Is iTunes U the future?

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It is couple of months since I was given an iPad by the school where I work as preparation for the new school year in late August when we will be switching to a digitally driven form of education. Initially it will be all our first years (12 year olds) who will all have an iPad in their school bag, but then, year on year it will spread through the school. I, like others at school, have been following courses and familiarizing myself with some of the possibilities.

There are a huge amount of possibilities and some fantastic apps out there that are going to offer some very creative and new directions to what I do in my art and cultural awareness lessons. I really am quite enthusiastic about the project, if perhaps a little daunted by the shear amount of work involved. All changes in education cost teachers and educators time and effort, but this feels like a real ground shift.

One of the recent courses I attended was for iTunes U. In short iTunes U is a project, with an accompanying app, that is aimed at teachers world-wide at all levels of education. The philosophy is that great education material is being developed everywhere and too often doesn’t get shared and passed around.  Huge numbers of educational institutions are becoming involved from the likes of Oxford and Harvard universities right down to primary schools. Apple are putting a huge amount of resources into facilitating the education of teaching staff to make use of iTunes U, for me there was a two day, free of charge course at the icentre in Amsterdam on offer.

I am new to this all, and am having to learn and pick things up as I go along, but I am at the moment a little perplexed by what iTunes U seems to offer and in particular how it relates to the arts, cultural and design areas of education.

I am more than happy if there is someone out there who can tell me that I am perhaps mistaken, or not seeing all the possibilities that are actually on offer.  However at the moment a couple of points seem to be particularly problematic, at least from my own arts related direction.

Firstly, from my art teacher’s perspective there is the copyright issue. My understanding from the iTunes U course that I followed was that Apple are only too aware of the potential copyright minefield that the idea of a sort of open source library of education material might become. As a result they only what original material, and supporting material that comes from a sort of Creative Commons perspective. This is all fine and well, but try writing a piece of art education material without making use of examples of the work of others. Art teachers the world over are used to, normally for just their own usage and certainly not on a commercial level, playing quite fast and loose with the work of others. They want to illustrate a particular point or inspire in a particular way, so they insert appropriate examples into their lesson material.

They would probably normally defend their position, rightly or wrongly, behind a sort of fair use argument. They are simply trying to place an activity in a cultural context or guide an activity in a particular way.  If, as Apple seem to be saying, this sort of referencing of cultural context places the material outside the remit of iTunes U, then the resulting material is likely to end up being a rather dry and unstimulating sort of experience, which brings brings me nicely onto my second point.

When I was at teacher training college it was hammered into me regularly that you should make your lesson material visually interesting to look at. Publishers of lesson material know this to be important and spend great deal of time and effort designing their products to attract and lead the attention of the reader. As a visual artist, and someone with an interest in design, I have always worked hard to make sure that the material I produce for my pupils looks well-made and engaging. With all this in mind I am bewildered by iTunes U, a system where as far as I have seen so far, everything ends up looking the same. A sort of list structure that folds out to reveal text, links, film, routes to apps and so on. The content in the end might be fantastic, but the entrance route to it seems dull to say the least.

If anyone knows a different perspective on these two reservations I would be only too happy to hear it and be corrected, but for now I see myself continuing to produce eye-catching PDF files with all the links I need embedded into them and then directly mailed to the pupils who need them.

 

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Can I justify copying someone else’s work?

When my older brother and I were both art students me in my late teens and he in his early twenties I remember him telling me once of how his personal tutor at college had a live size copy of a Matisse paper-cut on his wall at home. It was constructed in exactly the same way as the original of loose fitting pieces of coloured paper, that had been roughly painted and arranged to complete the familiar iconic figure that we know from the art history books. If I remember correctly the tutor had gone to some trouble to even simulate the yellowing of the paper that the intervening decades has caused.

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At the time I remember feeling rather perplexed as to why someone, and someone very capable of making their own art, should go to such lengths to reproduce an existing artwork. Now more than two decades later, I find myself close to doing the same. Not in my case with Matisse though, I don’t feel any inclination to do that. My remake would be of an artwork that at least superficially might appear easier to reconstruct, although that simplicity may in the end actually make it more difficult to reproduce well.

The artwork concerned is by the American abstract painter Robert Mangold and in particular a work from his fairly recent Ring series. The question is, and it is a question I am still pondering for myself, why should I go to all the trouble of reproducing a work by another artist?

