July 31, 2003

Creating Cognitive Art

I had to give some careful thought to today's weblog before committing it to the electron stream - I wanted to make sure that it was more than a list of nice tools for creating analytical images, and instead provided a framework for educators to develop new digital storytelling approaches incorporating elements such as graphs, charts, diagrams, and maps.

The toolset should not be viewed as a "one solution fits all" dictum, but rather a means to achieve a broad range of expressive explorations in this domain. An essential portion of this process is a workflow designed for all the parts to fit together - a lovely tool for creating graphs is not much good if, when the graphs are brought into the drawing tool for further annotation, they become a horrid pixelated mess. In the tools selected below, I found that PDF on Mac OS X, WMF/EMF on Windows, and SVG on Linux are the preferred file formats to avoid interchange issues.

Those preliminaries taken care of, there are some essential components that I would suggest should be a part of the toolkit:

  • a tool for creating tables, the simplest form of analytical images, and one that can provide structure for embedding the results of other tools;

  • a general drawing tool, that can both be used for semi-freeform drawing, as well as to edit and touch up the results from other tools;

  • a structured drawing tool, oriented towards the creation of diagrams where the parts bear systematic relationships to each other, and where modifications to one part are correspondingly reflected in the other parts;

  • a data plotting tool that can produce multiple visualizations of the quantitative relationships among different types of data;

  • a map generation and analysis tool that can present the spatialized relationships among different types of data.

Of course, one of these tools can do the job of many - a general drawing tool can in fact substitute for any of the others - but will generally do so clumsily at best. The tools I suggest below are not meant to be the only possible ones - in fact, I will be very happy to hear suggestions others may bring to the table. I chose them for reasonable ease of use, suitability to the task at hand, and free or reasonably low cost (i.e., under fifty dollars academic pricing for any one tool, with free try-before-you-buy periods available for all). Also, this is not intended as an exercise in denying the usefulness of some of the more expensive tools - for instance, one of the best data graphing packages for Windows is well worth the five-hundred-odd dollars it sells for. Instead, the goal is to compile a lean toolkit that still allows for significant exploration of the expressive space outlined in Tufte, Monmonier, and MacEachren.

An Additional General Consideration: for many of these tasks, standard office software suites provide an appropriate point of departure. For those people who lack such a suite, the free OpenOffice is fully comparable to the commercial offerings, and suitable for many of these tasks.

Tables: the standard office software suites are generally adequate to the task of producing expressive and communicative tables - once their presets, generally laden with ugly and unnecessary graphical elements have been overridden, that is. Fortunately, this can be done rather easily in most cases.

General Drawing: while the office suites usually include a minimal set of drawing tools, a dedicated application will tend to provide a more graceful drawing experience. On Mac OS X, iDraw is an inexpensive and elegant tool. For Windows, DrawIt is a surprisingly powerful tool for the price, capable of integrating and exporting to many different file formats. For Linux, the free Sodipodi has a very nice feature set, even though it is strictly limited to SVG for its file import capabilities at this point in time.

Structured Drawing: this is a far less common feature within the office suites - OpenOffice, interestingly enough, is one of the few to include some diagramming features. Fortunately, excellent alternatives are available on all three platforms. For the Mac, OmniGraffle is powerful and easy to use, with very strong integration features with other applications such as outliners and presentation software. On Windows, EDGE Diagrammer has one of the richest feature sets available for software of this type. For Linux, the free Dia provides most of the features of the commercial software packages with a particularly compact and efficient interface.

Data Graphing Tools: as was the case for tables, basic graphing types are reasonably well covered by the office suites. However, the presets are, if possible, even worse than those for tables - many of the defaults could serve as perfect examples of Tufte's chartjunk. The best results tend to be obtained by turning off unneeded or ill-designed features, and adding any necessary elements in a drawing application. When a range of graphs beyond what most of the suites provide is desired, there exist several options. On Mac OS X, the free trial version of pro Fit is not time limited, and its scope is perfectly well suited to most educational needs. On Windows, Dplot provides a reasonable subset of pro Fit's capabilities, albeit not for free. For Linux, Grace is currently the most mature interactive graphing program, although its interface can take some getting used to. If an even greater range of options is desired, three free non-interactive programs are available on all three platforms: gnuplot, R, and ploticus. All three of these programs require learning a series of commands for producing graphs, but the range of creative options they provide far exceeds that of the previous programs - ploticus is particularly well suited to developing some of the ideas presented in Tufte's books.

Map Generation Tools: this is perhaps the trickiest area in terms of both cost and complexity of tools. The best way to start is not with the more complex standalone GIS (Graphical Information Systems) software, but instead by exploring some of the online options. Two free sites stand out in this regard. The first, the David Rumsey Map Collection has over 8800 maps that can be explored online via its specialized GIS software. The richness of this resource cannot be overstated - the maps range from a 1657 map of Osaka, Japan to the 1970 USA National Atlas, and in many cases can be overlaid with contemporary geospatial data. The second, ESRI's Geography Network allows for the exploration of additional mapping and GIS concepts via the online ArcExplorer application, coupled to a broad range of free data. More adventurous readers may want to try their hand at using a full-blown GIS application, the free cross-platform TNTlite. TNTlite is a very powerful, but quite complex, piece of software; fortunately, the program is accompanied by a generous complement of tutorials that constitute one of the best introductions to GIS I have ever encountered. These tutorials can be digested in small bites, with good rewards at each stage - I would strongly recommend starting at the first one, and progressing through the set.

Thus ends this exploration of a basic toolkit for bringing cognitive art into digital storytelling - if it helps anyone find a new way to tell their stories, please let me know - it would make me feel happy to hear that.

