other resources beneficial in creating a high quality piece of homework. What Maine has subsequently identified as a source of future improvement is professional development for teachers in the utilization of the technology, as children having tech does not mean it is always being used well.

As for my own classroom I feel like I have a good balance in pedagogy in terms of having them on or off, and using them for various different tasks. I think tech breaks could be something I can start to look at as a way to improve this further, and maybe formalize the role of social media in the classroom.



Could Checking Facebook in Class Help Students Focus? (2011, November 16). Retrieved December 7, 2017, from https://www.good.is/articles/could-checking-facebook-in-class-help-students-focus

Curtin, C., & Curtin, C. (n.d.). Fact or Fiction?: NASA Spent Millions to Develop a Pen that Would Write in Space, whereas the Soviet Cosmonauts Used a Pencil. Retrieved December 7, 2017, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-nasa-spen/

SpacePen.com. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2017, from http://www.spacepen.com/

The Amazing Power of “Tech Breaks.” (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2017, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rewired-the-psychology-technology/201105/the-amazing-power-tech-breaks

One thought on “Why develop a pen when you can use a pencil?

  1. So what are your thoughts on Facebook now? Can you see it as a useful tool in communication – is it useful? This addiction to technology gives a lot of time for thought. It’s ‘all or nothing’ but does it have to be? It is a very interesting question to ask how blance time. As I read through the different blogs for course 4 I continue to think about balance and how we are helping our students to become more balanced. I love the idea that students can be marked as ‘focused’, this is something that we could employ in our classrooms without technology. I think about how many times I lose concentration and how I need to say ‘don’t interrupt’. I can do this very easily by popping a sign on the door – DO NOT DISTURB! But how many times do I do this with technology, in fact now I think about it I don’t think I ever do this!

    I think that we need more education for both students and teachers, just letting them know that A) you can switch off tech – the world will still be there when you switch back on, and B) it’s ok! Just switch it off…

    Thanks for presenting this information and giving me something to think about! It’s all about balance!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *