Pixel perfection

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Douglas Blane visits a special school where pupils use industry-standard software

At Gadburn School in Glasgow they have found a novel solution to the problem of falling pupil rolls - they make new pupils out of old. It's a high-tech type of cloning that is not too difficult, perfectly legal, but not perhaps the complete answer.

Headteacher Gavin Hercus pauses during his guided tour of the school's foyer and corridor, which are lined with lovely, coloured images neatly classified by project, to point out a set of children's photo. Three smiling, fair-haired faces peer out at the viewer from a background of lush green foliage. They are Declan, Alistair and, right in the middle, Decal - whom the first two boys created by morphing images of themselves.

"Gadburn is a special school for kids aged five to 12 with moderate learning difficulties," Gavin explains. "And it is quite astonishing what they can do in the right environment."

He draws attention to the collection of certificates recording the award-winning achievements of the pupils: two Artworks awards, an Arts Council Award, a Gold Enterprise Award, an Innovations Award from Learning and Teaching Scotland. "That one was valuable, almost pound;5,000, and allowed us to buy this wonderful system," says art teacher Alison Gilmore, pointing to a Dell Dimension 8250. The PC occupies a corner of her classroom and looks like far too much computer for these children.

Even if the hardware is not, then surely Alison's favourite software must be? Photoshop Elements is an accessible, affordable version of the highly sophisticated industry standard. She says the trick was not telling that to the pupils. "They have no conception of it being difficult to use. It takes the young ones time to acquire the fine motor skills to use the pull-down menus, but they keep at it because they are motivated. They think it's fun so they are learning without stress.

"Some of the kids can't read, and even those who can do not have words like 'liquify' and 'distort' in their vocabularies. That doesn't stop them getting the effects they want by remembering what to do. And they pick things up so fast."

All the children in the school now have portfolios of their computer artwork, she says, even those who had never used a computer before, let alone Photoshop Elements.

"We've got this bright, wee lad of five who did this beautiful collage," says Alison, holding up a seascape of shells and carefully sketched waves.

"Then he stood on a chair and took photos of it with the digital camera, before trotting over to the computer and popping the media card into the reader. Then we showed him how to bring his images up on the screen and burn them on to CD."

When the computer arrived, Alison started the children off with programs supposedly more suitable for their ages and abilities, such as Kidpix and Appleworks 4. But learning difficulties or not, she says, these pupils are quite adult in their analysis of situations, so the juvenile nature of the interface was demotivating.

At this point the school bell rings loudly, and a group of lively children troop in, gather around the computer and introduce themselves: Christopher and Jason, both 11, Robert and Lisa, both 10. Christopher sits down at the computer, opens his folder, pulls up an image of himself and, without hesitation, goes into Filters and Liquify and begins distorting his face.

"Click on your forehead and let's see your brains," Robert encourages him.

Alison says most of the computer art the pupils have created, including the project that recently won an Arts Council Chrisi Bailey Award, has used images of themselves in some novel fashion. This motivates and amuses them, she explains.

Lisa demonstrates when it is her turn on the computer by asking if she can "mess up her face". But surely she would prefer to make it even prettier? "Nah, that would be no fun," she replies, pulling the left eye on her photograph down her cheek and distorting the nose to see up her nostrils.

Later, however, when one of the boys brings Lisa's face up and begins liquefying it, she gets quite distressed: "Stop it! That's horrible!" she shouts. This suggests that seeing your own face distorted by computer is fun for young people if they do it themselves, but can be scary when someone else is in control.

On Jason's turn he initially selects the ever-popular Liquify, but obligingly runs through other features including Solarize, Glowing Edges, Coloured Pencil, Posterize, and Colour Picker, when asked. "You are in the pink, now," his teacher comments. Jason clicks and drags a pointer, altering the colours on the image of his face: "Now I'm in the blue," he says.

The project that won the Arts Council Award, says Alison, was one in which the children "transported themselves to a different world in their imaginations, and enjoyed an experience that was outside their everyday world".

"One boy said he had nowhere to play, so he made this model with card and paper, photographed it, and used Photoshop to crop a picture of himself and place it in the scene." She points to a striking image, with a dark silhouette of the boy Daniel striding across a curved, silver structure set in a hauntingly lit, futuristic city.

A very popular Photoshop feature with the children is Crop Tool, which they use to combine images from different photographs, and place themselves in exotic situations. Others prefer making little models and using them in their composite images, or using a CD resource called Art Explosion. "This is fantastic - hundreds of thousands of images and no copyright problem," Alison says.

When the lesson ends, headteacher Gavin Hercus sums up the startling effects of computer art on "children who expect to fail": "All our kids have been involved, no matter how profound their learning difficulty, and all have benefited. In art there are no mistakes, only opportunities to discover. The projects are well-planned but retain an ability to react to a spontaneous spark of children's creativity. They give them a taste of success and they have reached attainment levels few teachers or parents would have believed possible."

See The Issue on dyspraxia in this week's Friday magazine

Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0

According to Amazon, this consists of "the most widely-used parts of Photoshop with tweaks to the interface to make them easier to use".

According to PCWorld it is far from a cut-down version: "Photoshop Elements 2.0 adds functions particularly suited to digital photography."

According to Alison Gilmore, art teacher at Gadburn School: "Computers were just a yawn until I discovered Photoshop Elements."

System requirements are 128 Mb RAM, 150 Mb free hard disk space, CD-Rom drive, and a colour monitor that can display thousands of colours at a minimum resolution of 800x600.

Photoshop Elements costs pound;29 ex VAT from education suppliers.

The Photoshop Elements website offers descriptions of features, a growing collection of tutorials, and the ability to download a free demonstration version.


Art Explosion 600,000 Images

Twenty-one CDs containing 600,000 royalty-free images, mostly in colour, on hundreds of topics - alphabets, Americana, beauty, cartoons, clothing, crests, flags, fantasy - that the Gadburn children use to create virtual worlds and populate them with their own images and stories.

Cost is pound;44.95 from Amazon, $79.95 from Nova Development www.novadevelopment.comproductsproductinfo.aspx?productcode=aqw

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