Two Projects

The Reader's Resource and The Visual Communicator

by Robbie McClintock

A proposal query to the Annenberg Founation on behalf of the Laboratory for Liberal Learning, Spring 1984

Length: 2,000 words

Purpose for which funding is sought

To carry out two developmental projects proposed by the Teachers College Laboratory for Liberal Learning: The Reader's Resource and The Visual Communicator.

The Laboratory For Liberal Learning sponsors development projects to facilitate effective access to traditional liberal culture through the emerging electronic media, particularly computing.

A growing number of people will conduct their intellectual lives almost exclusively in electronic environments. They will feel at ease gaining access to information and ideas through computers and related media but awkward with books, other printed media, and the traditional libraries associated with them. If the heritage of liberal learning is to be functionally accessible to such people, it will need to be transmuted so that people can part1cipate in it as effectively through the electronic media as they can through the printed. So far, the electronic media have been developed as useful means for storing and retrieving information, but they are almost entirely undeveloped as means for pursuing and developing reflective ideas and values. Until they are so developed, the heritage of liberal learning will not find a robust place in the electronic environment. The mission of the Laboratory for Liberal Learning is to develop better ways by which people who rely on electronic media can absorb and extend the humane accomplishments of our culture while working with text and images with computers.

Currently, the Laboratory seeks funding for two developmental projects:

Funding sought for these projects totals $233,000 over a five year period. Work will proceed in two stages, a two year design and development stage, followed by a three year implementation stage. Funding needs for the first stage (1985-86) amount to $83,000 and those for the second (1987-1989) will be $150,000.

Description of the project

The Reader's Resource

Most applications of computing to text have been designed to make writing and producing typed or printed copy both more efficient and more effective. Such efforts are analogous to the earliest uses of printing to produce texts that appeared to readers indistinguishable from the then familiar, well-crafted manuscripts. In time the conventions of the printed book came to be differentiated from those of the manuscript, and so too will the way text appears on monitors become very different from the way it appears on pages. The object with The Reader's Resource will be to so differentiate electronic text from its printed forebears and thus do for reading what word processors have done for writing.

For this purpose, a program for presenting texts of large scope and significant substance, making full use of the capacities of the microcomputer, will need to be developed, and a selection of texts, each exemplifying such large scope and significant substance, will need to be edited and published for reading with this program.

Preliminary work on this program has been done and will be continued by the principal investigator through the academic year 1984-85. As a result of this work, the functional specification of the program will be well developed and the coding of an alpha test version will be done during the Fall of 1985. Such a version should allow a reader to work at any time with about 10 megabytes of text (the equivalent of about five large books of 500 pages each). The reader should be able to switch with a keyboard command to any one of five reading modes: a structural mode, a scanning mode, a paragraph mode, a sentence mode, and an index mode. In addition, the program should offer for each text at least four standard types of study aids, a glossary and pronunciation module, a module providing a scholarly apparatus of notes, commentary, and bibliography, a module permitting the reader to graph, to sketch, and to statistically manipulate quantitative information and formal relations presented in the text, and a module the reader can use to take notes electronically keyed to the current location in the text. Such modes and modules will not be difficult to create separately; linking them into an effective whole that will function without undue delays on very large amounts of text will require, however, artful organization in the program and an astute file-structure for the texts.

During the Fall of 1985, editing and entry of texts should also begin. The Reader's Resource should work with any type of text, from the literary to the technical. We propose to begin, however, with a selection of the seminal works of liberal learning in the Western tradition—Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Dante, Machiavelli, Galileo, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Nietzsche, Freud, Weber. The works of such thinkers are the works that the Laboratory for Liberal Learning aims to make vital parts of the world of electronic communication and the list could be much expanded. At first, however, it must be much narrowed.

Physical entry of the text into machine readable form can be accomplished easily with a text scanner. Physical entry by itself will not suffice, however, for The Reader's Resource. Each text will need to be carefully edited for electronic presentation, much the same way that a book manuscript must be edited in preparation for its being printed. Many current conventions make sense with respect to reading text on printed pages folded into signatures and sown into books. The basic page layout, running heads, lines of standard width, footnotes, indexing by pages all exist because they have proven functional for printed text. The repertory of punctuation marks and even the standardization of spelling have been largely conditioned by the constraints and potentials of producing, marketing, and using printed books. New conventions, appropriate to the electronic book, need to be developed and integrated into texts chosen for electronic publication. In impelenting THE READER'S RESOURCE, design of such new conventions will take place in the course of readying the selected texts for computer-assisted reading and the basic effort will be to devise strategies that will facilitate and empower the student's efforts to read and interpret the text.

