How MindConnex brings Shakespeare to life with its educational iPhone and iPad apps

Feb 1, 2012

MindConnex just released their latest Shakespeare in Bits app for Hamlet, available for both iPhone and iPad. All the Shakespeare in Bits apps break the works into small bits (as the name implies) and serve them to students with lots of integrated study aids alongside wonderfully voice-acted animated clips of the live action. The complete […]

MindConnex just released their latest Shakespeare in Bits app for Hamlet, available for both iPhone and iPad. All the Shakespeare in Bits apps break the works into small bits (as the name implies) and serve them to students with lots of integrated study aids alongside wonderfully voice-acted animated clips of the live action. The complete plays are animated, but synced to the text in student-sized chucks.

We picked their Romeo and Juliet iPad app as one of 2011 best iPad books for kids. For students or anyone looking to get past the often-obscure language these apps are must-haves. The presentation is engaging without being distracting and the voice acting is outstanding and perfectly cadenced to promote comprehension.

I had a chance to ask to Mike Cordner, CEO and co-founder of MindConnex some questions about their products, institutional programs and future plans.

APPO: Can you tell me a little about the product line intended for in-school use?

MIKE CORDNER: Everyone remembers doing Shakespeare in school and sadly it’s not a pleasant memory for many people. Those of us who manage to get past the language barrier know that here’s a lot of beauty, humour, and relevance in all of Shakespeare’s works, but there’s no getting around the fact there’s a 400 year language gap between Shakespeare and ourselves. Many students struggle to overcome this language barrier, and many are simply put off by the effort it takes to properly understand what all of the characters are saying.

What we’re trying to provide with the Shakespeare in Bits series is a single resource, which can be used by teachers in class and by students themselves for detailed study, which largely addresses the shortcomings of the traditional [teaching] methods at the high-school level. We provide the entire original text of the play, yet provide copious … notes and real-time features that remove all of the tedium from the process of discovery. The students are still engaged in the process of looking up and translating terms for themselves, but the translations and notes are a touch away instead of at the other side of a book.

We also provide a complete animated and voiced presentation running in-time with the text, that tries to simply illustrate what’s going on in the basic text rather than imposing a directorial spin on the play. It’s very powerful, for instance, for a student to be able to glance at the animation and understand that there are three people currently on stage in conversation, and one has moved to the side for a soliloquy. This type of thing doesn’t always come through clearly in plain text, especially for those new to Shakespeare.

APPO: Have you given any thought to offering your product modified for iBookstore textbook sales using iBooks Author?

MC: We’re excited about iBooks 2 and its enhanced textbook capabilities, as well as the potential the platform offers for education. We’ve done some initial investigations of the iBooks Author/iBooks package, and there is definitely potential there that we hope to be able to leverage soon with some of our other ideas for addressing the English Language arts and literature space.

However, Shakespeare In Bits has some clever underlying technology, and most of it would be very difficult, if not impossible to implement cleanly in the iBooks Author environment.

We do, however, have some internal ideas for other areas of the English/LA curriculum that we’re throwing around that might be better suited to the iBooks platform, stay tuned!

APPO: Your system is open to schools that cannot afford iPad-exclusive educational content using existing affordable infrastructure. Do you have any feelings about closed vs. open systems?

MC: We don’t follow any hard and fast philosophies here because both have their merits. Apple has done very well out of their closed infrastructure, and very much appeal to teachers and institutions that don’t want a lot of IT headaches. Most teachers couldn’t care less about open vs. closed systems, they simply want great content that works.

That being said, Apple’s quality does come at a price, and in many cases it is more than schools can afford. Our main philosophy has always been that we want to make sure our products are available to you and your students regardless of whether you have one iPad per child or one aging desktop in the corner of your classroom. I think the rate of acceptance of technology in the education sector has significantly increased over the past two years, but it is still going to be quite some time before all schools are running with the latest and greatest technology. We understand this, and will always strive to make sure our products are available to as many students as possible.

APPO: Your institutional program is in use in 90 schools, any word on further expansion?

