WriteType and the philosophy of educational software

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 09, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

As a writer, I have a weakness for word processors. The announcement of a new one leaves me slavering to try it. But new word processors are rare these days, so when I saw an announcement for WriteType last week, I immediately downloaded it. However, despite some interesting intentions and features, WriteType is still very much in beta -- and very pssibly misses an important point as well.

Max Shinn, the lead developer, began WriteType when his mother, an elementary school teacher, told him about a proprietary hardware word processor for beginners whose main selling point was word completion. Shinn's response was to begin development of WriteType, which he describes on the project's home page as "an application designed specifically for students who have difficulty typing."

WriteType is available as a .deb package for Ubuntu and Debian. However, its Python dependencies are not fully included in the package. I had to install the python-enchant package on Ubuntu first, and gave up trying to install in on Debian after a few fiddles. A Windows version is also available.

Basic Functionality

WriteType opens in an editing window with two panes: one on the left for entering text, and one on the right for auto-correction suggestions. At the top is a toolbar for basic functions such as saving and printing, and some basic character formatting, such as bold, italics, typeface, and font size. In terms of formatting, it is roughly at the level of an advanced text editor.

What is implemented so far are some of the features implemented to make writing easier. These include highlighting and word completion, and -- in theory, since the virtual machine I tested on was not set up for it -- the ability to have the application read back to you what you have written. You can also activate the so-called "distraction free mode" which reduces the view to the basic editing window minus the toolbar and menu, and document statistics.

Grammar checking is listed on the project web site, but is apparently not implemented yet. Similarly, a tab is available in File -> Settings for limited the size of the completion database, but currently displays no options.

Since word completion was part of the inspiration for WriteType, unsurprisingly it is the most complete feature so far. To use it, you can either click on a completion suggestion as it appears in the right pane, or else set WriteType to complete the words you enter automatically. In addition, you can set the number of characters before word completion is activated (a useful feature, not only so that you are undistracted by completions of short words such as pronounces and definite articles, but also because you get only one completion per word, and if it is guessed too early, you don't get a second suggestion).

Past and present, audience and philosophy

How much of this state is due to WriteType being in early release and how much is due to keeping things simple for elementary school students is uncertain (although, since the current release is described as a beta, I suspect that it is being kept simple for its target audience.

If so, that makes sense, to a degree. An elementary school audience, especially its younger members, may not be ready for a fully-featured word processor like OpenOffice.org, or even AbiWord or KWord. At this level, the idea is no doubt to get users accustomed to the idea of writing at the computer, and too many features might be daunting or confusing.

Similarly, it is refreshing to see a free software effort to consider what tools might make software more friendly for young users. Some of its features already seem to make WriteType more accessible; the text to speech function, for instance, might be a worthwhile feature on any word processor (and might improve the editing of all users, since hearing a work read helps editors to gain a new perspective, especially when they are revising their own work).

However, all that said, I wonder if WriteType's developers might not be focusing too much on the immediate needs of its audience, and not enough on their futures. Sooner or later, many of WriteType's users will probably move on to more mainstream word processors, so it might make sense to include a few more features in WriteType to ease the transition.

In particular, I can't help wincing a little at WriteType's support for only manual formatting. Already, too many users seem to see word processors as simply the successor to the electric typewriter -- but the truth is, that word processors are organized entirely differently.

In particular, to get the most out of word processors, you need to know how to format with styles and templates, instead of treating every piece of format as a unique case. Admittedly, many users do not operate at this level, but their use of a word processor is the equivalent of using a car as a cart to be pulled by horses when the car has a perfectly good engine.

A full implementation of styles and templates would make WriteType even easier to use -- although probably it would unduly increase the difficulty of using the software. Yet it seems to me that, as useful as WriteType might be some circumstances, it might be even more useful if it helped prepared users for the future as much as the present.

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