I’ve always liked Mangold’s work a lot, ever since I saw it for the first time in the Saatchi Gallery in London in a show with Bruce Nauman, I’ve seen it also in shows in the Netherlands where I now live. But in truth Mangold’s lean and delicate abstract works aren’t seen so often in Europe, so much of my familiarity with his extensive body of work comes from books or the net. In the evenings I often find myself looking through these small scale reproductions.

So why should I make my own Mangold Ring artwork. Perhaps I should first of all say that much as I would like a real Robert Mangold creation, on my part time teachers’ pay that is never likely to happen, a quick survey of the internet tells me that a screen print can be had for $7500.

I can well imagine that the artist himself would probably rather I didn’t have a go at this sort of homage. But I really would like to have one to look at on a daily basis, for absolutely the same reasons my own works appear on the walls around the house, so I can live with an image, so I can think about it and so I can come to better understand it. Robert Mangold’s work has already influenced my own from time to time. It could be argued that in this pattern of influence all art is a sort of homage to the art that preceded it. But this would be different, this would not be my work, nor would it be Robert Mangold’s, put like that it sounds like a undefined object caught in some no-man’s land of classification, hardly a very honourable existence! But reason enough not to do it?

Will I do it? Or should I say, will I get round to it? Studio time is precious, sandwiched between so much other work. In the end the real cost of making such an artwork would be the time spent not making my own paintings. Only time will tell whether that cost is too high!

But I already know what I want to make……

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As a footnote or extension to my previous post concerning creativity within a limited range of possibilities another art room assignment comes to mind and one that touches on many other subject areas within a school. This being a poster design assignment.
The presentation of information has changed a lot in recent years, particularly in the increasingly hot area of info-graphics. The prevalence of digital technology within the school setting offers the possibility of teenagers producing work of near professional quality. Yet when the pupil sits down at the computer and opens up the design software they are so often overwhelmed by the choice, quite simply almost anything is possible. So many interesting effects and layouts are possible.
The idea that it might actually be a good idea to pick up a pencil first and produce a few thumbnail design layouts of extreme simplicity is important but at the same time, in the eyes of many pupils, an unnecessary waste of time, when they either “know what they want to do” or simply want to sit do at the computer an start to fiddle around the possibilities.
I have found that a more “dirty fingers” approach can work well in establishing an initial design idea. Giving the pupils the following for instance:
A white A4 sheet
An A5 sheet of coloured paper
A piece of imagery printed out in two different sizes
A title text printed out in two sizes
A couple of blocks of text simply cut out of a newspaper or magazine
The assignment is, within these extremely limited means to produce an interesting and dynamic layout design on the A4 sheet.
Allow a whole class to try this assignment it can be surprising what they come up with. Lay all the designs out on a table at the end of the session and the pupils will see for themselves just how creative the solutions can be, particularly with the possibilities offered by a simple sheet of coloured paper. These rough collages can of course then become the springboard for the digital work that may come later.
This is another simple but clear example of an assignment framed up with quite tight restrictions that can successly encourage the creativity of pupils or students in a wide range of age groups.

High heels and creativity

High heels and creativityThe kunsthal in Rotterdam has been experimenting with audience participation in its exhibition planning. What would you like to see as a theme for a future exhibition? That was the first question. Shoes, Victor Vasarely and dinosaurs were the options on offer. Perhaps not surprisingly, shoes came back as the popular choice, although I dare say that the under twelves voted differently!

Subsequently, further choices were offered that related to the presentation of the shoes, pr and advertising issues were also open to a degree of consultation. It is not so very different to an assignment I might offer the older pupils I teach (16 year olds) in their cultural education lessons. Choose a theme for an exhibition, research the artworks that you want to include, plan a layout for the exhibition and design the advertising campaign with a poster or a information folder.
The end result in Rotterdam is very good. In dimly lit spaces created in the basement hall of the Kunsthal close on five-hundred shoes are displayed. Exclusively women’s shoes, and as my wife pointed out, almost exclusively high-heeled. There is huge variety, from the familiar and practical, to eccentric and surely unwearable.
Though I am unlikely to be able to take my own pupils to see the exhibition, the costs involved and the cancellation of too many lessons, stand in the way of that. It is the sort of display I would like them to see. There are a number of reasons for this, reasons such as:

  • The familiarity of the objects on display. We all buy and wear shoes and are used to the selection criteria we impose on them when choosing.
  • The shear quantity on display, it’s a chance to see an impressive variety.
  • The pupils are perhaps more ready to come with their own opinions and evaluation than with some other areas of the arts where they perhaps feel confused or pressured by the opinions of others to like or value something they struggle to understand.
  • But perhaps the nicest aspect of hundreds of shoes placed side by side is insight into creativity it gives when working within a restricted frame of reference, in this case a pair of shoes.