Posted by Ruben at 11:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

July 23, 2003

Thinking About Cognitive Art

Much of the richness of digital storytelling is due to the use of a wide range of images as an integral component of the narrative. There is, however, a type of image essential to education that is underrepresented in many of the current digital storytelling projects. This class of images could be called "analytical images" - images that are structured in such a way as to enhance the systematic investigation of a subject. These include - but are not limited to - graphs, charts, diagrams, and maps, a group described by Philip Morrison as "cognitive art". Unfortunately, these tools are used in much of education in an excessively compartmentalized and narrow fashion that negates their broader expressive potential. Thus, while graphs are used in math class, diagrams in biology class, and maps in geography class, very little is done in terms of teaching students how to conceptualize any of these tools as interrelated members of a wider set of tools for thinking. Some of the materials detailed below might help remedy this situation.

The best sources I have found for clear thinking about analytical images are offline. I would recommend starting with a trilogy of books by Edward R. Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations. Rather than focusing on the technical details of a particular graphical tool for the presentation of information, Tufte develops a rigorous theory of communication via analytical imagery. The first volume in the trilogy is probably the most important - the basic components of Tufte's theory are laid out here, from the identification of those elements that interfere with visual communication (e.g., the commonly encountered forms of visual clutter that he terms "chartjunk"), to those that promote it (for instance, ways of optimizing the data to ink ratio). The second volume extends Tufte's thought from the realm of quantitative information into a broader sphere of concepts to be represented, including spatial, chronological and part-to-whole relations. Volume three in turn places these concepts within the context of their use in narrative and evidentiary contexts. It is important to keep in mind that Tufte's theories can (and should be) thought of separately from the specific examples he proposes - in most instances the examples only represent one particular instantiation of some of his principles, and not a general set of graphical design dictates. In fact, translating Tufte's thought from the printed page to the computer screen yields results that can look quite different from his examples.

Complementing Tufte's approach are three books from a specific subset of the cognitive arts - the discipline of mapmaking. While it might seem to run counter to the spirit of this commentary to highlight mapmaking by itself, these books are rich with implications and ideas that stretch well beyond their disciplinary confines. Additionally, they also embody a definition of mapmaking practice that is far more expressive than the "turn left at the gas station, then go for another mile and a half" images that are commonly evoked in educational contexts. Two books by Mark Monmonier - How to Lie With Maps and Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences act as an outstanding introduction to the subject. The first, despite its ironic title, spends at least as much time exploring how to use maps to communicate as it does warning about their possible misuse. The second book is an efficient guide to cartographic techniques, accessible to even the least experienced mapmakers, and rich in examples of the use of maps to visualize data, make arguments, and tell stories. As an added bonus, both of these books are available in inexpensive paperback editions. A final volume by Alan M. MacEachren, How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design, parallels Tufte's work in proposing a theory of maps that goes beyond a particular graphic practice, while developing a theoretical backdrop with applications to all uses of analytical imagery. The scope of MacEachren's work is outstanding, incorporating topics ranging from cognitive psychology to the theory of signs; while it may take more than one reading to digest all the material presented here, the effort will be richly repaid with original and powerful conceptual tools.

Having a strong set of conceptual tools is good; being able to bring this set into active practice via technological tools is even better. More later on software that does just that...

Posted by Ruben at 12:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 18, 2003

Digital Storytelling and Education

Some time back I came across the suggestion (by Richard Feynman, I think?) that if a scientist could not explain what they did to a nonscientist in 15 minutes or less, they were a quack. This may be a little too harsh - in my experience, the difficulty many scientists have in communicating what they do has less to do with quackery and more to do with the fact that, unlike Feynman, they are poor or downright bad storytellers. Which brings me to the subject of today's post: digital storytelling.

Digital storytelling can best be viewed as an expansion of traditional storytelling arts and techniques. My own introduction to the subject came some years back via Joe Lambert, Nina Mullen, and the late Dana Atchley. Their creation, the Center for Digital Storytelling, can be reached at http://www.storycenter.org. I strongly recommend checking this site out - it contains excellent examples of the craft, as well as resources for those people interested in implementing digital storytelling programs. More recently, Scott Rosenberg has started a site called Storyvine (at http://www.storyvine.com) with a good collection of links, materials, and news on digital storytelling.

I would argue that digital storytelling has an important role to play in education at all levels. For one thing, it provides students and teachers with a rich and interesting range of concepts and tools to express their ideas in ways they might not have thought possible before. For another, it has the potential to revive the interest of jaded students - perhaps worn out by one too many of those lethal "What I Did During My Summer Vacation" assignments - in telling stories, and telling them well.

Many people have fascinating stories to tell about their work that deserve a better audience, both within and without the bounds of their own disciplines - this is one way to teach them how to tell these stories.

Posted by Ruben at 5:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

July 15, 2003

An Introduction

Welcome to my weblog - allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ruben Puentedura, and I'm the Founder and President of Hippasus, the consulting company that hosts the weblog you are reading. After teaching for eighteen years - six as a teaching fellow at Harvard, and twelve as a faculty member at Bennington College - and after directing the New Media Center at Bennington College for nine years, I decided it was time to try something new. Hence - Hippasus - a consulting company designed to make the best use of the experience I garnered via teaching, administration, and research in the physical, biological, and social sciences, and to bring together some of the most interesting minds I have encountered in those years.

From here on, I will let Hippasus speak for itself. This weblog is designed to continue the research I have carried out over the years in the theories and practice of pedagogy, and to comment on the work done by others. I'll try to keep the tone more conversational than professorial - I've always preferred discussions in small groups to master lectures anyway. At any rate, once again - welcome.

Posted by Ruben at 12:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)