Weaving the dream

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Traditional skills and electronic media can be combined to great effect through building a website, writes Douglas Blane

Art is what makes us human. It is the single activity used by anthropologists to distinguish us from our pre-human ancestors. But right from the start the artists were being asked to justify themselves and their work: "How come you get to stay in the cave and paint mammoths on the wall while I have to go out in all weathers and hunt the damn things?"

Some 30,000 years later it's the same story. While computer-literate designers reshape the real world and create virtual ones in cyberspace, school art and design departments struggle to convince decision-makers of the value of their subject.

"We are constantly having to argue for the ICT equipment we need because we are not a core subject," says Allan McMillan, Auchinleck Academy's principal teacher of art and design.

Yet Auchinleck, in East Ayrshire, has an art and design department that illustrates better than most the benefits of ICT to pupils and teachers.

The departmental website created by one of its young teachers, and used extensively in learning and teaching, has won several awards. It is so educationally impressive that designer Pamela Baxter has now been given time out of the classroom to create two more websites - one for the school and another for the local education authority. At every opportunity she shares her ICT expertise with her colleagues.

Somehow she finds time to squeeze a little classroom teaching - well, actually quite a lot - into a busy schedule. In this morning's lesson her third-year pupils are learning how Adobe Photoshop, one of the most important resources in developing the website, can enhance their own brightly coloured images of wildlife, created by them using gouache on paper, and then digitally photographed.

This is the students' second session on the computers, during which they will move from the first experimental phase of design to a more critical, analytic stage: "Last time you used the computers to play about with your images and you went a bit mad," Pamela Baxter tells them.

"You experimented with filters and liquefying and all sorts of weird stuff.

But so many things you can do on the computer can spoil something you've spent a long time creating. So at the end of today I'll be assessing what you've done in terms of how selective you have been, and whether you have improved your images."

Website design is a pursuit in which art and design skills greatly enhance the finished product. It is also a fruitful field for enterprise activities and future careers. So, although not yet part of the art and design curriculum, it is likely to become so in the near future. Training pupils in web design is also part of the answer to the perennial problem of key ICT skills being invested in too few people.

While she shares her expertise freely among her colleagues, there is no substitute for experience. She created the department website and is the lead designer for the school and local authority websites. Great websites deliver novelty, surprise and innovation, so if Pamela Baxter were to leave Auchinleck Academy the quality of these websites could suffer.

According to her pupils, Photoshop offers a huge variety of options, but it is not too difficult to use: "It seems complicated at first," says Jacqueline Knox, who has just turned a fox's head into a striking image that might have been sculpted from old stone. "There are so many options - but once you find your way around I think it's fairly easy."

Lisa McCreadie, who has mutated a long-legged green frog into a surreal creature that glows like cool neon, explains that one of the most valuable aspects of the software is its memory. "If I didn't like that blue colour, for instance, I could use the 'History' option to step back to where I was," she says. "That means you can try lots of different things and see if you like them."

As web design is now accessible to everyone, the necessary expertise can be located within the school. "Companies out there have latched on to the fact that schools need websites," Pamela Baxter explains. "So they are using databases to design and maintain school websites, while the staff can upload certain pages without needing any ICT expertise.

"But what you get is basically just a prospectus - pages and pages of information that tell you all about the school. That's fine as far as it goes, but a school website can do so much more, especially for pupils. They can download their homework. They can access revision material and course notes. They can do research. They can take part in online quizzes which are fun and help them learn."

Teachers are the key to creating this kind of interactive, highly educational school website, she says. But they do not need advanced programming skills.

"The internet itself is the best resource for web design, and you don't need in-depth knowledge of horrible stuff like HTML code," she says.

Even so, the time required to develop a good website should not be underestimated, and nor should the planning needed to make a site attractive and interesting enough to entice people back time and again. But doing so is a "very rewarding and exciting experience".

At the end of Pamela Baxter's lesson, the pupils save their work before she draws the class together by projecting selected images on a screen and commenting on the best features of what the students have done.

"Compare this with how the image began,"she says. "It's not too far away but you can see how it has been enhanced. The layout of the text you have added is also well thought out."

The students troop out, talking animatedly about their efforts, while Pamela Baxter stays behind to explain the department's plans to integrate these Photoshop lessons into a new course on website design: "The idea is to target local businesses and get them to sponsor us. In return we will design their websites for them, with each pupil responsible for a different page."