MC: Shakespeare in Bits, in either its iPad or our premium subscription form, is currently being used … by schools in the U.S., Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia and Germany, … and we’re working diligently to spread our products everywhere as cost-effectively as we can. We’ll soon have some case studies coming out from the U.S. and Canada that will outline some actual real-life advantages of using Shakespeare in Bits in the classroom.

APPO: In regards to future plays, I know Julius Caesar is up next, do you have an ETA and what else can we look forward to in 2012? 2013?

MC: Mid 2012 for Julius Caesar, certainly before the next U.S. school year (Rome wasn’t built in a day.) Beyond that, there is still a core of widely studied Shakespeare works that we want to address, including Othello, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and possibly Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

APPO: Hamlet is my personal favorite app to date. What’s yours and how do you choose the plays? Does the Hamlet app have anything we’ve not seen before in Shakespeare in Bits apps?

MC: I have a soft spot for A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I played Demetrius in High School (back in my hometown of Montreal). I also think it’s one of the few productions around that you’ll find where the fairies are actually fairies and fly around, and Puck looks like the half-man half-beast he is. There’s a lot that you can do in animation that’s much harder to do on stage, and I think our interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides something unique in that respect.

We actually wanted to get a few plays under our belts before tackling Hamlet. It’s such a long and deep play that it was … a massive undertaking, and all of the lessons we’ve learned to date are contained within. The amount of notes contained therein is easily equivalent to a textbook on Hamlet, and there are about three and a quarter hours of animation in there. Anyone who’s ever been involved in animation knows that doesn’t come easily, but we’ve really refined and honed our processes to allow us to get out good quality visualisations quickly. Also, due to the technology in our iPad player, all technical upgrades are available in all of our plays. As an example, the ability for students to take their own notes was developed for Hamlet, but it was folded into updates of all of our other iPad titles well before Hamlet was even launched.

APPO: Who does the animation?

MC: Our Creative Director, Jeremiah McAuliffe has been with us from the beginning, and did all the hard work developing the initial style of Shakespeare in Bits, as well as diligently follow up to refine the production process to a point where sufficient volumes of it could be produced cost-effectively. There have been quite a few different talents working on the animation over the years (all of whom can be found in the credits), but we strongly believe in working closely with either in-house people or local animation firms that we know well in order to get a quality end result.

APPO: Who does the voice acting?

MC: We have a good working partnership with Naxos Audiobooks, probably the world’s leading creator and distributor of audio books. They have a bank of existing recordings that we’ve adapted, and which in some cases feature well known celebrities. Kate Beckinsale is our Juliet, Michael Sheen is our Romeo, and Fiona Shaw (of Harry Potter fame) is our Lady Macbeth, but via older recordings rather than being specially hired for the project. In all cases, the audio is fully dramatized and performed by very well trained and respected professional actors.

APPO: Where do you pull the supplemental reference material from, or do you create it? Is it citeable?

MC: All of our supplemental material is developed in-house by veterans of the eLearning content creating industry, always by people with the appropriate qualifications. It is indeed citeable, but I’ll leave the appropriate MLA citation formatting as an exercise to you.

APPO: Any plans for Android?

MC: Again, yes. We do have a version working internally as an Android app, and our subscription version actually works seamlessly on Android-based tablets with Flash. However, our release plans are still open.

APPO: Can home-school affiliations contact you for group rates on your institutional or app lines?

MC: They can absolutely. We think our solutions are ideal for the home school market, and we want to facilitate home learners in any way we can. The only caveat is that due to Apple’s infrastructure, there’s very little we can do price wise if you’re looking for the iPad or iPhone versions, for bulk discount rates there you need to contact your Apple sales rep.

APPO: Where can schools contact you to learn more?

MC: Send us an email at [email protected].

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Lisa Caplan

Lisa Caplan writes app lists and guides as well as reviewing iOS apps and games on various tech sites, most recently on her fledgling iPhone and iPad giveaway blog, AppTudes. She is thrilled to be joining the stellar reviewing team at Appolicious. Located in a balmy Montreal suburb, Lisa has an advanced degree in Creative Writing, and has had an Apple computer by her side since 1979! She is a talentless art nut, bibliophile and accessory junkie. Lisa looks forward to sharing her gaming addiction and love for all tech that promotes culture, communication, social awareness and education at every level.

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