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Movie stars in the making;Multimedia;Education

Learning to use sound, text, animation and graphics for interactive presentations could greatly enhance pupils' ICT skills. Vivi Lachs reports

Creativity generally starts with a good idea, and good ideas have a tendency to become popular quickly. Multimedia authoring is one such idea - and its use seems to be catching on. Pupils can now readily put together presentations of their science and history work at school, and animating cartoons or making adventurestories at home.

Multimedia authoring is at the centre of a scheme in north London and surrounding counties designed to entice pupils into developing their information and communications technology skills. Following collaboration between teachers, the BBC (which provided funding) and the Thameslea IT group, a consortium of 12 local authorities, pupils from various schools in neighbouring boroughs took part in multimedia projects.

The children have obviously become highly motivated by their work. "We're putting a tortoise on each page," explained a Year 6 pupil, referring to the screen in front of her. "Pressing it sends you back to the title page, and then you can go wherever you want to from there." "Oh Miss, can we do more like this?" pleaded a Year 8 pupil to her English teacher. Meanwhile, another Year 8 pupil confided as he showed his work: "We had planned to have more information, but we spent too much time trying to import images."

The scheme appears to have been a success. But let me begin at the beginning. Gabriel Goldstein, specialist adviser for IT with the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), was concerned that pupils were not attaining the higher-order ICT skills sought in the nationalcurriculum.

His approach to tackling the skills shortfall focuses on "communicating information". He believed that, first, pupils should present coursework using ICT in various and interesting ways, and to think about why they would choose to present it in this form. Second, pupils should consider who will see the presentation and develop their material with the audience in mind.

Gabriel Goldstein sees authoring multimedia, with its mix of sound, animation, text and graphics in an interactive presentation, as an ideal way to achieve these goals. He told a group of teachers at the start of the Thameslea project: "This is the joy of it: multimedia gives a form of expression which you can evaluate with different audiences with different outcomes, and that's the higher level that we ought to be aiming for. That's basically what education is about."

The ThamesleaBBC Multimedia Project represented an attempt to advance these ideas. One school from each borough in the Thameslea area worked on a curriculum multimedia project supported by their advisory teachers. There were five Year 8 English classes and six primary schools involved.

The secondary schools made presentations around a book or play they were reading. The primary classes covered science, history and literacy. The BBC filmed the teachers for two Teaching Today programmes as they were being trained and watched the progression of classes at two schools: one primary and one secondary.

The project began with a training weekend for two teachers from each school. They were taught to use HyperStudio, an authoring software program, and were given advice from a number of speakers.

A feedback day six weeks later brought the teachers together again to share their experiences of classroom work. They displayed planning sheets showing ideas and page sequences put together in brainstorming sessions.

They described their research and fieldwork, the collaborations between Year 5 and Year 2 classes and the process of modifying their ideas after gaining feedback from an audience of other pupils.

This was a challenging experience for the participating teachers. They described pupils adding French to a project on food, copying and pasting body organs, manipulating film and still images and drawing Victorian artefacts. They described their difficulties and successes, the wonder of animation, the frustration of losing work, the technical limitations and the satisfaction of overcoming it all and pulling the project together. Despite feeling like technical novices and concerns that computers take up a lot of curriculum time, the teachers were almost unanimously pleased with the project, and excited by their pupils' response.

"The pupils are now more confident about using the computer," said one primary teacher. "They used to just play, but now they will investigate, looking at the tool bar and options and discovering things." And another said: "It motivated children to research the topic on their own and in more detail than usual."

One secondary English teacher was especially taken by the non-linear nature of HyperStudio. Pupils' presentations, produced as a series of on-screen pages, could be linked together in a variety of complex structures.

In another secondary school, though the pupils didn't have a lot to show at the end of their project, the teacher felt that the discipline of thinking interactively was very useful. This view was reinforced by another secondary school teacher who described how pupils, working in teams, had became absorbed in the work. He said: "The best thing about it was the collaboration. I could hear a group in the corner there, the nicest kids you could meet, having a furious discussion about how a screen should look."

The general consensus was that multimedia authoring in the classroom has a powerful effect on both learning and teaching. One primary deputy head said: "The computer isn't just sitting in the corner. It's there for all sorts of reasons, not just for running programs that the children haven't invented themselves."

A secondary English teacher welcomed the technology as a way of extending concepts of literacy. He argued: "We're up to the 21st century in terms of technology, but only in the 20th century in terms of reading. The definition of reading ought to be widened to include all sorts of things."

The project has put multimedia authoring on the agenda within the participating schools. It inspired thought and discussion, which is vital to develop educational theory to complement the practice for such a new medium as this.

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