Sunday, May 27, 2007

The future of online text - looks a lot like poetry

Earlier this month VentureBeat reported findings by Walker Reading Technologies regarding the inefficiency of conventional linear text, the kind you're reading right now.

Since "the natural field of focus for our eyes is circular," they say, our effort to focus on a single line, our brains are force "to a wage a constant subconscious battle with itself to filter and discard the superfluous inputs" from the lines of words above it and below it.

So Walker Reading Technologies has unveiled its LiveInk program that analyzes "written language for meaning and language structure, and then applies algorithms that reformat the text into a series of short, cascading phrases. It breaks complex syntax into simpler syntax, which makes it easier for the brain to absorb the material."

The resulting lines of text, which they illustrate in a jpeg, are remarkably similar to free verse, or simple found poetry.

Poets, of course, liberate their language from the forced march of prose linearity by breaking lines, to indicate both the natural pause of the human voice taking a breath, and to reveal deeper semantic and syntactic levels of utterance. It's coincidental that a program is developed to break prose into poetic lines at the same moment when contemporary poetry is moving from the printed page into what is often spontaneous and unique oral performance.

The company claims that LiveInk increases reading comprehension by "10-15 percentile points on nationally standardized reading tests." If their claim can be substantiated by educators, LiveInk could unleash the potential of the e-textbook at all levels of education. The great objection to online and electronic text is that it's difficult to read, because of the limited resolution possible on the screen or monitor, in comparison to the high resolution of the printed page.

But the physical book is limited by practical considerations of physical space, the size and number of pages that can reasonably be bound and carried -- a limitation that doesn't apply to hypertext, since the formatting of lines will have minimal effect on the size of the file or its demand on memory space.

If LiveInk truly enhances comprehension and improves comprehension, it will mark a revolution.

The one question is whether students will resist LiveInk's reformatting of the line. After all, it looks suspiciously like poetry, a form of writing that most students in my classes over the past 35 years have rejected as being too "weird-looking" to understand.

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