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Bill Henderson
Robert Bateman Secondary School
Abbotsford, British Columbia

For some time, Bill Henderson tells us, educators have been saying that "the computer is a tool," but for many this is just a catch phrase. If computers are to be used as tools, to create works, then teachers should train the students accordingly. He wants to teach his students to see computers in a way similar to how craftspeople see chisels and planes; how artists see brushes and kilns; how performers see lights and cameras; how the author sees a word processor. Jacob Bronowski points out in The Ascent of Man that "the mark of man [sic] is the refinement of the hand in action."

Daryl Willms, Grade 9. Reproduced with permission of the artist.
Daryl Willms, Grade 9. Reproduced with permission of the artist.
Mr. Henderson understands how easy it is to get swept up in the "whiz-bang" aspects of new technology but he believes that computers have been around long enough that people should start thinking of them in practical, down-to-earth terms. It is important to remember that the person behind the computer is more important than the computer itself.

Below, Mr. Henderson talks about how he introduces his students to one of the most exciting applications of information technology, computer animation. He first introduces his students to storytelling and animation and then helps them learn to use the computer to realize their own creative ideas.

Transparent technology

With new technology, every student potentially knows as much as the teacher. In fact, the students can easily surpass the teacher's technical ability as they are afforded the opportunity to use the technology extensively while doing assignments. There is really no good reason to hold students back, so the role of the teacher becomes that of guiding and directing the student. I use the analogy of a ship's captain. I see my students as being on board as the group takes a journey of exploration and learning. Collectively they negotiate the waters, developing expertise and experience, which they share among each other. Students move forward, helping each other along the way. My challenge is to keep the ship and its precious cargo going in the most appropriate direction. It is a direction that, in my classroom and in many across this country, is charted in consultation with curriculum, industry and business specialists.

If you want to get students to use technology transparently, you have to get them focussed on the project not the tools. During the first few weeks of my Design Communications classes, students discuss the artistic side of character development and what it means to tell a story.

When it is time to work with the tools I find, paradoxically, that it is better to start with very low-level technology rather than the computers. To begin creating a character I ask the students to draw it in pencil. Why pencil? Because it is a familiar piece of technology; so familiar that people take it for granted. It is "transparent" technology. They focus on the character and its story, not on the technology. Unexplored technology, such as the computer and its software, is initially a barrier to creativity.

The exploration of technology

After conceptualizing their ideas in two-dimensional sketches, students use the software to create a three-dimensional model of their character and develop their ability to animate it. Their first efforts are usually simple interpretations of their original ideas. This is the skill-development stage of using technology.

I offer a variety of skill-building activities to develop specific technical abilities. Students quickly learn that technology does some things well and others not so well. A few years ago, for example, a girl wanted to create a teddy bear character and make it soft and furry, which is difficult and certainly not a task for a beginning computer modeller or animator. I took the student back to the beginning of the project and talked to her about what she wanted, which was a cuddly character. I was able to suggest how she might get that feeling in other ways: rather than trying to create fur she might make a bear with ears that are bent over so they seem softer. Or, she might have the bear move in certain ways so it would appear softer to the viewer. This allowed her to keep the original intent but use the computer technology in a way that was more appropriate for her skill level.

Students work with tutorials and other "monkey-see-monkey-do," canned learning opportunities to perfect their technical techniques. Their personal projects, such as developing characters, should be just that, personal; projects of which the student takes ownership. Tutorials rarely offer this level of possession. It is all very well, for example, to be able to create a fireball but the fireball has to have a purpose. Unless the students can explain the where and why of the fireball's existence, being able to create it is just an isolated skill of little creative or marketable purpose.

Brain trust

A critical life skill is the ability to work and communicate with others. Students have more learning opportunities, even in high-technology settings, when they work in groups. This approach is one of the most effective ways to get students to experiment, try new ideas and, therefore, learn how to use computer technology effectively. They bounce ideas off of one another and get a solid grasp of what does and does not work.

An added advantage of this approach is that it allows students to work on projects they develop themselves; it also produces better group dynamics than having everyone do the same tutorial. The brain trust that develops as dozens of students develop similar, yet divergent skill sets becomes awesome. Learning grows at an exponential rate. There is a communal feeling to the class.

As with personal projects, the best way for students to learn about the use and application of technology is for them to start with a vision and try to realize it with the technology available. While it is likely necessary for the teacher to initiate the first group project, inevitably, students find the group experience valuable and they come to see that I place a special importance on it. The day always comes when some of them ask me when they will be working in a group again. In response, I ask them when they are going to put a group together and create their own project. They are masters of their own success, and the sooner they take control, the better they will fare after graduation.

The personal projects and group work put students in a mode of self-discovery. One of my challenges, then, is to create situations that will give students the feedback they need to learn how to use technology correctly and appropriately. One very effective way to do that is to bring students into contact with professionals in the real world.

A community of learning

DigiFest is a provincial student/teacher symposium in British Columbia in the area of computer animation education. The two-day event gives educators and students opportunities to participate in workshops taught by industry leaders, and provides a forum for sharing successful strategies in implementing digital communication and arts programs in their schools. Students and teachers from all jurisdictions are invited to attend. For the past two years we have had more than 250 people and 65 schools each year. One of the biggest payoffs of doing this is that the students see first hand the industry's expectations and standards. Hearing the message from successful people in the industry that students are preparing to enter drives the point home. They listen and learn. It backs up the daily message they get in class.

One additional, and very valuable, lesson that goes along with learning how to use technology appropriately is learning how to identify and develop marketable skills. It is too easy to sit down in front of today's technology and get blown away by what it can do. What employers want to know, however, is what graduates can do, think and create. It is not an employable skill to only know how to push a button to get an effect. Knowing when and how to use that effect to enhance or tell a story is a skill employers value.

The final destination

Upon graduation, I want students to have some tangible assets for their portfolio. These may be video tapes that demonstrate the students' abilities, talents and accomplishments, or projects they completed for themselves and members of the community. This adds a real-world dimension to their accumulated experiences.

Other venues for taking the students beyond the classroom are the Skills Canada competitions. Three years ago I developed a computer animation event to provide students from across Canada the opportunity to demonstrate their accumulated knowledge in a practical situation. This competition offers much the same experience as final scholarship exams. Industry experts judge student creations, validating the students' preparedness for their future.

The added bonus of these kinds of events is that they also serve to establish common standards for new programs that do not yet have established curricula.

The computer animation industry is enormous and full of promise. Yet students must also realize that it can take you in, chew you up and spit you out a few years down the road. We don't tend to think of high tech jobs as "sweat shop" jobs -- yet! I help my students see that using technology isn't the only point. The really important thing is to be able to take any technology, including the "whiz bang" of tomorrow, and apply it creatively to make things happen. That becomes the creative human endeavour; these are the hidden tools of technology.

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© 2010 Bill Henderson