Electronic devices to replace pencil and paper

Mathematics Educators Asked by Björn Lindqvist on November 3, 2020

My question is similar to this one: Except I’m not physically disabled.

Pencil and paper have been used for centuries to calculate things. It works, but it is not environmentally friendly and storing paper is a hassle. Doing it using desktop computers isn’t efficient because the keyboard and mouse limits you. But nowadays, we have tablets, styluses, kindles and all sorts of small high dpi devices to play with.

Therefore I wonder if any mathematician or student have found something that beats pencil and paper? I suspect the answer is (still) no, but I wonder if someone has tried? How far off are we until we can go fully digital? With far off I mean what were the limiting factors? Low dpi, stylus sensitivity, low display contrast or something else?

Edit: Even though this question is opinion-based I like @JoeTaxpayer’s answer. The writing in his screenshot looks a little smushy… Not as “detailed” as you can write on paper. 🙂 So if the iPad is the best for handwriting, I will have to wait many more years before I can replace my pen & paper with an electronic device.

5 Answers

Here's a sample of the iPad's resolution. The original is a page wide (8in) but clipped a bit short. The writing tends to be a bit bigger than I'd have with pencil and paper. The graph was just a snapshot, using Desmos. This ability to mix an image onto a page has value depending on the use case. There are times that when drawing graphs by hand, the graph paper image comes in handy. Last, editing after the fact, to correct a mistake or just to add lines to better show some process, is very handy.

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Correct answer by JTP - Apologise to Monica on November 3, 2020

You may wish to consider Rocketbook. The basic idea of their products is to write on paper but easily convert the output to electronic storage. I found the android app rather unsuccessful, but I am told it works well on apple.

Answered by Jessica B on November 3, 2020

Pencil and paper will always been unbeatable for many applications, but sometimes electronic devices are more useful to me.

For example, Wacom tablet + Microsoft OneNote + Movavi Screen Capture is what I use to create instructional videos on a MAC. The whole setup is inexpensive and the pressure sensitivity creates "realistic" writing that is a bit more aesthetic than electronic-writing that has a constant-thickness. (the tablet is like 80 bucks, OneNote is free, Movavi is not free but was worth purchasing since it has quite a bit more functionality than Quicktime's screen capture),

Answered by Michael on November 3, 2020

Your question is just an opinion call, so I need not cite any authoritative sources. ☺

Regarding desktops, writing LaTeX is sometimes more convenient than writing by hand with a stylus or pen. A limiting factor is UI. LaTeX is just a language, and text is typed into a text editor which is good for natural languages, but not for formal languages. IMHO, a visual modal editor for abstract syntax tree with ergonomic keyboard would be ideal. Emacs is close to this, but it is still not visual, and it is not modal. The prices of real ergonomic keyboards are about 500 USD. Just for comparison, I rarely write text on paper because keyboard is more convenient. Keyboard has its advantages.

Regarding styluses, limiting factors are screen cost, UI, and physical differences. I am a poor man living in a poor country, so I bought a device with a screen of size 133 mm by 75 mm. I desperately need a way to split writing into sheets and arrange them on a higher level. Actually, this need will show up independently of screen size. No matter how big a screen is, it is not able to hold all writing. Stylus feels different from pen: there is no friction between stylus and screen. Maybe it is not a problem, but it is kind of unusual.

Answered by beroal on November 3, 2020

Taking a break from a convoluted computation...

To me the key limiting factor is space. I can spread out several sheets over the table and have various bits and pieces directly visible. I cannot do this to the same extent on my tablet or my computer. Therefore I also use loose sheets not something that is bound together.

One might argue I could set up a system with one or even several larger screens and that would solve this problem, but than this is still costly and maybe a hassle to get right (though I think much less so than it used to be until somewhat recently). And then, I would be bound to the place where I have this set up.

I do not know how it actually would compare, but the production of all the screens and the energy they consume should be non-negligible, too.

You asked for alternatives. It may not be feasible for you, but consider a blackboard. It's rather the opposite to being an innovation, but in some mathematicians' opinion still the best medium.

A drawback is that it is hard to save one's work. But there modern innovations can enter the workflow. Take a photo before erasing.

Answered by quid on November 3, 2020

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