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Let me expand on this last point a little more.
We all like to have choices and it is not different in education. Teachers are encouraged to built elements of choice and differentiation into their lessons. As an art teacher we can offer choices of two-dimensional or three-dimensional, traditional materials or digital media, painting or drawing, collage or printmaking techniques, large or small, the list goes on and on. The choice of how exactly, and with which material, to develop an idea can definitely be an integral part of the creative process. But it can at times be an awkward distraction as a pupil struggles to choose and maybe struggles also to fully explore the numerous creative possibilities a material or process offers.
We want our pupils to be creative and we want to give them the chance to be creative. The shoes exhibition provides an excellent contained frame of reference of creativity. Everything in the exhibition is a shoe, to be worn on a woman’s foot. That’s the frame of reference, but within that frame there is huge variety and examples or designers stretching the creative possibilities. Just how far can you in being creative with a sole, a heel and upper of the shoe. Some of the results border on the sculptural while others seem quite conventional, but the interesting dimension here is the range.
Back in the classroom, by offering pupils endless diversity in the choices on offer you don’t necessarily extend the creativity in the work they attempt. My experience is often quite the opposite, they become restricted by the choices.
We hear often enough that children and young people like to know where the permitted borders lie. The challenge for the art teacher, and maybe others too, is to set the frame of reference wide enough to offer challenges and choices in finding creative solutions, but not so wide that it ultimately inhibits the very creativity that you what to stimulate.
It’s a long while since I did a shoe design assignment with one of my classes, maybe it’s time to have a go at it again.

Fights round the sink and a good weekend feeling

There are some classes that enjoy a truly creative activity, a painting or drawing assignment with plenty of space for imaginative interpretation of the assignment or a complex collage challenge. Others though respond better to small bursts of creativity and longer sections of process where an artistic task simply has to be worked through in order to achieve results. My second year class (13-14 year olds) is one such group.

It is a relatively small class who don’t always perform as well as we might hope in all their timetable subjects, but when given a practical assignment that involves plenty of physical activity they generally respond well. This year I have produced large scale papiermâché and soft sculpture inspired by pop art with them and more recently have been doing some lino block printing.  I only see the class for sixty minutes a week, so getting them started promptedly has always been important.  They don’t generally like long explanations at the start of the lesson and with only an hour I don’t much either. Again here the more practical ‘making’ things approach seems to work best, materials and tools out on the table and get on.

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We’ve spent the last weeks first drawing a pencil drawing of an insect, then transferring the design to a piece of lino, one week doing a first cut, one week printing a first colour, a week cutting again and a week printing a second colour. It seems all to have been so clear in their heads, step by step towards the end result. If we’re honest, several hours of process and more like minutes of real creativity as they plan where exactly to cut with the knife.

Having said though, that the creativity is relatively limited, the pay back of engaging with their materials, carrying out the necessary tasks and the always surprising result as they peel the paper from the block to reveal their print more than makes up for this. This was definitely the case today as the second colour went onto the block to reveal suddenly an unfamiliar complexity in the resulting image. Pupils step back with a ‘wow’ to admire their own work.

Two other results are, firstly that I leave for the weekend with an equally positive feeling. A little later there will be a second moment of pride when we assemble the best prints as a set, then comes the extra layer of achievement, this time as a class and all the positive vibes that brings with it.  One last point though, if anyone can advise on how to get thirteen year olds to clear up after a lino printing session without leaving a soaking wet floor and inky fingerprints everywhere as they squabble round the sink I’d be interested to hear about it.

Bonnard, Vuillard and an iPad

Whilst walking round an exhibition in the Amsterdam Hermitage I notice that the French artist Pierre Bonnard was born exactly 100 years before me. Bonnard, along with Vuillard and Gauguin are the star names in the exhibition. Their paintings are very familiar, making use of relatively simple approaches, flat areas of colour in Gauguin’s case and the direct and inconspicuously unhidden brushstrokes in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard.

All three were making paintings in a period when artists were coming to terms with what it was to paint in a period where photography was becoming increasingly visible in daily life. It makes me wonder about my own paintings and the place that new digital possibilities have found in my own production.

