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Applied AI Teaches Handwriting

By Esther Shein

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 10, Pages 19-20
10.1145/3554919

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Researchers from Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and pen-maker Stabilo are collaborating on an artificial intelligence (AI)-based pen to teach schoolchildren what is becoming a lost art in an increasingly digital world: handwriting.

The joint project—Kaligo-based Intelligent Handwriting Teacher (KIHT)—is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

German children are taught to write by redrawing the shape of letters, which requires them to think about writing, explains Tanja Harbaum, a researcher at KIT who is involved with the project. "We want them to be able to write without having to think about writing. That's what we as adults do."

The eyes of unskilled writers are not able to keep up with writing, and "that's really a problem because if you force a child to redraw shapes, they won't be able to practice fluent writing at the same time," according to Harbaum.

While teaching shapes should be the first step, children are "painting the letters, not writing them," says Peter Kämpf, head of special product development at Stabilo. "Painting means that pen movement is slow and deliberate, with close hand-eye coordination. Therefore, the next step must focus on the dynamics of writing," which is the wrist movement, he says, and not focus on shapes "until the writing movement has developed to the point where it is an overlearned motion that does not depend on optical control."

This not only speeds up the writing process but also frees up cognitive capacity, he says.

Styli have been shown to enhance the ability to write. "Writing with the finger is more suitable for performing large, but not very accurate motions, while writing with the stylus leads to a higher precision and more isotropic motion performance," according to a 2015 study published in the National Library of Medicine.

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Figure. Researchers in Germany and France have developed a smart digital pen that can help users learn to write.

Regardless of whether a stylus or an old-fashioned pen or pencil is used, however, studies have found there is a significant connection between handwriting, cognitive development, and the ability to retain information.

In 2015, Finland became one of the first countries to phase out handwriting instruction altogether, to keep pace with technological progress. (Although U.S. schools are not required to teach cursive writing, schools in some states continue to do so.) Some researchers do not agree with Finland's decision.

University of Washington professor Virginia Berninger told the online news site Qcostarica that writing with a pen not only helps develop fingers, but also thinking skills, because the brain works harder to write.

Other studies support the fact that handwriting is a complex task that requires more brainpower to process a word than just reading or typing it. Handwriting is both physical and mental, and the brain has to apply motor skills and thought processing when applying pen to paper to create words.

Even adults can benefit from continuing to use their handwriting skills. A 2021 study by Johns Hopkins University published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science posits practicing handwriting "refines fine-tuned motor skills and creates a perceptual-motor experience that appears to help adults learn generalized literacy-related skills surprisingly faster and significantly better than if they tried to learn the same material by typing on a keyboard or watching videos."

"Our results clearly show that handwriting compared with nonmotor practice produces faster learning and greater generalization to untrained tasks than previously reported," researchers Robert Wiley and Brenda Rapp told Psychology Today. "Furthermore, only handwriting practice leads to the learning of both motor and amodal symbolic letter representations."

The goal of the KIHT project is to market a pen with intelligence that will help children attain skill in writing fluently. That's where Stabilo comes in: its Edu Pen writes like a normal pen with ink, but is embedded with inertial sensors integrated to detect movement on paper because of the pressure applied. The Edu Pen's algorithm is able to reconstruct the trajectory of the pen using information derived from the amount of pressure applied and the pen's acceleration, which is stored via Bluetooth and sent wirelessly to a computer or mobile device, Harbaum says.

Teachers today don't have the ability to teach and then study the handwriting of all their students, Harbaum says. By putting the information into a digital format, "you're able to automate the ability for writing for every student in a classroom," she says.

A third partner is French startup Learn & Go, which is pairing its Kaligo app with Edu Pen for use on any Bluetooth-enabled mobile device, Kämpf says.

In addition to pen and paper, "A tablet computer makes it possible to adapt the exercises individually for each student and to synchronize and save the data automatically," KIT said in a fact sheet on the project. "The electronic pen developed in this project should be able to connect to all common mobile devices and interact with an app."

While Learn & Go is focused on the software, KIT says it is working on "the integration of suitable AI concepts into the embedded hardware. This will distribute the complexity of the overall system across both software and hardware, enabling fast and efficient AI execution."

