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New iPad app brings Shakespeare to the 21st century

Meghan Thonassen | Wednesday, April 25, 2012

William Shakespeare may have died centuries ago, but thanks in part to Notre Dame, his works live on in modern formats.

Associate professor of English Elliott Visconsi and his colleague, Katherine Rowe, a professor at Bryn Mawr College, designed an app bringing Shakespeare’s plays to the 21st century.

The Tempest, an app for the iPad released April 11, was engineered at Notre Dame’s Center for Research Computing.

Visconsi said the idea for the app emerged from his

interactions with the iPad as a platform for teaching and research.

“The way that the tablet works, the way that it makes manipulating text possible, allows social interaction in away that a laptop does not. It seemed to be an opportunity for students and faculty and the general public to interact [with the text] in new ways,” he said.

Visconsi said the app reflects how people learn and read today, and how reading has become more of a social activity than a solitary one.

“The iPad makes it super easy – [you can] make all those tools quiet, [it's] customizable and it feels like a book,” he said. “You read it, you throw it around, it’s portable and you don’t need a wireless connection all the time to read.”

The app is not a replacement for printed books, Visconsi said, but rather a fundamentally different technology.

“There are things we can do with this platform that you could never do in print. You can’t take the printed book and have it play audio for you and write in the margins. You can’t ask a question to your friend in the United Kingdom and have them respond to it. You can’t constantly [keep it] updated,” he said.

Visconsi said the app has also helped generate a new type of scholarly writing. Various scholars and performers have contributed granular comments for key passages throughout the play, he said.

“Rather than a lecture or an essay, we asked brilliant scholars to riff [comment] on the text for no more than 500 words. Shakespeare is our proof of concept. We built a software framework that could be used in different disciplines,” he said.

Visconsi said the interpretative commentary is entirely customizable according to user reading levels.

“Everyone can get the stuff they want and need. As a reader you get more sophisticated, and you can choose content that is more exciting … you can get stuff that really resonates with you,” he said.

Visconsi said he felt many different texts could benefit from the software framework.

“We can put in the New Testament or the Notre Dame

football guide or ‘Don Quixote,’” he said. “We’re not just presenting the same content on a screen, we are providing an experience in a social ecosystem [through] customizable multimedia.”

Visconsi said the project team tested an early version of the

app last year with Notre Dame graduate students and a later edition with English professor Jesse Lander’s English class last fall. He said the class used a note-sharing Facebook group so they could see how the students were using the app.

Visconsi said his partner, Katherine Rowe, also tested the app with her students at Bryn Mawr.

“She joined in the project in July after we had done most of the heavy development and also used it with her students,” he said. “It was very well-received.”

Visconsi said social networks like Facebook have been underutilized due to the extra amount of effort it takes to post and comment about the content.

“The app makes it frictionless, to use a Silicon Valley term. It’s moving us away from all the many layers of information you have to navigate by making it simple and user-friendly. That’s the vision,” he said.

Visconsi said he observed an increased movement from texts to tablets as universities become more social institutions.

“The days of course management systems such as Blackboard are numbered,” he said. “My sense is that these new technologies are making it easier for faculty to reach students … we were trying to be a part of the cutting edge by creating [these tools] as faculty members.”

The app also includes audio recordings of the text, Visconsi said. The Actors from the London Stage’s recent visit to campus last September prompted Visconsi and the Luminary Project team to choose The Tempest for their app.

“This is my favorite part of the app. We reached an arrangement to commission a performance from them and put it into the app … it was a lucky circumstance,” Visconsi said.

Visconsi said users can also find illustrations, videos and podcasts from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the largest collection of Shakespearean material in the world.

“We approached Folgers with the idea of a commercial licensing arrangement. They were eager to support that, and we’re hoping to continue [with] a long term arrangement,” he said.

The app also allows users to collect and share thoughts in the app’s sticky note function. The notes are captured according to user-designated “workshops” or file folders. Users can also download lecturer commentaries to accompany the script.

“This is possible with the iPad … you can get your hands on the text,” Visconsi said.

So far, Visconsi said the project team has received very positive responses about the app, and that users should stay alert for updates soon to be announced.

“We are exceeding expectations. We have some very exciting technical developments soon to be released that will add to the functionality, but [they] are under wraps at the moment,” he said.

Visconso said dozens of scholars worldwide have volunteered to participate in new editions of The Tempest, as well as other plays and humanitarian texts that could be applied to the software framework.

“We are building well beyond Shakespeare … Shakespeare is just the beginning. It’s been a very exciting trip. Notre Dame has been very supportive,” he said.

The app currently costs $9.99 on iTunes, a special discount from $13.99 in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23. The app is compatible with the iPad with iOS 5.0 or later.

Contact Meghan Thomassen at mthomass@nd.edu