Wonderful wizard of Flash captivates them all

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Few teachers have been brave enough to bring commercial standard multimedia software to the classroom in the past. But, as John Davitt finds out, Macromedia Flash is helping to change all that.

Nick Park of Chicken Run and The Wrong Trousers fame has clear memories of only one day of his school life - the day the teachers gave him Plasticine. His Dad gave him a camera and the rest is history.

We know there's much curriculum potential for using animation - the place where image meets movement and time - but until now there have been few tools fit for classroom use. We've also been a bit short of teachers brave enough to try commercial standard animation and multimedia software with young children just to see what happens.

The second age of multimedia is about to happen, however, as teachers look afresh at the potential of new animation software. I went to see Geoff Dellow an ex-ICI research scientist, turned teacher, turned adviser to the Redbridge NGFL project.

I arrived at Newbury Park Infant School, Redbridge, to find a small, silver-haired man speaking quietly to a group of fifteen seven-year-olds. They had been working on a Kenyan project over the last five weeks. Two weeks earlier they had been in the playground lighting fires (in controlled circumstances) to see how flames behaved, then they had built their version of flames using animation software. Next they had scanned in their vibrant hand-drawn pictures of life in an African village and they were adding the dancing fires to the foreground. To do this they were using Flash 4 animation software.

Macromedia Flash, now at feature-rich version 5, is rapidly being accepted by the commercial world as the animation and Web authoring tool of choice, due to its great flexibility in handling multimedia and logical programming. It's also very efficient at handling sound, using the MP3 format to squeeze a lot of sound into a small file size. Simple sound and movement projects only require 10k storage space, which means you could squeeze 150 multimedia works on to one floppy disc.

Special education deals mean that Flash is now a cheaper option than any of the more limited multimedia software usually bought by schools. Built around a time-line metaphor Flash allows you to choose what actions you want to achieve and place objects in various stage positions so that they move over time. Originally designed as a drawing package, Flash also features some unique graphic tools; you can draw a rough outline and Flash tidies it up and makes it look professional - children love this. Buttons can be included to increase the control and interactivity and a large library of tutorials, graphics, sounds and templates is included as part of the software.

Some 200 million computers are estimated to have the Flash plug-in installed in their browsers, so if you publish your work on the Internet there's an enormous potential audience. As the file size is small, viewers will see it without having to wait.

Until recently, Flash has been a Web design tool with few takers in the classroom. Until now perhaps we've been a little too ready to give children simple software with poor quality clip art. Make no mistake Flash is challenging software with a steep learning curve. You have to decide which images you want and how you want them to behave over time. In addition, you can add scripts to make things happen.

Dellow has developed this work over a series of weeks, blending the children's hand-drawn work with computer-generated movement. Now the class is faced with the genuine challenge of brnging the tableau of an African village to life with moving carts and dancing flames.

Here in the classroom I see the students doing something difficult and succeeding. It's an activity where the creative rewards are high and their brains are starting to hurt a little. I ask what they are doing and most are able to articulate the challenge. One boy describes the mathematical difficulty of getting the wheel to spin in the right direction as his cart moves across the screen, another tells me of the magical "multiple undo" command which allows you to go right back to where you started, should you need to.

Dellow is a man on a mission. He is motivated by the opportunity to develop higher order thinking and problem-solving skills - to let learners have some fun in an environment of high challenge. He is in part driven by the potential sterility of an overly prescribed curriculum and he wants to make sure that challenging tasks of designing, developing and editing their own animations are learning opportunities increasingly available to students in primary schools across the subject barriers.

Dellow even visits students' homes and installs a 90-day demo version of the software for parents. Whatever he's doing it's working - one young mother stopped him in the corridor to talk about the after-school club.

Dellow's initial strategy is to introduce children to Flash using templates - existing structures into which the children place their own content. "These require a limited input to achieve a dramatic result," he explains. Examples on his website include work done by primary students making their own butterflies, which was done in under an hour.

"A very big plus is the ability to display the work on the Internet, and the children are now in regular contact with people across the world in connection with their work," says Dellow. "Another recent development has been the sharing of working files with other schools that have started doing similar work so that students get to see what others can do with the same ideas."

Whatever he's doing, it's working. As I leave, one seven-year-old says:

"Sometimes I struggle - it is a struggle you know." She tells me this and her eyes light up. "I want to be like Geoff when I grow up," she adds.

The results of the children's efforts can be seen at www.tygh.co.ukstudents. Other brilliant examples of multimedia work in Flash by primary students may be found at www.ambleside.schoolzone.co.ukambleweb and www.dfee.org (the department for electronic education), this site contains lots of useful key stage 1 numeracy materials ideal for use with an interactive whiteboard.

A trial version of Flash can be downloaded from www.macromedia.comsoftwareflashtrial. See box on page 27 for Macromedia's special education deal on its Web Design Studio.

Web safety

1. Establish a code of Internet conduct with clear guidelines.

2. Consider some sort of Internet safety filter.

3. Never reveal private or personal information about children on your site.

4. Think carefully before publishing any photographs and then only publish them when you have permission.

5. Let children know that you can track their Web use.

6. Encourage children to use aliases when corresponding via email.

7. Check thoroughly before linking to other sites.

8. Choose search engines with care.

9. Visit other school sites and compare safety procedures.

10. Webcams can be a great addition to your site, but be aware that the only editorial control is where they are placed.

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