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Pity the poor television producer. She serves a long and bitter apprentice ship learning how to blend sound, image and text into seamless and compelling documentaries. Then one day, she comes home from the office to find her seven-year-old doing much the same thing on the home computer.

Far fetched? All right, just a little. But the latest multimedia authoring software has brought media tools, previously the exclusive preserve of professionals, into the school and the home. Learning how to deploy these tools to maximum effect still takes time - but at least children can learn by doing rather than viewing. After digesting their 30th CD-Rom at Christmas they'll have seen there is as much value in making their own multimedia as there is in viewing other people's creations.

Recent competitions such as the National Educational Multimedia Awards (NEMA), organised by the National Council for Educational Technology, have shown the increased sophistication of multimedia work produced by children as young as seven or eight. Students are producing multimedia projects at home, often with the encouragement of parents who have caught the bug themselves.

Getting started

Multimedia authoring is a creative and challenging process . It involves mixing text, sound, graphics and even video on screen. Students must consider layout, style, legibility and potential audience. The student producers must think about connections, what screens should be linked and what sort of transitions should be used to get from one screen to another, many of them devices from film editing. The list of possible transitions is almost endless - wipes, dissolves, tumbles and cuts are all available.

Next come the hotspots or buttons. All multimedia software revolves around the use of areas of the screen that can be clicked with the mouse to make something happen. For example, a hotspot over picture of a cow might play a "moo" sound when clicked. You can have as many hotspots doing as many operations as you like. In time, learners will appreciate the need for self control - with freedom comes responsibility.

The learning for most students is in the doing. But the outcome can have a secondary value in helping to inspire others. When students produce such work on the computer they are sure to get an audience.

Planning ahead

As with all creative work it is important to have something to say before you start. Students at home or in school should be encouraged to plan and produce a storyboard away from the computer. Getting them to develop a basic sense of audience is also essential. The storyboard should outline what the students wish to communicate and the range of media they wish to deploy. Some schools make this a group activity where children place their draft page designs on the floor and walk around to get a feel for the navigation they want to provide.

Choosing a project

Decide on a collaborative project where possible. Ideas could include:

uHistorical projects - include interviews with local people, whose images could be linked to some audio memories. Student drawings and old photographs of the town could also be incorporated.

*School brochures - click your way around the school - meet the teachers, view the classes. Decide on a suitable level of formality;for example, a project for a parents' evening would be pitched differently to an anarchic student mag.

*Electronic family tree - use pictures or drawings of family members. Clicking on an image could lead to a screen with further information and sound bite.

*Personal interest - students could follow their own preferences, maybe producing a football club information file, a guide to fashion trends of the Sixties or a talking book for a younger child in the family.

Assigning roles

After the initial idea and storyboarding comes the division of labour. Multimedia authoring is an ideal group activity at home or in school - it's just like making movies. For example, one person can record a sound while another writes some text and adapts a picture.

Avoid too much freedom in the early days, however, and instead get groups to consider responsibilities and time scales. Even work that is to appear on screen can be completed by hand first. Some of the best backdrops are children's hand-painted scenes which are then scanned or photographed using a digital camera such as the Apple QuickTake or the Casio QV10a or QV100. A top-of-the-range digital camera, the PowerShot 600, has just been launched by Canon - image quality has to be seen to be believed.

Too much freedom damages creativity for most learners. Two key steps to prevent learners getting lost in hyperspace involve using templates and providing lots of raw materials such as clip art (a computer-based store of copyright-free images).

Templates are a kind of multimedia master document. They provide a skeleton, with the buttons or hotspots that link screens already in place. Learners canput in their own text, sound and images without havingto worry about how it fits to-gether to start with. Most of the available software comes with template examples.

A store of pictures and sounds is important because it allows learners to get started right away. Most software now comes with clip art - check before you buy. Many companies produce discs stuffed full of copyright-free images on CD-Rom.

Once the work is finished it needs to be shared. One machine in school should be used as a centre where a library of creations can be built up. Students can then get ideas by reviewing other people's work. Some computers, such as Apple AV machines or PCs with TV adaptor cards or boxes,allow work to be recorded on standard video-cassettes, so students' multimedia projects can end up as a video, a taped programme or a TV display.

At present, Macintosh, Acorn and PC software is mostly incompatible, but some key pieces of software are available for all formats. HyperStudio will run on the PC and Acorn as well as onthe Macintosh. It is also possible to interchange files between formats and this may provide a bridge for work between home and school.

Overlay keyboard users are also about to benefit from multimedia authoring access. The Advisory Unit has just produced Concept Plus Multimedia, a suite of programs which allows students to display graphics and play sounds and video clips directly from a Concept Keyboard.

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