Interview | David Lynam’s WordStash

David Lynam used to keep a text file of interesting words that he came across while reading. “I kept losing it. WordStash was a site that solved this small problem,” he says. Over time, he started adding features to help himself learn the different words that he had saved with the first main feature being a dictionary. After he showed the site to some students who found it very useful, he decided to work on it full time, adding games, automated quizzes, contextual sentences and more. He has been working on it for over a year now, and when you see what he’s talking about, you’ll see what fun it’s been for him, and what fun it could be for you. David describes more of the backstory here, what it is, what his thoughts are about education and what excites him about learning.

Victor: What does the name mean?

David: The name represents its original functionality: a site where you can stash/save words or terms online so that you can study them later. [Ed. note: In Summer 2012, David changed the name to the more self-explanatory Flashcard Stash]

Victor: What is it?

David: WordStash has evolved into an online educational tool that helps you learn pretty much whatever you want in an easy and engaging way.  You can create flashcards with whatever you are studying and the site gives you automated quizzes and games to help you learn.  Also, teachers can sign up for accounts that allow them to create classes and share lists of flashcards that they make with their students.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

David: WordStash allows you to create your own digital flashcards and provides you with tools to help you learn them.  It is backed by a dictionary with over 200,000 English words and phrases and the site allows you to select individual definitions when creating your flashcards.  These flashcards are interactive, with features such as click-able synonyms, sentences from online news sources showing the word being used in context, and examples showing the word being used in Twitter feeds.

The main value of WordStash lies in the engaging automated quizzes and games.  The site has a Learning Mode that gauges how well you know a flashcard using fill in the blank and multiple choice questions and uses this information to calculate the optimal time to quiz you using a spaced repetition algorithm.  Also, the fill in the blank question is designed with a game element that encourages engagement even if you do not know the answer.  It allows you to purchase clues and eventually narrow down the answer, instead of just giving up, which fosters stronger retention.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?

David: There are two main aspects that make WordStash uniquely valuable.  The first is the user interface.  WordStash has been designed to be elegantly simple and to work intuitively.  I also spent a lot of time designing different themes that make the site aesthetically pleasing.  I wanted to make the site look cool so that students are engaged and forget that they are studying.

The second distinguishing element to the site is the decentralization of lists and the ability to save individual flashcards and words.  Other flashcard sites allow you to copy an entire list and study it, but what if you just want to learn an individual word or term from that list?  WordStash facilitates this need by providing each user with a default Main List.  When you hover over a new flashcard, a link appears that automatically saves the flashcard to your main list when clicked.

WordStash also allows users to manage which flashcards they know within a specific list.  There is an icon that can be clicked that will remove the flashcard from the list and add the flashcard to a users default ‘Known Terms’ list.  This is a great feature for copied lists because a student may already know half the terms in a list that he/she receives from his/her teacher.  A student can easily remove these flashcards so that he/she is only studying new terms.  A users ‘Known Terms’ list can be viewed by others if their profile is public, which allows students to see what others know.

WordStash is also integrated with an online dictionary, using definitions from Wiktionary, which makes it unique.  This integration allows you to save words that you look up online, so that you can review them later and make sure you remember them.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

David: I have been developing WordStash by myself for the past 14 months using Ruby on Rails.  The site is really a testament to the value of online education in general because I pretty much learned everything about how to build it online in the last couple years.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

David: WordStash is totally free right now.  The plan is to, at some point, add features that will be available for a small subscription.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

David: The site is not really tailored for any specific audience. I have had everyone from elementary teachers using the site with their second graders to professionals using the site to improve their vocabulary.

Victor: How does WordStash address some of your concerns about education?

David: My biggest concern for education lies within the battle for student attention.  Technology can be a double-edged sword in that it has created unmitigated access to information, but sometimes that access can be distracting and unproductive.  Computing and the connectivity of the Internet has given rise to video games such as World of Warcraft, Halo, and Farmville that are so engaging that they often dominate the attention of adults even.  While these kinds of video games have evolved to become ultra effective time sinks, the innovation of educational engagement has remained mostly stagnant.

User engagement has been a focus for WordStash from the beginning. Web development technologies are now mature enough that developers can now replicate the real time and animated responsiveness of the desktop in the browser. WordStash has leveraged these technologies to create a warm user experience and to create some engaging games. The match game is a great example of utilizing the web as an interactive platform. It uses Javascript to allow the user to drag a flashcard term into its definition and uses animations to make the term and its definition disappear in an attractive way. I have only really begun creating games for WordStash and I am extremely excited about the potential for more.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

David: There is great potential for the future of education and my outlook is definitely optimistic. Although games such as Farmville are great distractors, they are attention grabbing for a reason, and a lot can be learned from them. I think we are on the verge of some enthralling solutions that will leverage the ubiquity of the Internet and these solutions will make education cheaper than ever before.  There are foundations such as Next Generation Learning (http://nextgenlearning.org/) which are offering grant competitions to make sure this happens sooner rather than later.

——-

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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