Monday, October 12, 2009

Write a Story On a Phone? Are you Kidding?

By Ben Bederson

Associate Professor, Computer Science Dept. & Human-Computer Interaction Lab
Co-director, International Children’s Digital Library
University of Maryland

Creativity continues to be an essential skill in the emerging creative economy. Since scientific and technological creativity are tightly intertwined with cultural and artistic creativity, developing tools for creative expression can help all members of society. Thus, ensuring open access to creativity-enabling technology is crucial for supporting social equality in the creative economy. With the global proliferation of mobile devices regularly breaking boundaries, we (the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at UMD) are especially interested in considering what mobile creative authoring tools might look like.

Numerous applications on the desktop to support creative expression. But going mobile is a different beast. It is both harder and easier. Harder because you have to figure out how to make it possible for children to learn and use a rich set of features on a small device. Easier because there is the potential to integrate the phone’s essential mobility – adding easy support for taking pictures, recording sounds, drawing pictures and of course, writing text. And there is the potential of supporting all of this within the context of ideas encountered in daily life.

Unfortunately, existing mobile applications lack the kind of content manipulation flexibility found on the desktop. So is it possible to build a tool to support children’s creative expression on a phone? And is it even a good idea? Perhaps we should be aiming for more expressive “canvases”, not more constrained ones. Smaller, more constrained tools might simply encourage a more limited style of expression, and teach that simplistic creations are a sufficient goal.

But history shows that adding more modes of expression very rarely eliminates the old ones. Instead, there are just more. TV didn’t eliminate Radio. Audio books didn’t eliminate paper books. And the Internet didn’t eliminate writing.

Instead, aiming to support children’s creativity with the tools they are already using is an established way to get their attention. Let’s make all the tools we can. Get kids excited in every modality. And be sure to teach that there is a range of valid expression – both large and rich as well as small and simple.

A year ago, we built an iPhone reader for our International Children’s Digital Library. And as a second effort at supporting this vision, we just created a (free) iPhone app to support children’s storytelling. Search for “StoryKit” in the iPhone app store, give it a try, and decide for yourself if kids should be writing stories on phones.

We also need to think about not only the “what” but also the “how” and “where”. Which technologies do we target, and where will these be used? There is some room for this kind of tool in the classroom, but I think that their biggest usage will be in informal settings. Sure, most nine year olds don’t have iPhones (yet). But many of them stand on line, sit in the car, or wait at a doctor’s office with their parent who does have one. Parents are already handing out their devices to kill time, so their kids can watch videos and play games. So, let’s increase the set of offerings. Just as parents can choose to stock good food in their house, they can choose to stock good apps on their phone. The next time their kid picks up their phone, there can be a range of fun, social, and educational activities for them to do. So, how can we get there?

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