Friday, August 2, 2013

Gov School: A Teaching Moment All Month

I am still feeling the glow from one month with thirteen students in a collaborate, creative environment watching them take pieces of information I provide and weave a varied tapestry of media projects. This group of students was particularly focused, intelligent and adventuresome. 

Gov School 2013 in Schewel Lobby  Photo: Matt who happened to be passing by

The Original Plan

In the previous 4 years I have taught this course, Flash has been the software I have used to introduce students to the basics of animation and interactive design.  My intention this summer was to introduce Flash for the first two weeks and then have the students transition to media/app development with Demibooks Composer Studio. We had 13 gleaming iPads begging to be used.

What Really Happened

I have a great deal of respect for students who are so motivated they choose to spend a month in the summer taking classes when they could be involved in other kinds of activities. As a result I have always made it clear to my students at Gov School that if they have a burning desire to complete a particular project, they can. There is usually at least one student who gets involved in an ambitious project and wants to spend all 4 weeks on it. It was true this year as well.  

I was particularly interested in having the students explore the capabilities of Composer Studio as a game production tool. Most of Demibooks developers are creating kids book-like apps. This was a hurdle for my students. Some of them just couldn't get past that focus to see how they could use it for comic books or graphic novels, even if they didn't want to make a game. I honored their wishes and no one did more than basic tutorials in Composer Studio who wasn't motivated. That said we got some very strong projects in both Flash and Composer Studio. 

For a brief time during the third week I felt like I was herding cats...everyone off in their own direction. However, thanks to their intelligence and perseverance, they were able to trouble shoot, many on their own and everyone ended the course with very substantial projects to their credit.

Memorable Teaching Moments

Interview Software Company Founders

I love the idea of inspiring budding entrepreneurs. Demibooks CEO Rafiq Ahmed has been very accessible since responding to a Twitter message I sent from the Sandbox Summit conference in April. His partner in Australia, Daniel Hotop has been equally supportive. I have been very impressed with the genuine interest in user feedback (certainly a sound business policy).  When Rafiq offered to have a web conference with the Gov School students I thought it was a win-win situation. My students have the opportunity to get questions answered in real time and meet company CEO and his co-founder, chief programmer, Daniel Hotop (speaking to us from Australia) and Demibooks got feedback from a batch of new, techno-savvy users.

This happened at the beginning of week 4, so the students had had enough time to delve into their Composer Studio projects. In fact, the sophistication of the preview questions I sent Rafiq before the event, especially about coding, prompted him to have Dan in on the session too. I had also sent 2 student games and 1 student book project for their review before our conversation. I wanted Demibooks to see what the students had been able to accomplish. I was thrilled to hear them say they had played Sean's accelerometer maze game all morning. Very cool! 

We spent almost an hour talking to Rafiq, Daniel and intern Peter Bertucci. There were specfic questions for Dan about programming issues, general feedback about the students' experiences with the app, student suggestions and some ideas about where Demibooks is headed. I think the students were pleased to hear about a Demibooks/Virginia connection. Rafiq went to graduate school at Virginia Tech.

Sita Sings The Blues and Intellectual Property

One of our themes this course was intellectual property...or rather I should say one of my themes. When asked where a student got an image they were including in a project I frequently got the response, "from Google".  As if Google was a fruit tree of images for the taking. I am not a lawyer so my understanding of intellectual property law is basic at best, but it's such an important issue and in such a state of flux these days. I am a huge fan of Kirby Ferguson's "Everything Is A Remix", the web documentary about creativity in all realms and where ideas come from and how they evolve, specifically relating to copyright and patent laws. Ferguson presents the theory that "copy, transform and combine" is at the core of creativity.

We watched each of the 4 segments on separate days and had a brief discussion about the content after each segment. They are very well done and inspire discussion.  I continued to have students who didn't seem to distinguish between copyrighted material and those images the creators had made available for use by others. Some habits are hard to break.  

Frame from Sita Sings the Blues, animated feature by Nina Paley

It all came home to them when we watched Sita Sings the Blues, an animated feature film created primarily with Flash, the software the students had all used in class.  I explained to them that the creator, Nina Paley had run into copyright issues, quite unexpectedly. She had done her research, just not as deeply perhaps as she should have. It all hit home when one of the students said, "but she got paid, right?". Well not exactly, certainly not the way she intended. This is how Nina explains her copyright issues on her website.

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