January 25, 2010

TapTale: Bringing literacy to a (iPhone) screen near you

TapTale is a new iPhone and iPod Touch app designed as a prototype to help learners build confidence in their creative writing. The Times Education Supplement talks this week about the app, one of the newly launched products whose development I led as Commissioner at Channel 4's Innovation for the Public Fund, working with Derek Robertson at LTS and the clever chaps at Six To Start.

The proposition was a simple one: experiment to see what the iPhone and iPod Touch could add to the reading and writing experience. Making it was a genuine challenge for us, for Learning and Teaching Scotland and the award-winning developers SixToStart, whose work on Penguin's WeTellStories made them the best choice to give this groundbreaker a chance:

“Readers have to work out what they have to do in the story to progress,” says Adrian Hon, who created the application and co-founded Six to Start with his brother Dan. “The story might say something like ‘the witch went up to the door and knocked three times’. The player would then have to tap on the phone three times in order to advance. Or they might read that the house fell to the right and they have to tilt the phone to the right to read about what happens next.”

The goal is to encourage young people to write their own stories and include their own “gestures”.

Once a tale has been created, users can upload them to the TapTale website, where other registered users can download and read them. Registered users can also provide feedback on any tale via the website, by slotting pre-written statements into a form.

Naomi Alderman The app helps students get started by modeling what it expected, with none other than an award-winning writer to get the creative wheels greased. In 2006, Naomi Alderman won the Orange Award for New Writers, and she now offers a growing selection of exclusive taptale stories, written just for the screen space and gestural potential of the iPhone. They're also available to read on the Taptale website.

She's also offered up a selection of free-to-view writing challenges for educators wanting to use the app in their classrooms, or assign challenges for homework on the iPod Touch or iPhone.

Brian Clark, working with LTS on trialling the project, describes how it might be used in practice this term:

TapTale’s primary goal is to promote literacy through the reading and writing of tales using the tap, tilt, shake and swipe functions of Apples touch screen devices.

When creating a tale, pupils are asked to write chapters using the touchscreen keyboard on the device. In order to progress from chapter to chapter, the reader must use one of the tap, swipe, tilt or shake sequences. It is up to the author of the tale to decide what action must be taken for the reader to see the next chapter.

Once a tale has been created, users can upload them via the device to the taptale website. This allows other registered user to download and read their tales directly on the device. Registered users can provide feedback on any tale via the website using a ‘fridge magnet’ style form. Anyone can read the tales created directly from the site, but of course the tapping and tilting functions are not possible in this view.

Taptale Feedback System 2 Fridge-magnet peer-assessment

My favourite part of this exercise may not even be the iPhone app itself. Rather, the online peer-assessment community we've developed is, I think, a first (though I'm happily corrected). I wanted to see a fridge-magnet approach to student feedback, something that would allow structured feedback to take place but not just in a "tick-box" fashion. I think I also wanted to hark back stylistically to the days of scholastic readers that I had when I was aged four in primary school, learning how to read for the first time. The result is quite a delightful way of helping students - and the general public who stop off by their writings - to learn new ways to provide "two stars and a wish" type feedback to each other anonymously, while maintaining the integrity and safety of a learning site used by young people.

The system prompts you to use one of the many critiques that Derek and I thrashed out over a boring train trip or two, to accept it, before pushing up the next set of options. Go and have a play on one of Naomi's stories and you'll see how challenging some of the vocabulary is yet how easy the interface is: struggleware if ever there was any.


Criticism of the iPhone for learning

As development work began in the early days of summer 2009, we hit criticism straightaway: "kids don't have iPhones, schools barely allow mobile phones, and in the current straightened times we shouldn't be investing in the most expensive-per-inch handheld technologies around". It was the same criticism hurled back in 2004 when I was making podcasts with and for the students in my secondary school. Fittingly, it is my old education district, East Lothian, that is the first to put itself forward to try out these devices and see what, indeed, they might add to the learning process.

We're ready for a resounding tumbleweed to be heard on the question of any educational advances here - no-one's done this before, and we just don't know what it has to offer that paper and pen don't. Likewise, I'd be curious to see what the tactile approach to story reading and writing brings to those kids who have less motivation to read, who have trouble structuring their stories. I also think the online writing community platform we've developed offers a creative, supportive environment that, in brilliant classrooms may well exist, but which is hard to achieve well all the time in every classroom with the timetable constraints we all face.

One final really interesting point is that one of the first criticisms of the app from a student has been: "it doesn't allow me to add pictures to my story". Interesting, and perhaps valid in a world where apps are laden with features, features, features.

Taptale is relatively simple. It's about making writing and reading as simple as possible, while forcing the hand of the writer into doing certain things: providing constructive feedback, reading for inspiration before writing, thinking about timing and story structure through the gestures.

Above all, though, it's about the written word, not the graphic, the design or the picture.

If anything, the lack of features is what makes this app special, what's going to make it work well. Children will, lo and behold, have to think about how to describe what's in their mind's eye, not just photograph it with the cellphone camera or Google it, right-click it, save it and insert it. Stripping all that away is, if anything, at least one educational advance we'll have made.

TapTale iTunes Graphic Taptale stories are free to view on the website throughout the pilot. The app is free in the UK from the iTunes store.

Pic from Anthony


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Good stuff, Ewan. Will watch the developments with great interest. The size of iPhones and iPod Touches makes them ideal tools for the classroom. So much potential in one handset. With the product improving and changing so rapidly and the problems of price - it is difficult to know when schools will invest in iPod Touches. We greatly rely on forward thinking individuals (like yourselves) higher up the food chain to buy and test these models in the classroom. Do you think the keypad will be restrictive for students wanting to write longer prose? I'm not sure about the inability to use pics or video. It would be nice to have the choice. The beauty of the iPhone from my own personal use is to make the almost seamless connection between these different types of literacy. I was reading John Johnston's blog today and the fantastic sounding ICT box that North Lanarksire offers for buying and then hiring new kit like iTouches to schools. I wish every cooncil had one of them!

