fD Interview

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fD Interview: S. Mark Williams on why the iPod will revolutionize education

May 23, 2008
by Isabel Cowles
FindingDulcinea’s weekly feature offers interviews with intriguing people on the cutting edge of business, the arts, technology and journalism. This week, we talk with S. Mark Williams, founder of Modality, Inc. and creator of Raybook.

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Designer, neurobiologist and educator S. Mark Williams received the 2008 Apple Award for Innovation for his role in creating a visual learning aid called Raybook, which allows iPod users to access written, audio and video information on a slew of topics, offering diagrams of the human body, video cookbooks and interactive travel maps, among other items.

Williams’ lifelong love of art and design has always informed his work. He has always used design as a form of communication, from the art projects of his childhood to the models he’s drawn for his students at Duke University.

For Williams, the advent of the iPod was an opportunity to help first-year medical students studying the brain with a visual learning platform that would allow easy access to information previously confined to tomes and textbooks. He has since helped to develop Raybooks for other types of users, including Pre-K students, chefs and outdoorsmen.
fD: What is your artistic background and how has it informed your medical career?

MW: I grew up drawing and painting, interested in how design has to display things graphically to convey information. When I trained as a neuroscientist, all of the stuff I did was very visual. I really enjoyed being able to draw diagrams and models of things in my teaching; you can help people learn visually if the information is presented in a way that makes them attend to it.

fD: What inspired you to create Modality’s design and information platform?

MW: My first-year medical students. Teachers have one month to teach them the structure of the brain and all of its nomenclature. I wanted to give students a sense of the 3D representation of the brain to help them master the terms so they could start thinking about how things are put together.

fD: Did you implement those designs and visuals yourself, or did a design team create them for you?

MW: Actually I did the very efficient process of designing everything myself. I say that sarcastically. I just did all of the art and programming design before I could afford or even recognize the value of having a real programmer on board. But to this day I still maintain a strong hand in the design and the graphical aspects.

fD: Do you think that having so much information readily available will change educators’ expectations of students?

MW: Yes. Students can use this mobile learning application to master the basics instead of doing that in class. Then, students and educators can actually do problem solving together: we can have an exchange of ideas, instead of spending the whole class lecturing and taking notes.

fD: Why do students respond so well to Raybook?

MW: I think because of the availability of information and the motivational component of knowing, “I’m carrying this with me, and it’s always there, and I can access it as I need it.”
fD: What other places do you envision Raybook going?

MW: It applies to the entire spectrum of learning, ranging from pre-K all the way into pure consumer learning—everything from cooking guides to travel guides. Another area I’m interested in is early education. I’ve got elementary-aged kids who are really motivated by electronic devices.

fD: Would you ever make Raybook open source?

MW: Yes. Ultimately we want to have the tools that will allow people to create their own content based on what is already trusted—there’s great vetted medical and educational content already published. For example, we want to make it possible for professors to develop a hybrid of different textbooks for their classes. The ability for teachers to create study guides and quizzes has a real driving force.

fD: Does it worry you that people will retain information less efficiently if they know it’s so easily accessible?


MW: My strong sense is that it’s just the opposite: that people will remember things better because information is organized in a way that they can actively pursue. That said, I still think the burden is on the educational system to make sure there’s a strong motivation to demonstrate knowledge of the core content that’s necessary to move to the next level of understanding—we’ve got to know the basics before we can problem solve.
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