Digitalization – finding the right fit

Forcing digitalization into education can be a painful affair. Some people might say ‘yes, that’s what they’re trying to do to the education situation that I work in!’  But that would be to misunderstand what I mean by forcing digitalization. I am absolutely for the use of digital technologies in education. What I mean though is that the use of computers, laptops, tablets and indeed phones have a place, of that I’m sure, but exactly what that place is may take time to find.

The school I teach at took a decision a few years ago to move to a form of computer aided education where every pupil works with their own iPad. I’ve been teaching art lessons with the possible digital dimensions that this offers for two and a half years now. Despite being one of the most progressive minded in the school when it comes to the iPad, I would also say that I am still finding my way with the device and uncovering the possibilities. It’s a fascinating process for me, and I think for my pupils.  Searching out for the opportunities where it offers extensions to a project, or perhaps simply something new and previously unconsidered.

A few of these curriculum enrichment situations have been exactly what I have been experiencing in the classroom this week and observing in the pupils results.

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Last year I worked for the first time on a children’s book design project with the fourteen to fifteen year olds that I teach. In short, the pupils write and make an illustrated story book in which an artwork that they have previously researched plays a starring role.

Last year, each group of three produced and entirely handmade book. Illustrations were made, text was added either by writing it out by hand or printing it out on the computer and collaging it on to the illustrated pages. The results were satisfactory and in some cases good, but the problem we encountered in integrating the text was a bit of a puzzle. The classes worked well, but without the luxury of having the iPad to combine the language element with the illustrations.

This year though the situation is different and it is fascinating to watch. Groups are sharing tasks, stories are being written, handmade illustrations are being produced using the traditional materials, the artworks are being photographed, digitally enhanced where necessary before being inserted into page layouts and finally the text from the story is then laid on top.

I’m not quite finished with the assignment yet, but I’ve seen enough already to know that this is an example of digitalization extending a project into new areas. Groups are working genuinely as groups, sharing tasks and discussing what they are doing and working with a high level of engagement to produce and end product.  What was a good project has become an excellent one through a well-fitting digital extra element.

For those who are interested, the app we are using for the layout is the excellent Design Pad By Quark.

Such a ‘cool’ day of lessons…www.virtual-emotions.nl

If you work in education you are often all too used to being in the centre of attention during your lessons. It’s fantastic when the chance comes along to take a back seat and just watch. Today was just such a day for me. It was an unusual in other ways too, in fact not a day of normal lessons at all really, instead a day of workshops for my groups of fifteen and sixteen year old pupils in the context of our broad art and culture lessons. The workshops formed a part of a series of lessons that focus on the role of new technologies in the cultural world and artists and creative people who are involved in this area. We spent time looking at the design work of Daan Roosegaarde for instance, a creative and experimental designer who leans heavily on new technologies in his work.

For examples of Roosegaarde’s work and a film about his activities follow this link.

Seeing and thinking about such work, and discovering a little about the personalities behind it, can be a real eye opener for a teenager. However in terms of engagement it is no secret that actual direct involvement and participation can be a fantastic learning experience, which brings me back to today’s workshops.

The workshops were provided by Edwin and Frans Jan from www.virtual-emotions.nl. It’s not so easy to describe what they do, but let me try. With the help of a camera, a computer an area of a classroom is scanned continuously. The computer senses movement within this area and throughout this zone various sounds are located. By moving the sounds are activated and the degree and type of movement effects the volume and other qualities of the sounds.

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In effect, by moving your body and being expressive with your arms, hands and legs, you ‘play’ the space like it is your musical instrument. Stand still, and slowly all sound fades away. This is about movement and making music, it shouldn’t be confused with dancing, in fact it is kind of the reverse of dancing. With dancing the music comes first and we move as a reaction to the music, with virtualemotions the movement is the trigger that creates the music.

It was fascinating to watch pupils tentatively enter the space and discover the effects of even the smallest movement. I hadn’t anticipated just how far outside the comfort zone this was going to be, particularly for the boys. It was strange, and in a way a little disorientating, but as the penny started to drop and some in the class started to see just what the possibilities were, the class slowly loosened up and started to let go.