Do you think this app will be approved/released in the US store? I'd love to give it a go.

We've made the decision not to, just because the web element is quite simple and not manageable at scale yet. However, if there were enough advance interest then the groups involved might invest a bit more in the web side of things to allow the app to sell to a wider market.

Thanks for the interest!

Does anyone know how I can find out when this product will come out here in France?

I'll be helping with this in East Lothian. Currently the only tapping we're doing is of our fingers while we wait for the project machinery to deliver the kit, but we're looking forward to getting it into the hands of students!

I'll be interested to see how the "fridge magnet" peer feedback works in practice. Do you know if that's been tried with students? I've been worried that the "fridge magnets" available will present many primary children with words they don't understand, such as assonance and verisimilitude, and it's helpful to understand a bit more about the thinking behind it.

The new vocabulary is there on purpose - an opportunity for the teacher to discuss and for the child to be stretched. There's plenty for those who want to take an "easy" route, but the more varied vocabulary means that the app continues to be useful into secondary school, growing with the child.

Having seen at first hand how my son has interacted with his ipod touch since Christmas I think the educational potential in the ipod touch (eventually to be replaced by i-pad) is exciting. I can see the 'literacy toolbox' already at my son's fingertips from the rhyming apps to basic thesaurus and dictionary. As a teacher I'd like to explore further these supportive apps to writing rather than the ipod touch application be used itself for writing. I think that the complexity of the writing process for young children cannot be underestimated. What's exciting about taptale for me is the fact that app developers are starting to explore the educational context and the potential it has.

iPad is going to provide us with some new experience I agree, and also it actually might change our perception of mobile devices. Just wondering how much money with Apple have to pay Fujitsu for the right to the name:P

I am amazed at this idea, and I think it is one that will work. Problems I see, of course, are students using their personal iTouches or iPhones in schools. In the US, they are often banned at schools, so how would they be allowed at some times and not at others? We certainly won't have funding to provide to students in a widespread manner. However, it's so inspiring to see people who are thinking in the future when I see so many people not ready to embrace the present. I'm intrigued by the idea!

I like this idea. I think it is clear from the app that simplicity reigns over features and at the core of it is the drive to improve and encourage better story telling.

However I do think this is a mild case of the technology going ahead of the learning on a number of levels.

I couldn't actually write anything using the app because of the need for an account, but it seems the UI actually restricts the types of written chapter endings that can be crafted. We think "what can be a good way of including a tap, swipe or tilt in our story". We make it fit even when it might not. Leading with the capabilities of the device may actually inhibit rather than open up creativity.

When reading one of the stories on the app I couldn't progress because I couldn't do the action. With no hint text and no obvious way to do "lean forward" the story ended for me. This may well be solved simply on an app level, but it does indicate how the UI is dictating what occurs for the teller and the reader.

WeTellStories was really inspiring and based upon it I went on to do some great work with storytelling in Google Earth with my classes. In that example the technology quietly amplified the visual element of our storytelling. The children in my class found it easier to write with the location, setting and path there in front of them. But there were no apparent restrictions to what might occur in our stories.

Is the storytelling in TapTale too heavily influenced and led by what an iPhone/iPod can do? Shouldn't the technology be a silent guiding hand in the creative process?

Although early feedback suggests image support I also think that talking through story ideas is a crucial step before writing. TapTale is a simple app and I appreciate the stance it has, but I think there is big opportunity for technology to make audio support in the story crafting process very accessible.

I think the story feedback form is an interesting concept - but again I think it restricts the commenting process. Perhaps future development could consider:

>> Cutting back on the number of words displayed as choices. I think it is a daunting choice.
>> Nested sets would allow you to see progressively more mature sets of vocabulary, retaining the choice and control over what you can see.
>> How do you encourage children to actually know what the words mean before using them? It is one thing being exposed to them it is another having the deep understanding of what they mean, and how to use them in the most appropriate ways.
>> The feedback form requires no writing at all. I would prefer the range of words to be prompts alone, encouraging the feedback to be written by the user. At least they then have crafted it themselves, ostensibly engaging with the meaning and spelling of the vocabulary rather than just dragging and dropping.
>> Should the feedback starters be the bits you choose from? Having a load of those to drag and drop to help kickstart your feedback would be really useful. Starter statements for "stars" and "wishes" and then the simple prompts to aid a self written comment.

Hi Tom,

Good comments, and the reason for the limits in some of the features are both for the simplicity of use for end-user and simplicity of build on a limited, prototype-based budget. So providing nested or increase-by-use feedback comments is a development too far for the initial product.The feedback form doesn't take writing so as to limit the need for pre-moderation, essential given it's designed for young kids, but incredibly costly.

However, I think that it still works because the app is intended to be used in a classroom environment. We expect teachers to work with kids to work out what the vocabulary means. We expect discussions to take place. We expect a lot of handwritten development of stories to take place, maybe not using the app at all, but merely the feedback mechanism online.

It's definitely the tech moving first - we were interested to see if there was new, better practice (as well as new, worse practice) that might emerge by using reading/writing apps on iPhone. At the time of making the call to go with it, there were no apps of this kind. Slowly a few are appearing, and iPad apps will burgeon in this space.

It *is* a prototype, and its goals are not necessarily the same goals we'd have if we were making a fully public app for use without the participation of the LTS team implementing this trial.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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