German teachers who have tested the Edu Pen have found it helpful for supporting students' individual needs, according to Stabilo. Gabriele Meier, principal of the Grundschule Heroldsberg elementary school in Bayern, Germany, said in a statement that "With the EduPen, we can support the children objectively and specifically with little time investment. Since the data is recorded and evaluated individually, we pick up each child at his or her personal stage of development and can train writing motor skills with appropriate exercises."

Meier added that "Technology should follow the pedagogical concept, not the other way around."

Julia Knopf, a professor at Saarland University in Germany, said in a statement that "In addition to a concrete and objective assessment of writing skills, the digital analysis pen, including [the] app, enabled targeted and differentiated support for every school child—right from the first day of school."

KIT's Harbaum is working on balancing "the level of intelligence [in the Edu Pen] with the size, weight, and battery capacity."

The Edu Pen is available through Stabilo for around 500 euros ($525), which Kämpf admits "is an order of magnitude more than what the price should be." He says he is currently working on a "much simpler design, which should bring the price to below 100 euros."


"Technology should follow the pedagogical concept, not the other way around."


Harbaum expects the pen will be on the market in about five to eight years, with an AI chip in it.

Another company working on helping students with handwriting fine-motor development is consumer electronics company Logitech, whose latest digital stylus connects to Chromebooks. It comes on the heels of a previous version designed for the iPad.

Explains Gaurav Bradoo, portfolio lead for the education group at Logitech, "We saw how [the iPad stylus] was being deployed in schools for young students for them to work on handwriting annotation, taking notes, doing math problems—everything you can imagine happening with pen and paper."

The company incorporated learning from the earlier product, says Bradoo, but "we really wanted to go back from a ground-up perspective and see how kids were holding pens and build an experience around that."

The stylus contains universal stylus initiative (USI) technology so people never have to worry about pairing their devices. They communicate in the background automatically because they are effectively designed to speak the same language, Bradoo says.

Like the Edu Pen, the Logitech pen has a pressure sensor, as well as the ability to start using it without having to touch a button to turn it on or off.

"As soon as you pick up the stylus and you bring it to a compatible screen, it starts working," Bradoo says. "It all happens in the background; there's no user intervention required." Even if a student is not using a handwriting app on the Chromebook, they can still use the stylus to navigate, instead of their finger, he says.

The Logitech stylus has a "very fine tip" and "good gripping areas to accommodate different hand-holding styles," so a student can grip it like a normal pen or pencil, says Bradoo. "We believe [that] helps with writing and the equivalent of writing on paper, and it unlocks more because it's a digital medium.

"The intent here is … to create the onboarding experience reminiscent of using pen and paper and bring it into the digital world."

* Further Reading

Maddox, C.
Handwriting is good for the brain, Qcostarica. 20 January 2022, https://bit.ly/39vxtzF

Wiley, R.W., and Rapp, B.
The Effects of Handwriting Experience on Literacy Learning, Psychological Science, June 2021, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797621993111

Bergland, C.
Why Does Writing by Hand Promote Better and Faster Learning? Psychology Today, July 9, 2021, https://bit.ly/3y7gBK0

Umejima, K.; Ibaraki, T.; Yamazaki, T., and Sakai, K.L.
Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory Retrieval, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, March 2021 https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2021.634158

Askvik, E.O.; van der Weel, F.R. (Ruud), and van der Meer, A.L.H.
The Importance of Cursive Handwriting Over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults, Frontiers in Psychology, July 2020 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01810/full

Markus, K; Schuler, S; Mayer, C; Trumpp, N.M.; Hille, K, and Sachse, S.
Handwriting or Typewriting? The Influence of Pen- or Keyboard-Based Writing Training on Reading and Writing Performance in Preschool Children, Advances In Cognitive Psychology. 2015 https://bit.ly/3s88gSx

Prattichizzo, D.; Meli, L., and Malvezzi, M.
Digital Handwriting with a Finger or a Stylus: A Biomechanical Comparison, IEEE Trans Haptics, Oct-Dec 2015;8(4):356–70. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26011868/

Fact Check-Schools have not stopped teaching cursive writing to keep children from reading the U.S. Constitution, Reuters Fact Check, April 22, 2021 https://reut.rs/3vNx0St

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Author

Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.


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