Authors of art and invention

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Multimedia offers exciting opportunities, but don't let the technology obscure the learning, writes Vivi Lachs

Pupils are authoring multimedia more than ever before - to make animations to develop particular concepts in science, or a non-linear narrative structure to look at the characters in a book. In history, they may present the results of their studies through designing an interactive game. This year's National Education Multimedia Awards (NEMA) is the fourth in five years and attracts very impressive work by pupils' across the country. Schools and boroughs are producing CD-Roms and websites to display students' multimedia work.

The two issues of greatest importance to teachers relate to what the educational implications of this sort of work are, and how it fits into national curriculum requirements.

At a conference last autumn, broadcast as part of the BBC's Teaching Today series, Gabriel Goldstein, specialist adviser for the Office for Standards in Education, spoke vibrantly about the value of multimedia authoring in the classroom.

Being able to create multimedia has motivated pupils to "combine the sense of fun with some form of progression along the quantitative route of actually increasing attainment, increasing progress", he says.

Gabriel Goldstein engages teachers with his enthusiasm, yet he is not an uncritical advocate of multimedia authoring. Indeed, he is worried about the increase in the lure of brightly coloured and slick information-endowed multimedia and CD-Roms in the classroom. "I sometimes fear that in the information age youngsters will be growing up to be very clever at manipulating information but will not know the value of it or where it has originated from." With this in mind, he is committed to finding assessment criteria that really reflect the work pupils have put into their product, as well as how they have considered the information used.

He says teachers need to be clear on how much of the particular curriculum subject is being learned, as opposed to just IT. The product is important in terms of an audience being able to use it interactively, but the process is important for the pupils' social, moral and cultural self development and co-operation.

He emphasises that evaluation cannot, therefore, focus on the product alone. Instead, the pupil must be asked about it, as the final presentation will not show the process they have employed to create it.

In terms of the national curriculum, he describes how different levels can be reached by the way pupils consider their audience. They may make something simply for people to look at without having a clear group of users in mind. A higher level sees pupils with a more critical awareness, asking for feedback and acting on that advice. They move further along the progressive route by considering different audiences with different agendas - it may be age or gender. Pupils' achievement increases as they move from a general idea of audience to a specific one.

Gabriel Goldstein elaborates on the possibilities that authoring offers in terms of co-operation and working with others. He talks not only about pupils and their work, but of teachers working on curriculum development in this area. We need to be prepared to "share good practice, not-so-good practice, make mistakes together and take it forward in a playful way, initially, but very purposefully", he says.

He uses words such as "play", "fun" and "joy" in his descriptions of good learning, not words that we see enough of in education.

Asked how teachers could deal with the time commitment involved with multimedia authoring, he says: "We need IT playing fields in our schools and we haven't got them yet because time is taken up with exam syllabuses and GCSE courses."

He compares the "playing field" with a school orchestra. It may not be found in the curriculum, but that doesn't diminish its importance. The school orchestra is the music playing field. The IT playing field should be an area where, taught the basics, pupils are "left alone with opportunities to develop outside of formal lessons".

Gabriel Goldstein is still slightly tentative, due to there being inadequate research to show whether multimedia authoring really works or not. "We must not use multimedia for the sake of multimedia, but use it where it really adds value and expression," he says.

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