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Is the pen mightier than the keyboard?

Posted by Paul Nisbet on the 2nd May, 2024

Category Computer Accessibility iPads, Androids & Chromebooks

The Apple Pencil and other active stylus pens are becoming more popular and commonly used in schools. In this blog we look at some applications for pupils with additional support needs and/or disabilities.

The suggestions here are mostly based on observations and experiences with some young people that I've met when providing assistive technology assessment and support. There are some references to research at the end of the article, but this is not a rigorous academic literature survey!

I hope that this will encourage you to explore active digital pencils with your learners, if you've not already done so.

Active stylus pens

Active stylus pens such as the Apple Pencil, Logitech Crayon, Skriva, Staedtler Noris or Microsoft Surface Pen have several advantages compared to using your finger or a passive stylus:

(Not all apps respond to varying pressure or tilt - it has to be coded into the app.)

Why use an active stylus pen?


The most obvious use for an active pen is to draw digitally. The picture below was drawn with an Apple Pencil by one of the pupils I am supporting.

Megan (a pseudonym) was born with no limbs and attends a mainstream primary school. Her usual method of writing is to hold an ordinary pencil between her neck and shoulder and write and draw on a jotter - her writing is extremely neat and remarkably fluent. She can use a mouthstick and a pointer held with her neck and shoulder to type on her Chromebook and can also operate the trackpad on her Chromebook with her tongue! 

Megan's drawing of a toy

We wanted to find more ergonomic and independent methods for Megan to access technology and she successfully evaluated a Zygo chin pointer, a head mouse, Tobii PCEye eye gaze camera and iPad with Pencil.  She could use the chin pointer, head mouse and eye gaze extremely well to navigate the device and type, but she liked the simplicity and independence of the iPad and Pencil.

During the evaluation sessions we found that the advantages of the active pencil and digital notes, compared to her ordinary pencil and jotter are:

Megan drawing with the apple pencil

Other advantages of a digital device compared to paper jotters, worksheets and textbooks are:

This term Megan will be evaluating an iPad and Pencil and also active styli for her Chromebook.

Digital Learning

An active stylus can be a natural and effective method of interacting with digital learning resources such as worksheets or digital examinations, particularly materials in PDF.

screen shot of a digital worksheet screen shot of a digital exam paper









A few years ago I worked with a young man ('Mike') attending a mainstream secondary school who experienced significant fatigue which meant that he struggled to keep up with note-taking in class. Mike had an assistant to scribe for him in class, but found it difficult to review and retain information from the scribe's notes.

We explored a range of different access methods and Mike chose an iPad and Apple Pencil to evaluate, with Microsoft OneNote as a 'digital jotter'. The combination of iPad, Pencil and OneNote proved to be a brilliant solution and over the next few years at school Mike used this for almost all his schoolwork, and at home during the Covid lockdown times. He created notebooks for all his subjects and used the Apple Pencil to handwrite notes and to access the iPad touch keyboard. (The image below is an example - not his work.) 

screen shot of OneNote











Mike's comparative evaluation of paper and pencil, a scribe and the iPad are below and gives insights into why the iPad, Pencil and OneNote were so effective. 

In terms of fatigue, there is less friction when handwriting on a touch screen with a pencil compared to a paper jotter, and I think this is one reason why Mike found it much easier. Another reason is that navigating digital resources and writing on a small 9.7" iPad screen requires less physical effort than using larger A4 worksheets and textbooks. Plus he could take advantage of prediction on the keyboard, and Siri dictation.

Mike's evaluation of iPad, Pencil and OneNote
(Score 1 to 10 where 1 = rubbish and 10 = brilliant)
Pupil evaluation

Paper jotter and handwriting 

Assistant / scribe 

iPad, pencil & Onenote

Note-taking in class268
Understanding your notes368
Writing longer pieces of work279
Writing/drawing in maths and STEM subjects367
Speed of writing / typing276
Legibility of writing / typing389
Effort needed to write / type2107
Sharing work with teachers779
Your opinion!468
Total score326980
iPad Specific features   
Dictating with Siri  8
Typing with iPad word prediction  9
Typing with iPad hardware keyboard  3
Typing with iPad Apple Pencil  7

Collaboration and sharing

Another reason why Mike succeeded I think is that he could share his notebooks with his teachers. This is a feature of OneNote rather than the active pencil, but the ability to mix text, handwriting and drawing in the same page, as one can do with a paper jotter, is really important. We often get asked how pupils can print out their work so it can be stuck in their jotter - why bother, if you can share your digital jotter with your teacher? There's the evidence.