At first the main use of The Reader's Resource may be as a teaching aid in traditional liberal arts courses. If computing is really a powerful general-purpose machine suitable for improving human performance in diverse forms of endeavor, one longstanding form of endeavor that it should improve is the lecture, literally a "reading," and a good means of working with text on the screen will do much to disclose new potentialities in lecturing. The preliminary version of The Reader's Resource has already been used in such classes with a large-screen monitor, for it allows a group to work with texts in class with an unusually productive pattern of interaction. Overhead projectors are comparatively inflexible. Individual monitors or even individual handouts of reproduced passages tend, on being consulted, to turn each student away from the common dialogue toward an idiosyncratic experience of his or her sheet or screen. The sequence of implementation will be to display first in classes the usefulness of The Reader's Resource as a means of working with text, which will lead to a demand for its availability as a means for doing assigned and recommended reading, and if it proves successful in that, it will ripple into ever-widening use much as word-processing has before it done.

The Visual Communicator

Conceptually, computer assisted instruction has been designed from sequential presentations linked together with branching paths—one goes from 1 to 2 to 3 and at 3 can choose betweer A, B, and C, each of which heads a new sequence that leads to new branches and so on. Videodisc applications, which are usually viewed as a new, peculiarly effective means for delivering televised instruction, generally accentuate this sequentiality combined with branching options. Videodisc, like most disk storage media, has begun as a curious hybrid—video is sequential, depending on the rapid display of consecutive images in their proper order, but the disc is a randorn-access artifact in which any one of a large collection of images can follow after a very brief delay the presentatior of any other. The Visual Communicator will be a system designed to maximize the potentials unique to videodisc as a random access means for presenting pictorial informat1on.

Whether a means of communication becomes an enlightening route to knowledge depends in large part on the logistics of its use. The heritage of art in Western culture is a case in point. Its uses as a great repository of esthetic value have been well realized; but its potential uses as a repository of historical insight have been far less fully developed. Thus one can better study the history of art than study history through art, and the reasons for this are largely logistical: it has been physically most difficult to assemble and assimilate the full array of visual information about the past available through art. Pick any topic and one can most likely develop from a good reference collection a quite comprehensive inventory of texts that treat of it but one would be hard put to extract a similarly complete inventory of pictures that depict it. For the fact has been that even as the artistic past has been consolidated into endless folios of reproductions, it has been daunting to index, sift, and sort the informational content of the whole collection.

Videodisc should in time make it possible for our artistic heritage to serve, not only as a repository of esthetic value, but also as a powerful source of systematic knowledge. The Visual Communicator will be an efcort to realize this potential. Easy random access in a vast collection of pictures is essential to the logistics of making accessible its informational content. If one has 200,000 reproductions of paintir1gs spanning say five centuries of Western art, bound 200 to a volume in a thousand volumes, each indexed for subject matter of the works within it, and if one wishes to compare the depictions of children in this collection, one will have a physically very difficult task to perform. Were the same collection on four videodiscs, with the subject matter indexes consolidated, the comparison of conceptions of childhood reflected in the art would be relatively simple, in a logistical sense, to make.

With The Visual Communicator the Laboratory for Liberal Learning will seek to develop this emerging use of our artistic heritage as a means for imparting knowledge and understanding of the human past. We propose to develop through the Laboratory two videodiscs, one devoted to the evolving ideas of childhood and youth in Western culture since the high middle ages and another dedicated to illuminating the changing rationalized organization of the everyday world during the same period. These discs would each consist of some 50,000 reproductions, each dated, captioned, and carefully indexed. In addition, a database management program would be designed, treating each reproduction as a record, so that students can navigate through the whole collection according to the diverse items in the index and the innumerable permutations and combinations of these items.

Two main uses for The Visual Communicator are probable, one as a tool of scholarly research and the other as a teaching aid.... [The manuscript breaks off here and the draft was never completed.]ß