Homage to Duchamp

It’s interesting that as you get older you become increasingly aware of your own influences. Aside from my parents and my direct family, who obviously had a major influence on my life, there are only handful of people whose ideas, thoughts and perspectives about the world have been so influential, so pervasive, so far reaching, that I can honestly say they have shaped the person I have become.

We all have them. They are the people you would invite to your ultimate fantasy dinner party. The ones who are so interesting, so fascinating in their ideas and the way they think about things, that you would give anything to spend time talking with them, learning from them and being in awe of them.

duchampI only have a few people in that category, but one is Marcel Duchamp.

For most people reading this, your reaction is probably “Marcel who?”

I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson, so if you want to know more about Duchamp, you can no doubt look him up. It’s quite likely that he will not affect you the way he affected me, and that’s ok. That’s what makes us all unique. But to me, Duchamp was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century. He was one of the truly great thinkers whose ideas had a profound, lasting and life changing effect on me. His insightful genius, his witty sense of humour, his unswerving individualism, and his sheer brilliance forever changed the way I see the world. Or perhaps it was that he gave validation to the way I was already seeing the world for myself. Either way, I grew up seeing Duchamp as something of a hero. He struck me as one of the most brilliant minds I’d ever encountered.

As a young teenager, and then on into art school, I read everything about him that I could get my hands on. I pored over his work, looked at whatever photographs I could find of both him and his art, and was always astounded at the way he managed to express such profound ideas in such simple acts of creation. His disruptive sense of fun was more than just a means to amuse himself, it caused us to question and change the way we think about art, life and the world. Or at least that’s what it did for me. It was the way he took the idea of art beyond the “retinal” – the way something looks – and instead explored intellectual ideas embedded in the art.

Anyway, I was stunned tonight as I browsed around the web to find a 28 minute video of Duchamp being interviewed on the BBC in 1968 (the year he died). It’s an amazing interview.

Which brings me to the second point of this post. YouTube. I still hear of so many schools that block or limit access to YouTube. When I was a kid, growing up trying to read everything about Duchamp I could lay my hands on, I was completely unaware that any television interviews with him even existed. For everything I’d read or seen about Duchamp, tonight was the first time I had ever heard his voice or seen a moving image of the man. I went to art school in the 80s and taught art for several years but until tonight I had no idea that a 1968 interview with Marcel Duchamp existed.  Tonight was the first time I’d ever heard one of my lifelong heroes actually speak. And it was YouTube that made it possible. Forget the criticisms about millions of cute cat videos or pointless clips of stupid people doing even stupider things. Tonight I finally met one of my lifelong heroes and it was YouTube that made it possible. Think about that.

Seriously. If your school is still blocking YouTube, do you have any idea what you are depriving your students of?

Header Image: Wikimedia Commons http://goo.gl/nw77Qu

Ideas for End of Year Slideshows

Slide ViewerIt’s that time of year when I start to get a lot of teachers at school asking me for assistance with creating an end of year slideshow of photographs of their classes, often with an intention to create a DVD that can be sent home as a memento of the year.

It’s a lovely idea, and I encourage it.  The kids love it, and it’s a lovely way to finish the year.

To assist with this, I thought I’d offer a few tips and suggestions on making slideshows…

  • Start by gathering all the photos you intend to include into a single folder.  It’s much easier if all your assets are already gathered in one place before you begin working with them.
  • Use a piece of software well suited to the task.  Although PowerPoint is often suggested, it’s a bit of a dog when it comes to putting these types of presentations together.  PowerPoint is the right tool for slideware presentations, but it’s actually not very good at doing “slideshows” with music.  The end product of PowerPoint is, well, a PowerPoint file, and it requires PowerPoint to view it, so it can’t just be “played”in the same way a video can.
  • Instead of PowerPoint, try a tool like Photostory.  It’s much easier to get your photos in the desired order, add music and narration soundtracks, add titles, etc.  Plus, it gives you an actual video file at the end so everything is nice and self contained.  It’s the right tool for the task, and does a much better job than PowerPoint!
  • You could also try a web 2.0 service such as www.animoto.com, which makes amazing high definition slideshows with only a few mouse clicks.  Feed it your photos, choose a template and you’re done! Both myself and the school have Animoto Pro accounts, so you can use this to make your shows if you like.  Just see me if you want the login details.
  • You can copy the final slideshow file onto a disk, either a CD or a DVD, as a way of distributing it.  However, getting your video onto a DVD – that actually plays in a DVD player, as a DVD – requires several more steps and some more specialised software.  Ask me for more details if this is what you want to do (and be prepared for more work to do it!)
  • If you want to make multiple copies of the finished disk, there is a CD/DVD duplication tower up in IT Services.  If you take your master copy up there, and a stack of blank disks, that’s the fastest way to make lots of copies.