 Co-operative support

Many learners can work independently for a period of time but also require support when they become tired or when the pace of work in class is fast. In those circumstances, it's helpful to have personal support from an assistant.

One strategy is for the assistant to also have a device and to work co-operatively with the pupil on the same OneNote page or Google Doc. The pupil and help can work more co-operatively and the pupil can see the assistant's notes more easily than if a paper jotter is used. Also, pupils like Mike and Megan can access all of their jotters and learning resources on their device, rather than having to ask an assistant to find and open the paper jotter.

Direct Access for AAC and typing

One application for an active stylus that I think is for direct access to touch keyboard or an AAC app. Some people find it hard to accurately target keys or buttons on a touch screen by hand, and find it much easier to use a stylus.

The problem with a passive stylus is that the device will detect your hand or palm if you touch the screen: with an active stylus you can rest your hand on the screen and use the stylus to select keys. This may help the user to stabilise their hand and improve accuracy and reduce fatigue. I've not actually tried this with anyone yet though!

However, a standard active stylus may not be accessible for everyone and some people may require adaptations.

Adaptations for active pencils

Pencil grips and sleeves are available for active pencils from many suppliers. I use this type of grip myself, plus soft nib covers to reduce the clicking sound ofthe pencil tip on the screen. 

photo of a pencil grip







Active pens are around the same diameter as ordinary pencils, so we can also use a range of ordinary pencil grips: 

photo of round pencil gripspencil grips











while a range of 3D printed pen grips are available as 3D files for you to print yourself and as actual products for purchase from Shapeways. These are designed for the Microsoft Pens for Microsoft Surface and other Windows OS devices which are slightly wider (9.5 mm) than an Apple Pencil (8.9 mm). I've not tried one myself, but if they don't fit it should be possible to alter the 3D design to fit narrower pencils.

photo of 3d printed Surface pen grips





Another adaption that we will trial for Megan is a lanyard for her to secure the pencil around her neck: we hope that she will be able to access the pencil whenever she needs it.

Early years and level

Active pens and particularly suitable for pupils in early years and who are at early curriculum level and who are not yet literate, because they provide a natural and familiar method of interacting with the device. Developers of apps such as Kaligo argue that using a device and active pencil improves students' handwriting and spelling.

photo of child drawing with pencil
(Image from Kaligo web site)

Learning and understanding

Mueller and Oppenheimer's 2014 study found that taking notes by hand results in more effective learning than typing but as with most learning activities, it depends on what students actually do in class - some pupils are faster and produce more legible notes typing than handwriting, but there is some evidence that slower note-taking encourages better processing of information.

Digital active styli and pencils

The products listed below are examples and this is not an endorsement of any. Costs are retail: they may be available at lower cost through resellers or the Scottish Procurement system. Active pencils for iPads and Chromebooks are available from many manufacturers, suppliers and online retailers, often at a cheaper cost than the items listed below.

Some iPad active styli and pencils

Apple Pencil 1st generationiPad 6th to 10th gen and some iPad Pros£109
Apple Pencil 2nd generationLater iPad Pro and Air£139
Apple Pencil USB-CiPad 10th gen, later iPad Pro and Air£79
Logitech CrayoniPad 6th to 10th gen and some iPad Pros£69
SkrivaiPad 6th to 10th gen and some iPad Pro~ £30

Some Chromebook active styli and pencils 

Staedtler Noris Digital EMR stylus~ £40
Logitech Pen for Chromebook~ £70

Some Windows active styli and pencils 

Surface Pen~ £99
HP Digital Pen MPP 1.51~ £30
HP MPP 2.0 Pen~ £60

Further reading

Lund University. Studying in a digital world: in regards to note-taking by hand or on a computer.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581

Apple: iPad and Mac in Education Results June 2022

Apple: Apple Success stories

Veronica Lewis How I Use the Apple Pencil with Low Vision

OTs with Apps: Adaptive Styluses and Other Methods of Direct Access to a Tablet

Amy and pALS: Stylus-Adapted Pinterest

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