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Surviving the jungle

A 10-step guide to using multimedia for classroomprojects. By Vivi Lachs.

So you've been around the BETT show, seen some great computer work with sound and animation that pupils have been doing in history, English and science, and you want to have a go. Great idea! But before you do, take a deep breath and count to 10.

1 What is multimedia? Like its predecessor the pencil, multimedia is a presentation tool. Using multimedia means using electronic media, such as computers and videos, to combine information from different sources and present it in a more varied and participatory way than was ever possible with paper and pencil. You can incorporate sound, for example, or moving pictures (using animation or video). You can use photographs or your own artwork, and write text so that it scrolls automatically or disappears when you click the mouse. You can make a presentation that is interactive and fun, and at the same time conveys facts, tells a story or explains science work. As a teacher, you may use it to consolidate what pupils already know or extend what they know through research, or introduce a new topic.

Example: Year 6, Britain since the 1930s. A group of pupils are midway through the project, writing a report on Anne Frank and Odette Sansom. The work includes the pupils reciting poetry they have composed and animation of Odette parachuting into occupied territory. The pupils have decided that they could make it more exciting if they interviewed a school dinner lady who was evacuated during the war. They add a photograph of her, with her commentary of running to an air-raid shelter as a voice-over.

2 What type of information do you use? You may want to use multimedia to organise facts, or your pupils' own creative ideas, or a mix of both.

Example: Year 5, plant life. There are lots of different areas to look at. At the computers, two children animate how seeds are dispersed, another two draw and write about the life cycle of a dandelion, two more speak into the computer about an experiment in the classroom. All the work is drawn together with an opening screen which lets you explore any of these areas.

3 Who is the audience? A multi-media presentation may be printed out but it is more likely to be used on the computer. It may be a means for the authors to show what they have learned. It may be a story written for a younger age group to read. It may be a teaching tool for a parallel class. And it may be useful to you as a means of assessment.

Example: Year 8, English - The Ancient Mariner. Working in pairs, pupils draw an image to go with some lines from the poem, to be linked together. Some write what the lines remind them of, and some write new poems incorporating the same lines. This work will also be linked. The Ancient Mariner is a poem that is taught each year, so the pupils know that next year their multimedia presentation will be used by another Year 8 class as a starting point for their own exploration of the poem.

4 How much information are you going to use? Think about how much you would like to use. Halve it.

5 Where will the lessons happen? Some classrooms have one computer. Sometimes a neighbouring teacher will lend you another. Some schools have computer rooms. (Are they ever available when you want them?) Example: Year 8, a science class working on the periodic table. Two computers are wheeled into the science lab. Each week four pupils spend a lesson animating one or two chemical reactions. The whole class has a turn.

6 Who will have their hands on the keyboard? You may want the whole class involved or just a small group, who can then pass on their acquired knowledge to the others.

Example: Year 5 class. There are three high-achieving pupils using multimedia to do a project on the church next to the school. They are getting more computer time than the others but they end up knowing the software very well and can explain it to their classmates. A year 4 class has its special needs pupils working on pollution. The teachers are delighted at their increased confidence.

7 How long will it take? Working in multimedia will be a new experience for children, but it has all the allure of computer games. The programs are more exciting now as they can "write" with music and pictures as well as words. Because it is new we are not experts yet, so we are allowed to make mistakes. But take it slowly. The pupils will be fulfilling a range of ICT requirements at the same time as gaining enthusiasm for the subject. It may take three weeks with sessions twice a week in class plus during breaks. It may take a term with sessions once a week. It may be a year-long project across lots of classes. It may be that the pupils already know the program from having used it before. If it is new to them, add in time to play. Their best work will come after a couple of sessions.

8 Can I use video? Well, you have lots of media to choose from. You can use text, pictures, sound, photographs (these can come from a photo CD, a digital camera or ordinary printed pictures that have been scanned in), animation and video. You can use all of these or you can use a few. Sound works a treat. Animation is lots of fun. Video is time consuming.

Example: Year 5, a project on the moon. There is an animated sequence showing the different phases of the moon while a pupil's voice-over explains. The next page has textual explanations and diagrams.

9 How will the presentation be structured? It may be a sequential report or a story. But the special strength of multimedia is that it doesn't have to be sequential. It may be a number of chunks of information linked by a common idea. It may be essentially linear but with two possible endings. It may be a web-type structure with lots of possible links. It may be an adventure story format with choices as to which direction you take.

Example: Year 6, a group working on ancient Egypt start with an artefact. The eventual questions for the audience will be: what is it and who doesdid it belong to? Pupils add information about the Nile, the pyramids and the underworld. The presentation will ask users to choose a way to find out more. Every choice will yield interesting information, if not the answer to the question.

10 Plan it out! You may plan a project as a whole class, or different groups might plan different parts. Get it down on paper first rather than on the computer. This map will be passed around, changed, scrawled on and become tatty and dog-eared, but it will prove invaluable.

Example: Year 56, pupils design an adventure game called Find The Tigers, in which the objective is to find three hidden tigers and disarm two hunters. The player is often faced with a number of choices (for example, do you want to follow the path or crawl through the reeds?). In planning the game, the pupils draw boxes on paper to represent screens. These boxes are linked with arrows to show what would happen if you clicked on that box.

And finally...

Who is going to collect the work from different computers, link it and make sure it all fits? And gather those technical bits and bobs that were forgotten in the mayhem of creativity? If it's going to be you, give yourself some time and beware of running out of computer memory. And remember, you have learned a fabulous new skill. It will be much easier next time.

Vivi Lachs is an advisory teacher for ICT in Hackney, east London. The examples cited are from work done in the borough.

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