This project will not only motivate young people and attract welcome funding, but also disseminate website skills more widely so that ownership of the school and departmental websites will no longer be vested in just one person.

It is a process that head of department Allan McMillan is keen to encourage, and one he already sees happening.

"The ICT skills of the rest of our staff have improved greatly as a result of Pamela being here," he says. "You can spend a lot of money sending teachers on Photoshop courses, for instance, but it's not always money well spent. Teachers often learn more from working with a colleague who already has the expertise they need. I am very keen to encourage ICT in art and design, as long as it's not at the expense of traditional skills like drawing and painting. The hands-on and the tactile are still the life-blood of our department."

It's a sentiment with which ICT enthusiast Pamela Baxter is - perhaps surprisingly - in complete agreement. "You can't beat the texture and the smell of paint," she says. "I do not think computers will ever take over from the marks we make on paper with a pencil or a brush. ICT is just a tool - but it is a very powerful tool."

Educationalwebsite DIY The Auchinleck Academy website is a platform for lessons and provides comprehensive resources for individual study. There is a home page for each year group, with links to course notes, activities, homework assignments, exemplars of students' work, recommended external links and helpful advice.

There are separate sections on ICT, news and events, resources for teachers, and links to art galleries.

Art students often complain when asked to write critical evaluations, says Pamela Baxter. But the website helps to motivate them by providing vocabulary, phrase banks and help sheets, as well as links to sites containing images and quotations to support their evaluations: "Recently it has been difficult to stop pupils gathering information and completing written work, " she says.

Educational websites must be well planned - "like creating a mind map of the curriculum". Designers should keep in mind the purpose of the site and the nature of the audience. Pages need to be user-friendly. Some sites use clever devices such as background music and animations, which impress at first but soon annoy. Large files should be avoided: "If a page takes longer than 30 seconds to download, most visitors will leave the site through boredom," she says.

Options for web servers to host educational websites include local education authorities (which increasingly provide a URL address), free servers, or those that charge a fee. Free servers can include non-educational advertisements and material that may be inappropriate for pupils. Paid servers offer extra services, such as tools to help build your site, and you usually get a web address that is easy to remember.

RESOURCES FOR WEBSITE DESIGN

* Adobe Photoshop

All the graphics on the Auchinleck Academy website, including reproductions of pupils' original work, were created using Adobe Photoshop, the art and design industry-standard software. Among the many image manipulation features on offer, it can compress images from digital cameras or scanners so that web pages do not take hours to load: "Other more basic packages may be easier to use. But they control you and that can be very frustrating for a designer," Pamela Baxter points out.

* Multimedia Dreamweaver

Having created the graphics, Pamela Baxter used this web-page authoring program to build the website: "Dreamweaver allows you to be in control of your files and upload them instantly," she says. "However, for a basic website you can find templates on Microsoft Office or FrontPage."

* www.ngflscotland.gov.ukconnectedconnected6ictpracticepackartdesign.asp An article entitled "Packaging Art and Design", written by Pamela Baxter and published in the online magazine of the National Grid for Learning Scotland. It is full of useful advice for novice web designers and art teachers.

* http:graphicssoft.about. com librarycoursebllps5out.htm

A free but quite detailed online course on the use of Adobe Photoshop. The course can be worked through at the learner's own pace

* www.sites.ecosse.nettheartbase The award-winning Auchinleck Academy art and design website is an excellent example of a website whose raison d'etre is learning and teaching.

* www.ecosse.net

The web server used by Pamela Baxter: "It offers 50Mb of free space and emails with no advertising," she says

* http:javascript.internet. com

* www.webreference.comjs

For ease of use, access speed and design simplicity, special effects are kept to a minimum on the Auchinleck Academy website. Interactive quizzes have, however, been created using Javascript samples taken from the above sites, which also contain downloadable code for other interactive effects.

Ms Baxter says:"These websites explain where to paste the code. You do not have to understand the Javascript language - just where to put it."

Pamela Baxter will present a seminar for teachers who want to design, build and use their own websites for learning and teaching (especially of art and design) at the Scottish Education and Teaching with Technology (SETT) conference in Glasgow on September 24-25. For details, see the website www.settshow.com

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