English professor develops Shakespeare iPad app

Author: Gene Stowe

Shakespeare iPad app

English professor Elliott Visconsi has launched Luminary Digital Media to bring a touch of the humanities to the tech-driven world of mobile learning.

Visconsi and his collaborator, Katherine Rowe of Bryn Mawr College, have built a ground-up iPad application to put sophisticated Shakespeare education at the fingertips of 21st-century readers, whether individually, in coursework or with groups of friends around the globe.

The project also adds a new dimension to Notre Dame’s support for advancing campus innovations, says Pat McMahon, Notre Dame’s program director for technology commercialization under Bob Bernhard, vice president of research.

“We have money set aside to use to help commercialize research—some to provide technology support for idea with potential, some to evaluate opportunities,” McMahon says. “A lot of that stuff is science and engineering.

“A number of us are working with Elliott to help identify all sorts of applications this can go to. We see a whole bunch of purposes for which can be used in this or other completely unrelated areas,” from the Bible to “Huckleberry Finn” and commercial or technical training manuals.

Luminary Digital Media’s prototype, “Shakespeare’s The Tempest" for iPad, initiates an approach more suited to arts and letters than the master-and-advance stages of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs on the market.

Elliott Visconsi

“That doesn’t really apply, in my view, to the humanities,” Visconsi says. “We learn and think and work differently. Our discipline has much more to do with deliberation and training the judgment of readers. Our discipline relies on collaboration and conversation across time as well as space—conversation with previous writers, conversation with the colleague in the U.K. or the student in the classroom.

“I felt like it was really important that we design software that would recognize those practices and honor them, while also taking advantage of these new capabilities that we haven’t had until now.”

Visconsi knew he had found his medium when he met his first iPad in February 2011.

“There’s something really great about being able to move from printed text to video to music to Internet and do it fluently. Reaching a broad audience has never been easier. If you know how to play your cards right, you can get a story or a concept or great content to a bigger audience now, working on your own, than you could have working with an agency 20 years ago at great expense,” he says.

Visconsi figures the audience for humanities study is global.

“There’s a huge audience, a huge hunger worldwide for Shakespeare, for philosophy, theology, history. Millions of people are eager to wrestle with these great ideas and these great thinkers. This project was motivated by a desire to reach that audience, communicate with that audience in ways that are high quality and accessible but not demeaning or diminished.”

Content in the iPad app, including texts, commentaries, audio and video, can be tailored to meets the needs and interests of all readers, from professional researchers to high school freshmen. Groups can set up interactive sites, including private Facebook groups, for sharing and conversation.

“We’re helping our students understand how the text works,” Visconsi says. “We’re trying to transport all of our professional habits and teachers and researchers into the mobile realm where our readers can get access to it right on their iPad, wherever they go.”

Visconsi and Rowe, collaborating with the Center for Research Computing and gaining significant support from Bernhard, have launched Luminary Digital Media to commercialize the fast-developing concept.

“It’s a way for us to bring this technology to market,” he says. "It’s also an opportunity for us to expand out in exciting and agile ways into this very exciting part of the technology and business world.”

The iPad app, with some 90 percent of the content embedded so wireless access is not needed, features key humanities-inspired tools that allow note-sharing, social media conversation with friends, interpretive commentaries, full audio performance with alternate takes and video modules. There are more exciting features coming soon, Visconsi notes.

The iPad feels more like a book, Visconsi says: “In some ways, our app is a multidimensional book. It’s as if all of our users have one copy of a book that they’re passing around. The app gives our readers a chance to create and read together, not just read in solitude.”

Finger-tapping navigation allows users to copy, paste, highlight, search, jot marginal notes, post questions to discussion groups, collect selected passages, hear how an actor alters the text’s effect with various readings, read commentary by a stable of experts, and write their own reflections.

“Shakespeare is the proof of concept,” he says. “Our ambition as a company is not to be a Shakespeare company but to be a cutting-edge creator of iOS applications for key texts in the humanities and also for commercial applications of all sorts.”