The introduction of Morse code text entry for iOS and Android has lowered the barrier for trying Morse code as an access method for people who use switches. In earlier posts, I’ve described how to set up Morse code on the iPad and reviewed the typing speeds that have been reported for experienced Morse users. But what’s a good way to learn Morse code in the first place? And how long does it take? The Morse Typing Trainer is a new resource to make this fairly easy and fun.
The Morse Typing Trainer is a Chrome Experiment, created by Tania Finlayson, All About Five, and Google Creative Lab. It’s a companion to the Morse keyboard in Google’s Gboard app. This posts describe how to set up the trainer, gives you a clear idea of what it’s like to use it, and outlines some of its strengths and limitations.
Before using the trainer, you’ll need to set up Morse code input on the iPad. If you don’t want or need to use external switches, you don’t have to follow all the steps; just stop after setting up the Morse keyboard within Gboard. You can also run Morse with Gboard on an iPhone or Android device.
Try out your Morse setup by using it to type something in any app of your choice, like the Notes app.
Once you’ve got Morse typing set up, launch the Morse Typing Trainer. (It’s worked fine for me on Safari or Chrome.) You’ll get the starting screen below. Tap the Learn Morse! button to get started.
Note: you can also run the trainer on a Mac or PC if you just want to get a sense of what the trainer is like without actually using Gboard app.
The basics of using the Morse Typing Trainer
The trainer walks you through the whole process. The flow is straightforward: you enter the letter it asks you to enter, until it decides you’ve completed all the letters. It took about 30 minutes for me to get through all 26 letters. By the end, I felt like I had learned all the codes reasonably well. I didn’t get as much exposure to the letters presented toward the end of the process (e.g., Q, W, X, Y, Z), but I got a lot of reps on basics like A, I, T, and E.
Here’s a short video of me using it for a few letters:
I am not sure if it has criteria for deciding whether you’ve “mastered” a code before presenting a new code, or how often to ask you to enter letters that you’ve already seen. But in my case, it moved along at what felt like an appropriate pace, giving me a few chances at every new letter, mixed with a few repeats of previous letters, as we rolled through the whole alphabet.
The trainer uses some effective techniques to help you remember each code. What really helped me is the combination of pictorial and mnemonic representations used for each letter. For example, V is Vacuum, with a three dots of dust chased by the dash of an upright vacuum cleaner.
The basic presentation pattern for each letter is:
- On the first presentation of a letter, you get an animated display of the code, with the dots and dashes embedded within the pictorial reminder. You can copy the code from that if you need to. You’ll get this fully supported presentation the first 2 times you see a letter, typically.
- After about two presentations, the trainer presents just the letter, with no cue for the code. If you don’t enter the code successfully within a few seconds, the pictorial cue appears.
- If you enter the wrong code, the target letter jitters a bit to let you know, but it doesn’t usually display the pictorial cue right away. This gives you a chance to try to remember it on your own; the cue will show up after a few seconds if you are still stuck.
This basic pattern, along with the clever mnemonic cues, was quite effective in helping me learn the letter codes in about 30 minutes.
After you’ve done all the letters, it congratulates you and asks if you want to move on to numbers. After numbers come punctuation, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far.
Morse code cues: beautiful and effective
The code cues combine graphics and mnemonics, and they’re really clever and helpful. I have not seen these particular cues elsewhere, but maybe they pre-date this trainer. My personal favorite might be Paddle for P:
You can get a poster and reminder cards at the Github repository for the Morse Typing Trainer. Once you’re at the repo page, the filename is cards.zip.
The Adaptive Design Association’s Morse page has a similar poster, but with different words/images. It’s interesting and impressive how creative people can get with these things — you have to think of an object that not only begins with the letter but also can be drawn in a way that incorporates the dot-dash sequence.
Visual contrast issues
Creative and refined graphic design is a hallmark of the Morse Typing Trainer, except for one important area: visual contrast. Many of the color combinations used do not meet WCAG guidelines for contrast ratio, creating potential legibility problems for some users. For example, in the Paddle image above, the only color combination to exceed the minimum contrast ratio for text is the light P in the large dark circle (at 7.4 contrast ratio). This successful combo is also seen in the dashes against the paddler image. However, the small “Paddle” text, which includes 2 different colors on the green background, has ratios of 1.8 and 2.9, much lower than the 4.5 standard for regular size text. The posters and cards use different colors than the trainer app itself, and those tend to have low contrast as well.
It’s not an easy design problem to choose 3 or 4 colors that will all meet contrast guidelines with respect to each other, and still “look good.” (Envoy Design provides an interesting perspective on this.) But I think the trainer could do better in this regard. If I get time, I may experiment with editing the poster colors to see what might work better.
Beyond the basic functions
Beyond the basic operation, there’s not much else to the trainer. Here are a few areas that could use more development:
Controls: there are none, as far as I can tell. I could not see or discover any controls, say for navigating to a different section of the trainer, or pausing at my current location. It seems like if you want to pause your training, you just leave that browser tab open and come back to it later. Later I discovered that if you refresh the page, it seems to have some idea of where you left off.
So then the question becomes: what if I want to start over at the very beginning? There appears to be a secret gesture for that. At some point after completing the letters level, I made some swipe gesture and up popped a message asking me if I really wanted to clear my progress and return to “Level 1.” I discovered this by accident, but it’s handy as a way of starting the trainer over again from the very beginning. Swipe down with one finger, within the browser window (not from the very top). I’m not sure how else you would start again from the beginning, actually, so I’m glad I stumbled upon this feature. There may be other gestures that can be discovered to allow control (or accidentally launch a command), but that’s the only one I found.
Documentation/Help: none. The basic operation is appealingly self-evident, but some info about the overall scope of the trainer, how/whether it makes decisions, how/whether you can control it, etc. would be helpful.
Scoring: there is none. There’s no report on how you did, whether you beat your last score, etc.
So some additional features would be helpful, but that’s to be expected in an early stage experiment. The source code is available, and it looks like contributors are welcome.
Other resources for learning Morse code
Google’s Morse page includes some games developed in a hackathon. I haven’t tried any of these, but they could be fun. As noted above, the Adaptive Design Association has a Morse page with a variety of resources. Worth checking out.
I had a really good overall experience with the Morse Typing Trainer. Have you tried it? Please share your experiences in the comments below.