Digital Teaching Tool Box: Voyant & Prezi

This semester I have been drawing on more digital teaching/learning tools, as I was fortunate enough to get computer labs for all my classes. My students were just recently playing with Voyant for text analysis and have been exposed to Prezi for concept mapping. These are certainly not new tools, but since some of my colleagues were curious as to how I was using them and my general thoughts on Voyant and Prezi, I decided to bypass drafting emails to several interested parties and instead discuss them a bit in a post. I’ll briefly describe how I used the tools, how my students responded to them, and the limitations of such methods.

In my Writing Through Literature class, my students are playing the Marlowe and Shakespeare, 1592 Reacting to the Past game. I chose the texts Richard III and Doctor Faustus for game play – students are either troupe members or Privy Councillors, with the actors trying to get an exclusive license to Henslowe’s Rose theatre from the Council.Because their arguments stem from the moral, religious, and political implications of both of these texts (within an Elizabethan setting), the priority is, of course, textual comprehension.To accompany the close readings and discussions we had in class I posted the directions for using Voyant on our class blog along with several prompts for analyzing the data. Voyant is a text analysis tool, where you can plug in a url or .txt file (Project Gutenberg and archive.org are good resources for these files) and can find word patterns and frequencies. As I told my students, Voyant will not tell you how to analyze or unpack such data – that is still the reader’s responsibility. It is, however, visually engaging, and it gave some new insights into the play-texts.

I had initially prompted students to think about what they believed the central themes in these texts are, and then asked them how the Cirrus cloud might speak to or challenge their assumptions. They then had free reign to play with the analytical tools – searching for character appearances, word combinations, or other frequency/analysis data that Voyant provides. One student was interested in ideas of power, and was surprised the words she most linked with “power” in her mind were largely absent from the search – this, in turn, led to a conversation with the class about how Faustus and Richard interpret power, and where they believe power lies respectively. Another noted how the word “soul,” so central to Faustus’s dilemma, was discussed in a material sense throughout (it was sold, after all), and did not find more spiritual or philosophical words or discussions around the word when it was used.
Another student was interested in the violence that surrounded power in Richard III, and we generated some words that might be of use to such an analysis. These findings were mostly made by the students who came in with strong ideas/interests in the texts; others had not developed such views, and thus tended by and large to focus on structural plot elements (for Faustus, this typically centered around when the angels appeared, and for Richard III the implications of appearances by Anne and/or other women). Students examined what the language in such scenes might reveal about the characters and the plays’ themes. For instance, some students noted that the angels appeared whenever Faustus had a moment of crisis and reconsidered selling his soul, and that the bad angel appeared to have more lines than the good angel; this is a somewhat simplistic reading, but it confirmed to them that Faustus had several opportunities to repent but that the urgings of the bad angel/devils always prevailed (numerically and otherwise). As several of my students pointed out, if they hadn’t done the required reading in full and/or they did not have a question or approach they wanted to pursue, Voyant was not a particularly productive tool: they still had to establish an area of reading interest and have a grasp of the play as a whole before Voyant would provide any insights. For others, it honed their reading and helped them develop a thesis for their first essay. Another limitation that did not come up in class but will become apparent to any instructor is that you have to have a simple text file to work with – a public domain file accessible via Gutenberg and the like is ideal, and you are thus limited in the available texts that can quickly be plugged into Voyant.

My other class is the Science, Humanism, and Technology capstone, where it became clear that students were struggling with Darwin’s logic and argument structure in preparation for the Charles Darwin, the Copley Medal, and the Rise of Naturalism: 1862-1864 RTTP game. As an earlier in-class activity, they were asked to work in pairs to draft and post a short summary in response to a question on the major methods, religious texts, and scientific developments in Victorian England. These were to serve as a resource for students drafting their first papers; as members of the Royal Society, they would be arguing for their personal agendas and whether or not Darwin’s discoveries should receive commendation. The activity helped many, but some still were struggling with the basic principles of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Because his methods and logic are so crucial to game-play, I adapted helpful tables and annotations provided by the game authors in the student Gamebook and my own reading of Darwin to create a Prezi for the class (in the future, I’d have students create this Prezi collaboratively, but I had to quickly address misunderstandings/gaps so we could stay on track for this term). Prezis are a more dynamic tool than PowerPoint – you can nest items within each other to show content relationships (perfect for this particular use), use a variety of diagrams, embed video/audio clips, choose paths in order to guide the viewer through the information, and provide a link for online access (no special software is required beyond Adobe Flash player). And aesthetically (at least to my eye) it looks much more developed and appealing than PowerPoint. You can walk through the Darwin Prezi here.

I can see where, as mentioned in a ProfHacker post, some complain that Prezi induces feelings of motion-sickness if you swoop through the presentation too quickly. Since this Darwin Prezi included a fair amount of text, one of my colleagues said that it forced her to stop and read as she went along, thus negating any need for dramamine. While some have contended (in response to ProfHacker posts on Prezi) that the novelty of Prezi wears off eventually, I still think it can be useful for mapping relationships in a way that PowerPoint or paper graphs/tables simply can’t. Many of my students said it was extremely helpful in summarizing the logic and structure, and assisted them in focusing their research when they returned to the original Gamebook text (full disclosure: I told them to be brutally honest and not to flatter). Based upon their response, I will be re-tooling the final reflective synthesis component of the class – originally designed as a paper/blog post, they will now summarize their experiences and the materials they generated in a Prezi, graphically plotting out the connections and tensions between the two games.

Even considering the drawbacks and limitations of both, I plan on adapting and incorporating these tools into future classes. While every single student might not immediately tap into the usefulness of Voyant and/or Prezi, it seems that the majority will indeed benefit by approaching texts and concepts in a visually engaging digital format.

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