Then there is the thorny issue of copyright for the music… (sigh)

  • Please respect copyright when you choose your music!  If you just want to make a slideshow with a music backing track, you are in a very grey area (copyright wise) if you just rip commercially available music from a CD, or download it from the web.  If you were just using it in class, then you’d probably be fine, but if you intend to make multiple copies and distribute them to parents… well, personally, I think you’re taking a big risk.
  • While you may never get caught for flaunting copyrighted music, you never know whose parent just happens to be a copyright lawyer.  And you’re certainly not modelling good ethical use of media to your students.  If they see you ripping commercial music from CD, or downloading illegal music files from the net, then you’re just encouraging them to do the wrong thing.  Is that really what you want to do?
  • There are plenty of free and legal music sources you can use, where the music has been released under a Creative Commons license, or some other Open License.  Sure, it’s not going to be Top 40 stuff, but there’s lots of great musicians out there making amazing music that they quite willingly give away for free use.  Why risk a copyright violation (and worse, set a bad example for the kids!) when there are plenty of legal, ethical alternatives you can use.  Do you REALLY need a soundtrack by Pink?
  • For copyright free music, take a look at www.jamendo.com or www.freeplaymusic.com.  It’s amazing what’s out there.

Photo Credit: Slide Viewer by bcostin
NB: This post is based on an email I sent to all the staff at school

Should Students Learn to Write HTML Code?

I saw an email from someone today suggesting that they would be starting next term to teach their students to write HTML code from scratch, so the kids could make their own webpages. My initial reaction when I read this message was to ask “Why?” Why would anyone bother to learn HTML coding from scratch when there are so many great editing tools around? Surely, in a WYSIWYG world, learning how to to actually write HTML code is a complete waste of time? With so many great web editing tools around, isn’t learning to write raw HTML code a pointless exercise?

In once sense, these are valid questions. There’s no doubt that the majority of websites these days are created using a templated approach and an “engine” such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Squarespace, etc. It’s also true that for any really customised web work, it would still fall to a workhorse like Adobe Dreamweaver or something else, such as excellent free tools like KompoZer or NVU editor.

However, on reflection, I think there is a great deal to be said for being able to understand basic HTML code. Take using Moodle as an example… as much as I would like to tell my teachers at school that Moodle has a wonderful WYSIWYG editor, and that it will automatically format all the text and images for you just by cllicking on the little buttons in the editing bar, the fact remains that I still find myself hitting the little <> button on the Moodle editor bar to dive into HTML code on an almost daily basis just to fix little quirky things that are going on.

It’s also true that, although you can use the buttons on the editor to align text to the left or right (which in HTML, behaves quite differently to how it behaves in, say, Word) knowing a little bit about what those buttons are actually doing on a code-level makes it much easier to predict how things will actually look. Being able to manually write a link to a URL, being able to strip out some rogue heading level text, fixing paragraphs that have gone askew because of a stray tag, and so on… these are all things that I find myself doing fairly regularly, even WITH access to fancy WYSIWYG editing tools. I taught myself the basics of writing HTML nearly 15 years ago now (well, to be completely honest, one of my students taught me!) and I can’t even begin to tell you how handy it has been and how often I have used that knowledge. Although I would like to think that we are living in a world where it SHOULD be completely unnecessary to know how to write HTML source code, the truth is that over the years it’s proven itself to be a damn handy skill!

Even being able to use the provided code to put an YouTube video or a Google Map into a wiki or blog, for example… sure, you CAN do it without having the slightest idea of how it all works, but if you want to make a minor adjustment such as changing the width or height of the frame, just being unintimidated by the code makes a big difference to your general level of technological fluency.

I’m not saying that everyone should be able to write heavy-duty CSS code or be able to create complicated PHP script, but HTML is dead simple… and for the number of times I find myself rescuing a page because of a relatively simple adjustment to the underlying code… I gotta say, I can’t think of anyone who would not benefit from knowing the basics.

So, should this teacher spend time teaching his kids to code? Some may disagree, but I say yes. My advice would be to teach kids to write a fairly simple webpage. They should know the core structure of html, head and body. They should understand heading levels (and depending on the age of the students, how these can be tied to style sheets). They should know how to manually write (or at least understand) the code for a hyperlink, for an image, and for an embed. It’s good to know these basics. I guarantee you those kids will find them useful at some point in their future.

For the majority of your students, that’s probably all they need to know. Then, once they have a grip on the basics, switch over to a decent visual editor like Dreamweaver or similar… some tool that lets them switch back and forth between code view and output view. Output view will make SO much more sense once they see the relationship between code and output!