Having initially had a go in the space individually the pupils started to use the space in groups of two or three, allowing interactions between them to start taking place, again fascinating to watch how the pupils succeeded (or not) in working with one another.

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We can offer offer our pupils many creative activities at school. But today’s workshops were something genuinely different. Interestingly the pupils who play a musical instrument or have had dance lessons didn’t necessarily seem to be at an advantage. The ones who thought and listened carefully to the consequences of their actions were ultimately the ones who achieved most. Such alert self awareness is definitely a skill that we should stimulate in all areas of education!

The art teacher, Dirk and a very old computer game

Sometimes it can feel like the educational world we as teachers bring to our pupils is an extensive construct that pupils know that they are expected to play along with. It’s not their real world, a kind of necessary evil, a means to an end. Many of them are very good at playing this game, they invest in it, engage and often enjoy it. However their ‘real world’ interests outside of school life often seems quite detached and at times hidden from teachers and the school context. It might be that they are totally into music, dance, a particular sport, spend hours watching movies, gaming or something similar. These are the things that does something different for them, it makes them perhaps more unique or independent from their peers in some way. I notice this in my own children, my son with his passion for running and writing, my daughter with her drawing book and guitar.

Occasionally though this line between school and outside of school gets crossed and blurred. Rarely was this more evident to me than in an incident when I was teaching a group of fifteen and sixteen year olds. Somehow in a discussion with the class we got onto the subject of earning money and the jobs the pupils do outside of school. One of the class asked me what I did as a teenager to earn some extra money. I replied that I worked on a fruit farm, but I also mentioned that I used to write and have published computer games for an early form of the home computer. This was met with a certain amount of disbelief, ‘but you’re an art teacher’ was kind of the rough direction of the remarks.

YOOGORP1Dirk, one of the boys in the class, was particularly interested. Dirk is a smart and generally engaged pupil, although I should say at this point that art and my lessons where never really his thing, he did what was necessary to ensure a satisfactory grade, but at least as far as I was concerned never more. In the course of my years of teaching Dirk I felt that we socially had a good relationship, we could joke and laugh together, but I rarely saw him truly ‘switched on’ by one of our activities. This was the case at least until I mentioned my surprising past as a published author of computer games!

Initially Dirk didn’t quite believe me, I needed some proof. It was a long shot but I decided to Google the name of the magazine that published the games I’d written. You never quite know what you might find on the net and sure enough I found a couple of sites that mentioned the magazine. A couple more searches and I had found a lot more. There seemed to be a complete list of the titles of all the games that were ever published by the magazine. I scanned the columns and there, sure enough, amongst all the other names, there I was. I called Dirk to the front to show him, I had the evidence. Dirk and others in the class were impressed, I felt my credibility rising!

Interestingly my name was one of the few hyperlinked names in the list. A click on the link and to everyone’s amazement and my absolute astonishment it turned out that it was possible to download the code for the computer program that I had written. In the classroom at school on our protected computer network it wasn’t possible to fully download the game, but I could clearly see that Dirk’s interest had been well and truly activated, in a way that his art homework had never be able to do. He left the lesson determined to see if it would be possible to get this thirty year old computer game working!

A few hours later I was checking my mail in the train on the way home. Amongst the mails suddenly appeared a very excited one from Dirk, “Mr. Sansom, I’m playing your game, it works!!”  I’m still not sure who was more amazed me or Dirk. But one thing is for sure, on that day there was a bridge built between my world, the world of school and Dirk’s interests and experiences outside of school.  These sort of bridging moments happen more often in education, normally when you’re least expecting them. They sometimes offer educational opportunities that can be built on, but even if they don’t they do provide a chance to get a little closer to your pupils, understand them better and perhaps just as important let them understand just a little bit more about you.

ZX81-leftFor anyone interested in the computer involved in this post it was a Sinclair ZX81, the techy details can be found here. (I should also mention that the game screenshot above isn’t of my game, but it does give a good idea of the graphics capabilities of the ZX81).