Applying pedagogical skillz to FOSS projects: Plover case study

May 13, 2012 – 5:31 pm

When I was in New York at the end of April, phthisiatrician Mirabai and I sat down and hacked through a lot of pedagogy thinking for plover, an open source steno software project. We made a concept map to see how various skills were connected and a list of what, exactly, made certain skills difficult to learn.

I’m posting this with curiosity about two things:

  1. How understandable are these notes to someone who wasn’t part of the conversation (in the basement of a little tea shop with fantastic panini)?
  2. From what you can see here, would any of this sort of thinking/work/process be useful to other FOSS (or open content/hardware/Free Culture) projects with an educational component — whether that’s new developer outreach, “students” as a user group for the software product, a software product that’s specialized and/or difficult to learn, or anything else?

This is a concept map showing the connections between the topics (the things in boxes – skills and concepts) that make up the ability to do steno at a basic level. You can see strong (double-lines) and weak (single-lines) connections between topics. Clockwise from top, they are…

  1. EC – error correction (delete, backspace, arrow keys, etc)
  2. CUST – customizing your own dictionary
  3. CORE – using a basic “core” dictionary (the one that comes pre-loaded with Plover)
  4. EXCEPT – dealing with exceptions to phonetic rules
  5. PHON->CHORDS – mapping phonemes (auditory) to chords (on the keyboard)
  6. READ – reading steno shorthand (being able to look at a brief for a word, immediately chord that word on your own keyboard, and have a good guess as to what that word might be in English)
  7. THERE ARE PHONEMES! – breaking down words into phonemes instead of letters
  8. KeyBoarD LAYOUT – what keys on the qwerty (sidewinder) keyboard map to what letters on the steno keyboard; mostly building muscle memory.
  9. ALPHabet – the ability to type individual letters on the steno keyboard (vital at the start when you don’t know the briefs for many words).

The numbers by each box (for instance, 3/3/6 (9) right above the “EC” block) are totals for strong links, weak links, total links, and a weighted sum (2*strong + 1*weak) for each concept. This is to help us see which concepts are the most centrally connected, which is sometimes surprising – for instance, I didn’t expect “READing stenographic shorthand” to be almost half as “important” (by number of connections) than being able to use the delete key! (in “Error Correction”)

The orange highlights were things we tagged as “enduring understanding” — if you study steno and only remember three things, the most important ones to remember are…

  1. Dictionary construction – the connection between EXCEPT(ions to the phonetic system) and CUST(omizing your own dictionary)
  2. Transliteration – the connection between THERE ARE PHONEMES! and mapping PHONemes-to-CHORDS.
  3. KeyBoarD LAYOUT – skill as described above.

This is a description of “why these concepts are difficult to learn” — it uses the same topics as listed above, which you can probably figure out by reading the descriptions. For instance, the concept of phonemes is really easy to learn (I think most of us “get it” when we first figure out what stenography is). In contract, error correction is inert (you can learn the “delete” key, and then totally forget what the chord is when you’re in the middle of transcribing something) and tacit (one of those things you’re just expected to “pick up” somehow — it’s so natural to advanced practitioners that it’s easy to forget that beginners need to be taught about it!).Sometimes, knowing why something is difficult to learn can help you figure out how to practice it. For instance, learning the alphabet is hard because it relies on skill — the muscle memory of learning the letters — so drilling over and over is probably a good way to learn that. However, the same kind of drilling may not be the best way to learn how to read steno syntax.So… readers, what did you get out of this, and is there something we can do to help you understand this more, or apply it to your own projects?

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  1. 2 Responses to “Applying pedagogical skillz to FOSS projects: Plover case study”

  2. This is fantastic! Just linked to it from the Plover blog: http://plover.stenoknight.com/2012/05/plover-pedagogy.html

    Seriously, just that one short session helped clarify my thinking enormously. Thank you so much. It’s got me really excited for both the next installment of Steno 101 and the newbie navigation cheat sheet we were talking about.

    By Mirabai Knight on May 14, 2012

  3. One note, though — I’d say the difficulty in error correction isn’t so much that someone might forget how to write the “delete” stroke; that’s just the asterisk, and it’s pretty easy to get into muscle memory. It’s more that anticipating errors before they happen (due to word boundaries or homophone conflicts) is surprisingly hard to do consistently, even after years of experience with stenography. You have to learn to write around the vagaries of the English language, which is no simple thing.

    By Mirabai Knight on May 14, 2012

What do you think?