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.

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iPad education……two years in, and is it time for a new Apple purchase?

With this as background extra courses for new teachers are being offered and an afternoon of workshops covering various useful apps and possibilities of the device will be on offer.
Throughout the last two years I have been part of the iPad steering group that has been responsible for helping plan out the educational direction we are following with regard to this in-class form of digitalization. I think it is fair to say that I am an enthusiast, I lead workshops for colleagues, have followed the odd course myself, but above all have set out to try and work out how the iPad can be best used in my art lessons.
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As a result of my enthusiasm, the task of starting the school-wide study session In a couple of weeks has fallen to me! ‘You’ve always got I’m two years into my own adventure into iPad supported education. As a school where I work it’s nearly three years, first with a cautious pilot project and then an extension to the first year bilingual classes (where I teach) plus a couple more. That’s been the level for the last two years. But next year comes the big step, school wide in years one and two (12-14 year olds). Suddenly that’s a whole lot more pupils and perhaps more significantly, a whole lot more teaching staff! It’ll become more a case of who’s not involved rather than who is involved.
such interesting things to show of what you’re doing with the iPad!’, says Albert my colleague, and iPad coordinator, in a suitably flattering sort of way. Hmm….thanks for that Albert! The brief is in ten to fifteen minutes to show my colleagues what I’m up to and what is possible with the device.
To avoid people just saying, ‘it’s easy for you, you’re an art teacher’ I have my own sub-text to the brief; to show a number of interesting and exciting iPad things that:
• Aren’t exclusively art and creativity related
• Potentially might have some use or relevance across a number of subject areas
• Could potentially work at different academic or age levels
• Present the potential diversity of options that the iPad offers and avoid relying too heavily on just one app
…..this is starting to sound quite complicated!

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But perhaps the trickiest part is that the audience is, as is often the case in education land, quite a varied bunch. There are enthusiasts, like myself, who have already spent considerable time working out the options on offer. There are the beginners, who perhaps to need an enthusiastic presentation of some of the possibilities, as long as it doesn’t become too scarily complex! And then finally, there are the skeptics who, if I can paraphrase for a moment, think that we might be barking up the wrong educational tree.
Whether or not we turn out to be heading up that wrong tree remains to be seen. Although I’ve seen enough in my subject area to be confident that this isn’t the case. It is a work in progress, a new form and approach to education. It shouldn’t come to control everything, but it certainly does offer some interesting and new possibilities.

Control is a word that often seems to come up. Teachers understandably like to feel like they are in control of their classroom and maybe more importantly in control of the learning that is going on. Faces to the front and listen to the teacher offers a form of control on which education has relied for many a year. It sounds obvious, but that’s why the tables in most classrooms point in the same direction. Children facing one another does tend to create unnecessary distractions. Some will also say that having an iPad on the table in front of a pupils often does the same.
The distraction issue, like the control one, has been a theme that has been a bit of a recurring one through our last couple of years of iPad experiments. Maybe as an art teacher I’m a bit less affected by it than most of my colleagues, but the level of interest and excitement that has met the new Apple Classroom app was a bit of an eye opener. Having been given a demonstration of the software it would seem that it may well ease the distraction issue and hand the control back to the teacher. Being able to control the functionality of the pupils’ device feels to me simultaneously attractive and dictatorial.

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I think the teaching staff will, in general, want to have this application. But I can’t help feeling that there is an irony here. We are all now equipped with these fantastic devices that can do so much, and that we have all bought from Apple. Now we are having to buy a new app, also from Apple, to limit them. Would we ever buy an additional product from a car manufacturer to limit the performance of a vehicle? An argument could certainly be made for a restricting device so that a car would stay within the speed limit? The question would be is it desirable, would it be acceptable? A slightly mischievous comparison perhaps but I think there is still a discussion to be had in school around some of these issues.
Needless to say, the pupils aren’t particularly happy, but I’m sure they’ll cope, they do after all still have their phone in their pocket which we can’t limit. In the end it might all come down to money and costs. Apple know full well that an app of this kind is addressing an identified problem. They also know it can potentially be a big earner, and for us, a school where in a relatively short time 1000+ pupils will be working with an iPad, a relatively large cost.

Digital lessons…does anyone still build websites?

Alongside this blog I have my own website. I use it mostly for two main purposes, firstly to present my own work as an artist and also to provide a storage and presentation space for my educational work. I am at the moment in the process of overhauling the sight, clearing it up where it’s got a bit unnecessarily complex or overly full and giving it a restyle.