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Whilst walking round the Hermitage I find myself stopping to make a quick digital sketch of a sculpture on my ipad. It is an occasional pleasure, drawing whilst visiting a show, as much to make me look a little harder as anything else. Drawing on the glass screen really doesn’t feel to me at least as anything particularly different to paper in a book. Yet it does leave me feeling a little conspicuous amongst the tourists visiting what feels a pretty traditional sort of art exhibition.

I’ve been experimenting quite a lot in the last couple of weeks with drawing software for on the tablet. I want to experiment with my pupils at school after the summer with various digital drawing ideas. I am hugely curious to see whether the speed and directness of the drawing on the tablet can help bridge the nervousness that all art teachers will recognize when their pupils approach the virginal whiteness of a new sheet of paper. the urge to match this perfection can be quite inhibiting.

My own paintings have undoubtedly been effected by the possibilities offered by the digital age. I use a computer to create geometric forms and also painterly effects that are later transferred to canvases. For my pupils that is not likely to be the result or what is desired. Instead, what I am hoping for, is a less inhibited approach to their drawings, a directness of just making the work, yes kind of like the qualities found in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard and their paintings of 100 years ago.

Theatre and the Premier League connection

Part of my work is to teach theatre studies to fifteen and sixteen year olds in a relatively provincial Dutch town. For the last ten years as a school we have been able to fund two trips to local theatres for each pupil involved.  The shows that have been seen have ranged enormously from one man stand-up to dance shows and from try-outs before national tours to straight forward plays. Excellent though many of the performances have been, with this not being Amsterdam, Rotterdam or the Hague, we have never really had the chance to expose the pupils to truly large scale productions.

Like in education in many other countries we are having to cope with budget cuts in many areas and it looks likely, that this school year, it is not going to be two shows, but only one.  The pupils will undoubtedly like the time out from school to visit the theatre still, but as a teacher it presents a problem.  The idea of the trips to see shows is to expose the pupils to an area of the cultural world that they might not otherwise find their way to. If we allow them just a single visit, it means that particular visit really does have to hit the mark.  On top of this, as a teacher I have to find alternative filling for the course to replace the missing theatrical experience.  However, in many ways, finding more cultural material has never been easier.  With the rapid move towards digitalization in education there is so much that you can bring into the classroom at the press of a button.

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I was reminded all to clearly of this fact yesterday when I visited my local multiplex cinema for a live streaming of Micheal Morpurgo’s War Horse from the National Theatre in London.  Apart from a few moments when the failing satellite link causes the sound to drop out, it was a fantastic way to experience the show.  OK, being there in the theatre would have been truly spectacular, but this film version really wasn’t bad at all.  There are even a view advantages over the ‘live’ show, such as it takes you closer to the action and gives you multiple view points.  If I could lay my hands on a DVD of such a performance it is certainly something I could make use of in my lessons.  It could be used to talk about any number of the aspects of the craft of good theatrical productions, all within the context of an extremely accessible show.

And yet I am troubled slightly by the ease of switching the live performances of much smaller scale theatre for the Premier League of theatreland in the form of a filmed and streamed production.  Obviously there are many aspects and details of the production that are lost in a video transmission, sharing a space with the performers, the intimacy of the experience and the simple tension of a live performance unfolding in front of you.  All these are regrettable loses, but if I continue my Premier League football analogy, I am troubled by the effect on grass roots theatre, the smaller clubs in football terms.  The National Theater is a great institution, with a prestigious and well-earned high reputation.  It is spreading its wings, and moving into new areas through live streaming of shows, as are others, such as the Bolshoi Ballet and the Met. Opera in New York.  If this brings new audiences to the arts that is fantastic, but it must not be at the cost of diversity.  The dominance of the few ‘super’ clubs at the top of the football ladder has come at the cost of others lower down.  A result of the national and international branding of these clubs.  Such a chain of events may well present similar problems in the cultural world.

In the coming years I will undoubtedly be digitally streaming my pupils’ cultural experiences often enough.  And as I saw yesterday, the quality will definitely be high.  But I want also to offer my pupils real, first hand theatrical experiences.  A performer literally just feet away, the interaction with the audience and the wonder at the performance of an actor casting his performance out into the darkness of the audience at even the smallest theatre.  These too are so valuable things to see and experience.  They are the things the pupils tell me about the next day at school.