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The magic of multimedia

Nicola Jones (left) believes that peripherals are the key to success.

A charity event at break-time is in full swing. A teacher in a sou'wester and oilskins is bravely facing several students throwing wet sponges - very appropriate for a Royal National Lifeboat Institution appeal. The event is being photographed by two 11-year-old students with a digital camera.

Later that afternoon, Year 7 students work on a parents' newsletter. They use the photographs taken earlier, importing them into ClarisWorks, a word-processing package, and writing captions. Another group finds the RNLI website for further details, while another pupil draws a storm at sea directly on the screen using a special drawing tablet. All are totally engaged as the work relates to a real event. It chronicles their experience, their own faces are on the screen and they are doing it for a purpose.

This kind of work is a regular part of the timetable for students at Garratt Park school in Wandsworth, London, a school for students with moderate learning difficulties. Students who have difficulties expressing themselves in writing are motivated when they can share their experiences through sound and pictures and enjoy the freedom of expression the medium gives them.

But many schools, while having several decent computers, fail to realise the importance and usefulness of extra equipment ("peripherals" in computer jargon). For example, how many schools have multimedia computers, but no microphone or loudspeakers? A microphone, scanner and a friendly piece of software, such as KidPix Studio, can allow students to make simple presentations about their interests, scanning photographs from home or school.

A digital camera is simple to use and creates immediate excitement among students and staff. Importing a picture of yourself and adding a funny hat, moustache and spectacles may be anarchic, but it's a great way of teaching graphics skills painlessly. With Microsoft Office and Powerpoint, students can incorporate their own voices, digital photographs and pictures from the Net. One tip is to save all your photographs in a standard format (such as JPEG), as they take up less space once compressed.

Several students have enjoyed using the art tablet attached to the computer to incorporate drawings into their work. The mouse is a clumsy instrument, but with the art tablet, you use a pen to draw the image, which is then converted into a drawing on screen. The tablet can be used with simple accessories, such as Paint, and all the tools can be selected using the pen. Students enjoy drawing cartoon characters, or designing logos for their own stationery.

Scanners can seem a mystery to the uninitiated, but once the settings are sorted out, they become as simple as photocopying. Be aware of copyright issues, both with scanning images and gathering pictures from the Internet.

It is obviously safest to use pictures students have drawn or taken themselves, and teachers can also build up a resource bank of appropriate digital photographs. These can also be used to illustrate worksheets. Using pictures of a previous year group doing a science experiment to illustrate a worksheet is a good way of motivating students to complete the work themselves.

The joy of these peripherals is that they allow collaboration of talents. Some students are in demand for their ability to mimic radio announcers, while others are known for their design skills. Some always seem to take a good photograph, while others are techno-wizards, helping the less able to scan in and download pictures from the Internet. Parents are impressed when they see their children's work on the screen. Personalised Christmas cards are simple to create.

The results are invaluable for assessment, and with improved, relatively cheap colour printers, the work can be almost as good as photographs processed at the chemists. There is a cost in consummables such as batteries and colour cartridges, but these can be offset against the cost of film and development.

I am no techno-wizard, but I can just about keep stretching my students. The power of these simple peripherals to motivate has been an eye-opener over the past year, and many staff at my school find them simple to use. Yet it isn't easy to find a PC microphone to buy, and few teachers haveheard of a drawing tablet. My best advice to any school with reasonable multimedia machines is to buy a digital camera. Or better still, buy two.

Nicola Jones is ICT co-ordinator at Garratt Park School for pupils with moderate learning difficulties in Wandsworth, west London.

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