Project Visions: iGoverness – Part 4: Back to Basics

Part 4 of our feature on improving our education system using modern technology and the iGoverness idea comes straight from Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. If you have not read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 yet, please go back and read them so that you know the motivations for the following article.

When originally envisioning this vast project, I had the idea that I wanted to use my son as the first student for this process. He will still be going to school as a normal child would, but I would like to provide him an extra tutor for anything I can think of that he would need later in life. In effect, this would help me mature this project along with my son’s knowledge, thereby helping to flesh out the majority of the program as time goes on.

I began thinking about the timeline of the overall project, and when I would want to get started. As I was watching my 2 year old son sitting at my computer chair, engrossed in Sesame Street’s website, watching Big Bird asking him to click on the objects that start with the letter “B”, I realised that there is a lot of things we need to do before he could be able to truly navigate any interface, let alone a program that is going to help teach him for the rest of his life.

Back to Basics
I watched the way he interacted with the computer, and took a mental note of each area of interest. While he enjoys endlessly banging on the keyboard and watching all of the random programs that pop up and the text he enters, he still doesn’t know his ABCs, so the keyboard is not something of which he understands the concept.

Even more abstract than the keyboard is the idea that the mouse controls a pointer on the screen which allows you to interact with the virtual objects displayed. His mousing skills extend as far as staring into the red light underneath, and aimlessly moving the mouse around on the desk surface.

So, I thought to myself, “how would you teach a child how to use a mouse?”. The idea I came up with is the concept of giving a child a target to reach, and create a rich and rewarding effect that will encourage the child to do more. Here’s a quick and dirty mockup of what I’m thinking:

Mock Up

Mock Up - Click to View Animation

You’ll notice a few different things going on here.

The mouse cursor is oversized. I think this is an important thing to remember when designing software for someone who can’t read yet. Visual object tracking is fairly advanced in a child of 2 years, but with most monitor resolutions these days, it’s simple to lose track of that tiny little default cursor.

The target is easily noticeable. This is also a big thing to remember. A child will be trying to move a physical object in order to move a corresponding virtual object on the screen, so it’s important to make the goal visually clear, as well as the directions explicit.

There is a visceral reaction to completing the task. Though this mockup isn’t a great example, we need to make sure that we create an easy to understand and exciting way for the user to understand that they completed the assigned task.

I touched briefly on the instructions being explicit. When designing software for a child of 2 years, we have to understand that they cannot read (in most cases) and that they have a limited understanding of the English language. Using complete sentences does work in most cases, and studies have shown that talking to a child as if he were an adult actually furthers the intellectual development of the child.

What we need to do is to give auditory cues as well as putting text on the screen for the added effect. Why bother with the text on the screen? The best way that our children learn to read is through example. It is beneficial for a child to understand that in the English language, we read from left to right and top to bottom. The most efficient way to do this is to associate spoken words with text on the screen.

Task Complete - Good Job!

Task Complete - Good Job!

An encouraging voice would be needed to first tell the child how to complete the task, and also for feedback when the child completes a task that was completed properly. This, in combination with visual cues, such as an animation visually showing the child how to complete the task, as well as a rewarding animation combined with text to provide the feedback a child needs in order to keep their attention.

This all needs to be accomplished without the use of the keyboard, which, to a two year old child, probably appears to be a neat plastic thing with pretty squiggles which he or she would love to hit with a plastic hammer.

Past Hovering
Even past teaching the child how to hover over an object using the mouse, we could then use the same sort of example to teach the child about left-clicking. A simple “Click on the Target” directive after a short animation showing a finger clicking on the mouse button would go a long way to teach the child one of the most basic functions of a modern personal computer. This would give them the basis for all other tasks involved in not only navigating a GUI-based operating system, but also give them the skills for furthering their use of the iGoverness application.

We could extend these exercises even further, allowing the software to teach the child about the alphabet and counting numbers. We could provide the child instructions to “Click on the Letter A” (both visually and auditory), and create a target with a glowing “A” in the center. This would be interchangeable with counting numbers, providing a way for the child to use a concept that they had just learned to use (mouse movement and click functionality) and associate it with a newer concept of the symbols that represent counting numbers.

Once a child has the basic understanding of the way a mouse works, he would then be able to learn the higher concepts associated with using the keyboard effectively. We could use the same model, after the child can pick out letters and numbers, to teach the child how to locate and press the key on the keyboard corresponding to the symbol shown on the screen.

The feedback information is very important in all of this. Visually showing a child, in text and in animation, that he has done the correct thing should be encouraging. This, coupled with an audio confirmation, should move the child easily through the concepts without having to worry that they are not learning.

The Technology
I’ve put a lot of thought into how, exactly, we would be able to achieve a simple program such as this. We want to ensure a few things in order to be able to benefit the most people:

  • Cross Platform – We need to make sure that this works on all desktop and laptop PCs. Mac, Windows and Linux all need to be able to run this software.
  • Portability – Whether you are in the car, sitting at your desk, at a public library, your child should be able to access their program, as well as their personal data from anywhere in the world (with an internet connection, of course).
  • User Experience Consistency – We need to ensure that regardless of platform, desktop resolution or monitor size that this application runs smoothly and consistently no matter where you work with it.

As a web developer, I’m generally averse to using Flash to produce any content on the web. But, when looking at each of these three required concepts, it seems that a Flash application would be the best route to go. This way we don’t have to deal with the differences in the window managers between Windows, Mac and Linux.

Looking at the technology in a product such as Flash Catalyst, it becomes apparent that this would be the way to go to reduce the development time of this product. Using Flash in combination with a technology like Adobe’s Air platform, would provide us a way to run the application natively on the user’s computer, as well as through the user’s web browser.

Flash would also give us the scalable vector graphics that would make this application resolution independent. This would allow the user to maximize the application screen with no loss of quality, regardless of the user’s monitor size or desktop resolution.

This turned out to be one of the longest posts on the Worthless Genius blog, and for good reason. The previous articles in this series had been strictly high-level concepts without thought to the concept of where to start. I expect to see even more mockup and concept posts in the future, though I don’t have a set schedule for more. Please return to the blog in the future, or use the FeedBurner RSS link on the right sidebar to subscribe to future posts.