Far from subverting the imagination, ICT offers unlimited creative possibilities for students at a technology college in Wakefield. Gerald Haigh reports
You can see pupils' artwork wherever you go in Ossett School - a technology college in Wakefield with 1,700 students. Paintings, drawings and prints look down on you in reception and in the corridors. The head proudly points out the favourites in his study. It is a striking and welcome feature, as is the variety of styles and media on show. Some, for example, have been produced with the help of computer software and are excellent examples of advertisements, logos and posters.
You might not guess, however, that other works, such as the haunting, slightly disturbing image of a face emerging from a misty background, have also spent time on a computer screen on their way to completion.
Anyone who thinks that using computers in art risks subverting the imagination should visit Ossett's art department and talk to John Havelock - a head of faculty with almost 35 years' teaching experience, who is clearly the last person to be giving up on the creative process. The department's 14 computers are used as creative tools into which ideas are fed, modified and developed.
"It's a free-flowing process - a way of handling a lot of ideas quickly," says John.
Students begin their work by drawing freehand in a sketchbook, then they scan their pictures into the computer and change the image on screen by selecting sections and playing with the colours and shapes.
One of John's GCSE graphics projects, for example, asks students to do a design makeover of a familiar product, such as a chocolate bar or even a favourite activity (one girl had chosen to do a corporate look for the martial art Taekwondo). The presentation of this consists of a logo, typeface, business card, letter-heading, and the corporate signwriting and logo on a truck. The designs are striking. The Taekwondo logo is the head of a fierce and spiky oriental beast, and obviously the result of original thought, rather than of rooting around for images in the computer.
Clip art is usually "a complete no-no," but John says it was used for the truck, because spending time drawing the item was not the point of the exercise.
A scanner plays a key part in the work. John points to a collage of shells under water, created by a Year 10 girl. Next to it is another piece that repeats the pattern. "The student chose a particularly interesting part of the collage, scanned it in and used the computer software to produce the repeating pattern."
What's interesting is that the computer image, though different from the original collage, retains some of its feel and both pieces benefit from being seen together. "I've always done that sort of thing," says John. "But before we had computers we did it by tracing. It was mind-numbingly boring and it took forever. The computer takes out the drudgery."
Another way to get images into the computer is to use a digital camera. In an AS-level project on portraits, for example, students take pictures of faces, try out various manipulations of colour and shape on the screen, and then use the result as inspiration for painting, drawing or three-dimensional work. The haunting portrait in the head's study is an example of how this can work. John explains: "In this case the student had already done a self-portrait in clay. He photographed that with the digital camera and then manipulated the image into a sort of Impressionist style.
Then he used the palette-knife technique to do his own version of the image that came out. He would never have done it that way if he hadn't had the computer image to start with."
You can, he points out, photograph or scan what you have produced and manipulate the image again at any point. "It can go back through the mincer time and again," he says. "Ideas flow in and out of the computer."
Ossett's art department has a network of 14 computers in a room easily accessible to the specialist art rooms. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the equipment has been handed to the department on a plate.
"Twelve years ago we had one Atari," says John. "To get more, we started a school magazine and sold advertising to local firms."
Computer benches were bought after the department provided artwork for new BT offices. A colour printer and some software was the result of winning a competition to design a logo for a local shopping centre.
Impressed with the department's initiative, school management started to take notice. The Ataris were replaced with seven PCs. "You have to make yourselves up-front, putting art everywhere and doing jobs for people - posters, labels," says John. And, as he points out, these jobs can be coursework projects and assignments for students.
When it came to choosing and using software, he used the same self-help approach. "I knew the local newspaper carried a lot of computer graphics, so I just rang them up and asked them what they used, and could I come down and watch?"
The paper used Corel Draw, so that's what John learned and what the school still uses, along with associated Corel packages such as Corel Trace for transferring scanned images and Corel Photo for handling digital camera images.
As you would expect, he and his students have together learned a great deal - much of it by trial and error. He decided, for example, that drawing on the screen with a mouse is not really possible. "I thought we had the answer in the digitising tablets that you can draw on," he says. "The plan was to replace each mouse with one of those."
However the results were unsatisfactory and the tablets, which cost around pound;75 each, proved an unjustifiable expense. "I thought we might be able to bypass the sketchbook, but really you can't. You need proper drawing with pencil and pen, and then the scanner."
Corel is used to the full with GCSE and AS-level students, where it has done wonders for motivation and achievement, especially among the boys. "It has narrowed the gap," says John.
"We were getting a big difference between boys and girls in GCSE, and we've narrowed it down now."
Lower down the school the software is used in a more basic way, for drawing and research using the internet. "The first Year 7 project is to research cave painting as homework or using the department computers at lunchtime.
Recently, a Year 7 girl did a complete presentation on cave art using PowerPoint. Staff were asking her how to do it."
John admits, however, that with the larger classes in key stage 3 he is not able to do as much computer work as he does with the smaller groups in KS4.
"It's difficult to work with 30 children and 14 computers," he says.
"I've done it, but it is not easy, and if other schools have cracked that I would like to hear from them."
TEACHING TIPS AND RESOURCES
* Raise the department's profile by producing magazines, displays and posters. It can pay off in all sorts of ways.
* Remember that the main advantage of using a computer is that you can freely and quickly test ideas, discarding them or saving them as you desire.
* See the computer as a tool in the process, not as the sole way of producing work.
* Don't cut corners on the scanner. A cheap one is a waste of money because it's slow and will hold things up. You need one that is fast enough to scan a sheet of A4 paper in three or four seconds. One scanner is enough as students won't all be needing it at the same time.
* The same rules apply to the printer. You need a good colour printer that will produce A3 copies. If you also have a black and white laser printer you will save money by seeing how your ideas look before using the colour printer.
* Buy the best digital camera you can afford and one that stores pictures on disk. These are much more flexible for classroom use than the ones that download direct into the computer. For artwork you will also need a zoom lens, so you can frame the picture.
* If you are lobbying for computers in your department, also push for good technical support. It's not enough to rely on a teacher who happens to have the technical knowledge.
* Use the students' expertise. They have a great knowledge of computers and technology. You can really learn from them.
* Provide out-of-hours access to the computers for students who don't have one at home.
Ossett school buys Corel from Phoenix Software, 308-310 Tadcaster Road, York Y024 1GF Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel: 01904 700101 Fax: 01904 700909
Key stages 1 to 4 Logotron www.logo.comcatviewflying-colours.html
Kaleidescope2 Inclusive Technology For young children or those with learning difficulties www.inclusive.co.ukcatalogkaleidos.shtml
Kudlian Software For young children www.kudlian.net
GranadaSemerc Dazzle claims to be flexible enough to cover all age ranges www.granadalearning.co.ukschoolcatalogjspsproduct.jsp?product=72
The Becta site has a number of pages on using paint software www.becta.org.ukinclusionsenresourcespaintsoftware
The Bryant Foundation Collection has examples of Caribbean artwww.lib.ucf.eduBryant
Artcyclopedia has examples of fine art www.artcyclopedia.com
The Cave of Lascaux www.culture.frculturearcnatlascauxen
National Society for Education in Art and Design www.nsead.org
Campaign for Drawing is good for teachers at all levels who are encouraging and teaching children to drawwww.drawingpower.org.uk
Art Education has art teaching ideas for teachers in all sectorswww.art-education.co.uk
Asian Art Museum www.asianart.org
AccessArt features online workshops, photography, drawings, installations and morewww.accessart.org.uk