And who knows, just that small exposure to the underlying code could make all the difference to that one kid in your class. It could open them up to a whole world of coding and being interested in what really makes a computer tick. In this WYSIWYG world, God knows we need more kids like that!

And if nothing else, you’ll at least understand why the picture that goes with this post is so funny! 🙂

What about you?  Do you think teaching kids to understand HTML is a useful skill, or a waste of time?

Image: ‘html tag italicized
http://www.flickr.com/photos/30127486@N00/346483297

Big Twitter, Little Twitter

This video just went live today from New Zealand’s wonderful EdTalks collection.  I’d forgotten all about it, but it was recorded back in October at the ULearn conference in New Zealand.  It’s kind of weird looking back at things you said many months ago and had forgotten you’d even said.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s a few thoughts about the use of Twitter for ongoing professional development, and some musings about how kids might use it (or something like it) to develop good digital citizenship skills.

Five Simple Skills

There always seems to be a lot of talk about the need for more teachers to embrace “21st Century skills”. Of course, there’s a lot of discussion about what these “21st Century skills” actually are. Many people have debated and discussed this issue, asking the question of what exactly should today’s learners know in order to function in the “21st Century”.

I’m sure there are a whole lot of really good answers to these questions that dig deeply into effective pedagogy and the deeper philosophy of education. This post is not about those things.

Instead, here is a list of simple, easily-learnable skills that I think would make life as a teacher in the 21st Century simpler and much more productive. While they’re not exactly earth-shatteringly profound in terms of the big issues of education, they are greatly useful skills to have… and in my experience they are also skills that all too few teachers seem to actually possess. I find that possession of these skills is often a reasonable indicator of a teacher’s progress along the “21st Century teaching” pathway – if they can do these things, they often “get” the bigger picture about technology and its role in modern learning.

Actually, I think I’d go beyond just calling them just “skills”… I’d tend to see these as entirely new types of literacies, because the ability to do these things is beginning to define our ability to function with fluency in these times we live in.

  • Learn to search. It’s amazing how many people cannot do even a moderately complex search, using some sort of boolean thinking to narrow search results. What’s even more surprising is the number of people who do not even think to use a web-based search engine to find answers to questions that puzzle them. I find it astounding that so many people wonder about the answers to questions that are just a quick Google search away, but they never think to do it. Learn to use a search engine to find a simple answer, a fact, a quote, a statistic, a song lyric, a recipe, a price, or any other useful snippet of information. The time taken to learn this simple skill will pay for itself many times over.
  • Learn to resize and crop a digital photo. Being able to crop and resize a digital photo is an incredibly useful skill that has applications in so many areas. There’s not a lot to it, and it doesn’t require any particularly exotic or expensive software. It’s useful to understand issues like how to make an image suitable for use in print versus the web. We live in a very visual world and once you know how do simple image manipulation you will find uses for this skill everywhere.
  • Learn how to edit video. I once heard Hall Davidson say, given the right 2 minutes of video footage, you can teach anybody anything. Video really is shaping up to be the next important literacy, and for a teacher, the ability to manipulate short chunks of moving images is extremely valuable. Video editing is quick and easy to learn these days, and has many, many applications. Spend a little time with free tools like iMovie or Movie Maker and work out how to edit and remix video footage. You won’t regret it.
  • Learn to use a HTML Editor. If you want to participate in the 21st Century you need to know how to create content for the web. And while there’s no real need to know how to write raw HTML code, it’s hugely valuable to be able to competently use a web-based HTML editor. Every web-based environment has one, whether it’s WordPress, Moodle, Wikispaces or something else, and every time you add content to a site you need to interact with the rows of buttons above the text input field called the HTML Editor. Beyond just making things bold and italic, it’s really worth understanding the function of other tools for adding tables, embedding web media, adding images and so on. If you believe that the web has an important role to play in our future, then learn how to create simple content for it with a HTML Editor.
  • Learn to think in hyperlinks. I was going to include this in the previous item, since a HTML Editor is where you’d normally create hyperlinks, but I think this skill is important enough to have its own category. Hyperlinks ARE the web. In a world that is becoming more and more reliant on the web for every aspect of our lives, you really do need to know how to create these links that help us tie ideas together. For teachers, connecting students to ideas is what we do, and the ability to create a hyperlink should be a fundamental skill. Hyperlinking totally changes the way a reader interacts with text and is therefore an important new literacy, yet so many teachers have still not come to terms with the importance of explicitly teaching their students to read using hypertext. Hyperlinking is easy to do, but it requires a different mindset to constantly think in terms of hypertext. Learn to link!

So there you have it. Five simple, easy-to-learn skills (or literacies) that will help you function better in “the 21st Century”. How many do you possess? And are there any others that you think should be on the list?

CC Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/3196112134/