Although this is quite a long and drawn out activity I do quite like doing it. The structuring of the site is an interesting puzzle, you try to work out the most logical and easy to follow construction for potential users. This is then combined with designing the look of the pages, which is simply something I like doing. Hopefully, within a week or two I’ll be able to upload the site, a job well done.

webdesignWhile I’ve been doing this I’ve been pondering a little about websites in general and digitization in education. I remember ten or more years ago we offered pupils at the school where I work workshops for those interested in website building. A useful skill it was thought in this digital world we were heading into. Pupils did battle with the horrible Microsoft Front Page, a piece of software that thankfully seems to have disappeared.

As I was setting in place the umpteenth hyperlink on my own site I found myself wondering how many people actually still do this for themselves. Despite the presence of plenty of good software out there to help, has website design, become the dominion of the professional? A bit like the way modern car maintenance has got rather too technical of the home enthusiast. How many people actually go through the stresses and strains of building and designing their own site?

To be honest I have no idea what the answer is to my own question.  What I do know though, is that alongside the software to help build a website, there are so many other alternatives. Services where you just have to drop your information into an existing template or a template that you have tweaked at the edges to work it into a form more to your taste. Everyone can thus create their own digital place. In education terms I also suspect that the move towards iPads and other mobile devices this tendency is only going to grow.

I’ll be pressing on with the redesign work of my own site, like I said, I quite enjoy doing it. I do feel a little geeky doing it though, especially when the maintenance of this WordPress site for my blog is so easy. Obviously we do still need the digital technicians to help create WordPress like facilities, but are the enthusiastic amateur web designers going to slowly go the way of the floppy disk? And would the pupils I teach have the slightest idea where to start on such a project?

A few would I guess, but a great many wouldn’t. Teenagers are without doubt huge users of the digital world, but are they creatively engaged and involved in any way as they flit from one site or app to another? The success of games like Minecraft would seem to suggest that there is some sort of a creative energy to be found, others are creatively productive in the use of online mixing desks for producing digital music or are making imaginative and experimental films in quantities that have never before been possible. Most though, are simply users and consumers. Those who are genuinely creative will find their way to be so, whether within the digital world or beyond it.

Do you still draw and paint? – the iPad story continues

That was not a question for me personally, but a question about the art department where I work. It came towards the end of an evening where the bilingual department that I teach in presented itself to primary school children who are thinking about coming to the school next year and their parents. Having started a project last year that involves all new pupils working with an iPad, a considerable effort was made to show the effects of increasing digitalization in school.

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

After hearing the iPad story in the course of the evening, one parent came up to me and asked about the effects on the art department, “you do still draw and paint, don’t you?” Came the slightly nervous question. The parent involved I’m guessing probably didn’t honestly expect me to say “no of course not, we’ve given all that up and just use the iPad”! But at the same time it does reflect a nervousness that parents, and if I’m honest some teachers also have about creeping digitalization in education. Essentially its a throwing the baby out with the bath water fear, that good practice and successful classroom approaches will be somehow forced out by more (and not necessarily better) hi-tech strategies.

What I’m discovering in the art department is quite the opposite, I am still doing all the things that I always did, but the iPad offers new possibilities that I never had before to enrich the creative process. A good example of this is the clay project that I have just finished with my first years (12 year olds). As we have done before, the practical assignment was the create a ‘scary monster’ clay head, to fit onto a body that we will make later.  In the past the result of the project was simply a clay fired clay head that ultimately went home with the pupils. This year though I asked the pupils to photograph the development of the head at the beginning of each lesson. As a result each pupil has a photographic record of the whole process, from the beginning with just a formless lump of clay, to a finely worked head with a whole array of scary features. These photos have been put into an iMovie with accompanying text describing the process and the best of the photographs of the final piece of work have be digitally reworked (as in the examples here) to try to create even more sinister effects.

So to return to the parent’s question, well, yes of course we still paint, draw, work with clay and other materials. The digital developments are there to help, support and above all extend the educational possibilities, not replace the parts that already work perfectly well. It does sometimes feel like we are in a race towards a digital educational world, but drawing and painting does still have a place along with a whole load of other ‘old-fashioned’ approaches, it’s important that we don’t throw those ‘babies out with the bath water’, but equally we can’t close our eyes to the new possibilities on offer from the new tools and techniques that we have.