Struggling with Shakespeare? There's an app for that

Struggling with the works of William Shakespeare has long been a rite of passage, but these days, students have a little more help thanks to specialized smartphone apps that aim to make studying the bard easier and more fun.

Smartphone application tests students' knowledge of Twelfth Night

A 1623 copy of the calf-bound First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays on display at Sotheby's auction house in London. Some high school and university teachers are trying to get today's students more engaged with the works of the Elizabethan playwright by combining the texts of his plays with new technologies such as smartphone apps. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters)

Having trouble coming to grips with the works of William Shakespeare? Have no fear: there's an app that can help.

Studying the bard has long been challenging — the 400-year-old Elizabethan English and verse patterns of his plays often confuse even the most dedicated English students.

But now, a Nova Scotia-based university lecturer is bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century with a smartphone application he hopes will give his students a better understanding of at least one of Shakespeare's plays —Twelfth Night.

"Some people are quite daunted by the task [of reading Shakespeare]," said David Wilson, who teaches English at St. Mary's University in Halifax. "If we can make it part of their world and make it a bit easier, it's a good thing."

Wilson wrote the content for Twelfth Night Tester, an app for Apple devices such as the iPhone and the iPad that features a timed quiz with 20 questions about Shakespeare's comedic tale of romance and mistaken identity, followed by a page of profiles of the major characters.

The quiz probes the play's characters and plot with questions such as "What character is a rather annoying Puritan?" and "What character personifies the spirit of the Feast of Fools?"

Wilson's colleague Jay Williams, an instructional multimedia analyst at St. Mary's, designed and developed the software for the app, which was tested in one of Wilson's summer courses and launched this semester in his English class.

The app is available only to students in Wilson's course, as free supplementary study material.

Ideally, Wilson would like students to read the play first and then use the app to test their knowledge and understanding of the subject matter.

Studying on the go

Wilson said he thinks an app helps students by tackling challenging subject matter in a format they are familiar with. While testing the app, some of his summer students actually made a game out of the quiz, trying to beat previous attempts at answering the questions.

"Everybody has Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, so why not a Shakespeare game?" Wilson said, referring to two popular smartphone apps.

He said that the inherent portability of the app encourages students to study or review the content at their own leisure, rather than being restricted to a classroom timetable.

Students are already used to playing games on their smartphones, so why not get them used to studying on the devices, says David Wilson, the creator of an app that tests students' knowledge of Twelfth Night. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

"If they're on the bus or in the back of a car, it's at their fingertips," he said.

While technology can be a valuable tool in education, using a smartphone app to teach literature raises some concerns, says Igor Djordjevic, chair of the English program at York University's Glendon College in Toronto.

"I fear that sometimes the design of apps, even if they're intended for education, is trying to cater to an entertainment bent," said Djordjevic, whose specialty is early modern English literature, including Shakespeare.

Djordjevic takes a different approach in teaching Shakespeare, making liberal use of both modern technology and more traditional educational methods like lectures and texts.

"The old-school approach would be that I lecture until I'm blue in the face and I make you read hundreds of pages of required and recommended literature," he said. "I've moved away from that approach, because I've realized that does not always work."

Djordjevic says he uses a number of online tools to help his students, such as a website that contains course material and video performances of the plays studied in class. He said he also uses the site to inject some humour into the course.

"Learning is best [done] through anecdotal humour," he said. "I seek to entertain my students as well, so [I include] topical, funny clips growing out of the lectures and plays and spoofs and allusive pop-cultural takes on certain things we do."

Djordjevic said one of his concerns about a Shakespeare app is that it may make it hard for students to seriously study a difficult subject, especially if they're doing it "on the go."

Apps won't make text simpler

Stephen Marche, author of How Shakespeare Changed Everything, said he doesn't oppose the idea of a Shakespeare app and has, in fact, himself contributed to the development of one that targets high school students.

Audra McDonald, left, and Anne Hathaway in a scene from the Public Theater's production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park. Some teachers of Shakespeare post videos of performances online so students can get a better sense of the plays they're studying. (Handout/The Public Theater, Joan Marcus/ Associated Press)

The application he worked on, which is designed for the iPad, expands on the original text of Romeo and Juliet by adding commentary, explanations of key passages and videos of actors dramatizing key scenes in the play.

Marche said it's important for students to remember that Shakespeare originally wrote the plays to be watched, not read, and an app that includes videos of scenes being performed can help with comprehension.

Other Shakespeare apps exist, many of which are modelled on the more commercial Coles or Spark study notes format.

While an app can be useful, Marche said, it shouldn't be used to simplify the source material.

"Nothing is ever going to replace the difficulty of reading the text," he said.

Wilson said that while he can understand the concern about using an app to help teach a complex subject, he is ultimately trying to reach out to students in a language they understand.

Wilson also emphasized that he teaches a first-year online course, which may have a greater proportion of students who have little or no interest in Shakespeare than upper-year courses. Wilson hopes that his app can help get such students interested.

"I'm reaching out to them and saying, ‘I know it's Shakespeare, but I'm trying to bring it back to you,'" he said.