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Scottish Learning Festival - Virtual art gallery lets pupils draw conclusions

As the sun sinks to the distant horizon, yellows and reds on the shimmering sea fade slowly to black, and the cluster of angular buildings high on the headland blazes with light and life. "It's gorgeous, isn't it?" Derek Robertson asks his audience, who nod their assent.

"In this virtual world, a day is just four hours long," explains Learning and Teaching Scotland's national adviser for learning futures. "Kids and teachers can take a break from interacting with artwork inside the galleries, stroll around outside, watch the sunset and chat to each other."

Children's Art at the National Virtual Arena of Scotland (CANVAS) is a new 3D virtual world in which pupils of all ages will exhibit paintings, drawings, photographs or films, move around the world as avatars and talk about art with pupils and teachers across the country.

"Access is through Glow, which makes this world safe and secure, unlike the popular Second Life, which uses similar technology," says Mr Robertson. "Our initial idea was to build one national virtual gallery, with local authorities taking four-week turns there to exhibit the best of pupils' artwork.

"But that's a three-year cycle, by which time the first authority would have forgotten what they'd done and the last would have given up. What we're now providing is a separate virtual gallery for pupils in every authority - which they can adapt - and a large main gallery where we'll exhibit pupils' and teachers' art, as well as artwork from actual galleries."

Active learning is at the heart of Scotland's new curriculum, with pupils listening, learning, talking and interacting with teachers and colleagues in every subject. So CANVAS is not just a gorgeous virtual world in which pupils wander around and gaze in wonder. It's a place for young people to get meaningful feedback on their creative efforts - and to give it.

"During the school day, you'll be able to talk to any artist or other visitor who is in the gallery at the same time as you," he says. "There's a space beside each painting to leave comments for the artist. A virtual button can be pressed to stream in a short video of the artist talking about the work - how they did it, the influences on them, what they were trying to convey.

"This is so much more than looking at paintings. It's about learning from artists and with colleagues and teachers. It's creating a community of positive, critical reflection."

CANVAS's origins lie in a meeting between Mr Robertson and Mark Duffy, director of virtual worlds company Second Places. "They've been creating virtual worlds for business and education. We came up with this idea for a national virtual art gallery, and been working on it ever since," says Mr Robertson. "There were times when we thought we'd never get here. Every authority has its own ideas, which is great. But a few initially wanted to turn off the chat between pupils, because they couldn't control what kids were saying to each other. They've all agreed now that chat will be enabled during the school day.

"CANVAS is fundamentally about dialogue, not just looking at art and listening to teachers. Glow lets us trace what people say in the virtual world, so there is accountability. And that element of peer assessment is invaluable and essential."

Both the beauty of a virtual world and the opportunity it affords pupils to exhibit their work to a wider audience - with all the motivation and impetus to excellence that brings - make art and design the ideal subject for a project like CANVAS. But there is already thinking on how it might be adapted to other subjects, says Mr Robertson.

Most offer fewer opportunities for exhibiting children's work. But the spontaneity and pupil-led learning in a virtual world, and the methods developed to support discussion, dialogue and interaction, are transferable to every area of the curriculum.

Oceanographers and earth scientists in the United States have created a variety of virtual worlds, including glaciers melting and coral reefs dying because of global warming. "You could teach science through virtual world crime scene investigations, which fascinate youngsters," he says. "I've this idea for reconstructing Linlithgow Palace and using avatars to explore the historical perspectives. There is no limit to the possibilities. This is a national resource with tremendous potential for motivating young people and improving their learning."


Second Places: www.secondplaces.netopencmsopencms.

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