12 December 2015

Meddling in Media: A Term to Try

This year, I have been a little slack on updating my blog. However, it is with good reason! This year, I have the utmost pleasure in establishing a media studies department. It is challenging to set up and run a department single-handedly, particularly when compounded with technical issues that arise from working for a company that has very tight security and imposes extreme limitations - think 'exercise yard' rather than 'walled garden'. These restrictions have resulted in a school that has been protected from the advancements afforded in more liberal environments, which proves very challenging to a subject that requires access to online resources for success. In addition, the requirements of media courses now are much more demanding than my earlier experiences, particularly in technical aspects, meaning I am on as steep a learning curve as my AS learners in taking a subject for which they have no prior experience. All this compounds to formulate a very trying term.
However, I have always harboured a love of English and film - at the heart, it is narrative and the many different ways to weave it that interests me. I enjoy a well directed and edited film as much as a cleverly written novel and have little time for vacuous stories that do not spark thoughts and kindle emotions that burn long after the end credits roll or last page turns. Because of this, moving image, or a visual aspect of some kind, has always played a large part in my teaching of English. I am a very visual learner and incorporate as much creativity into my English lessons as I can. Many of my past posts evidence how I have used stop-animation, audio recordings, social media, and film to create narratives and depict meaning. Indeed, the best English departments incorporate some visual literacy into them - being able to read 'texts' is as universal skill as the idea of what a text is in today's digital world - and most curricula will (should) allow for some analysis of presentational devices at the very least. 

What is most disheartening and difficult however, is the perception of media studies as a subject. Often considered a soft subject, the true scope of the skills required to be successful in media studies is severely underestimated. It is, in my opinion, similar to English and English Literature - and then some. Having taught all three subjects I believe I have the authority to make that claim. Shared skills lie in decoding - yet the technical terminology is very different, and many learners who can analyse a poem struggle at deconstructing the micro elements of a moving image. In addition to being able to effectively read moving images, learners also have to have a thorough knowledge of key concepts and theories across a variety of media. Some critical theory is necessary in the study of Literature at equivalent levels, but there is no separate assessment to test your knowledge of it in relation to case studies you have undertaken as part of on-going independent research. Neither does English require you to create and maintain a digital portfolio that documents your entire learning process in a multi-media format, while demonstrating a clear sense of branding. Most crucially, whilst the best English students may be able to deconstruct the most technical poem and draft a cohesive and detailed analysis of it - they are not required to construct their own poem and then deconstruct it using theory and reference to the adherence or subversion of relevant codes and conventions.

And that is just for AS-level.

A2 learners also need to be able to develop graphic design skills, compose music, and design and build websites.

In addition to ensuring I write a curriculum that engages learners and addresses all the relevant skills, I have established a press corp at school for learners to report their own news via film and digital print, and set up a media studies blog and YouTube channel to house all the learning videos as well as completed work. With individual coursework blogs that require constant assessment and monitoring, maintaining these platforms is a lot of work. It is immensely, but demanding on time - particuarly when my posts need to model that which I require of my learners.

In short, media teachers have to be able to teach writing, analysing, filming, editing, website building, blog writing and maintenance, graphics, creativity, marketing, theory, research...

A soft subject indeed.

My experience goes back to my own GCSEs, where I studied media at school and then took many multi-media-based units in my degree. I also was lucky enough to have mentors during my PGCE who taught English and media, meaning I got to train and experience teaching in both fields. Once qualified, I taught film studies at a sixth form college in the UK. As mentioned earlier, however, what has changed massively in the subject, is the practical side. The huge technological advancements that have taken place over the past few years means that learners are required to create films of their own. There is no denying that, nowadays, it is easy to film - most of us have a device that allows us to record video. Indeed, many people do, just look at YouTube. Having a smartphone means anyone can make a film - not everyone can be a film-maker though.

Technological advancements, again, mean that learners are expected to do more than the average teenager with the latest smartphone. Editing, sound, camera work and special effects are all expected to be seamless and of a high-enough quality as to elevate their work above the everyday plethora we are subjected to. This is where I am finding myself on a steep learning curve; editing and publishing software are highly technical and allow for the creation of stunning work. However, learning their myriad tools is highly time-consuming. Again, this is different to teaching English; I may be able to analyse the craft of the writer but this doesn't mean I can write myself. Most often, English teachers are only asked to maybe proofread and rarely, if ever, craft their own verse. Yet, media teachers are expected to teach, plan, mark and craft - and, whilst this puts a lot of pressure on me, it is something I want to do in order to support my learners fully.

Teaching two other subjects in addition to all this, no matter how much they could potentially feed into media studies, is very, very challenging. Anyone who has ever taught a new syllabus will know. Anyone who has ever taught more than one subject will know. Anyone who has ever taught a subject that is not their area of specialism will know. I am doing all of this. It is tough. Everyday. But, no matter how much of a challenge it is, media studies is the thing that is keeping me going. It has been my sanity and saviour over the past term, as I truly look forward to every lesson. I enjoy researching and planning the learning. I am astounded by the progress being made. I am humbled by the creations made. It spurs me on to spend my winter break learning the many tools I need to be up to speed with. AND, as I find myself the proud owner of a brand new Canon 70D and a brand new 27" retina iMac, with a brand new subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, I have no excuse (exhaustion doesn't count). I have all the tools I need (and then some!) to make my own masterpieces. 

Part of the pressure comes from my own annoying perfectionism. I have tried to combat this crippling affliction by adopting the belief that I will never accomplish anything if I wait until I am perfect at it first. And so, endeavouring to put this into practice, whilst undertaking a recent film-making course with the National School of Film and Television and the British Film Institute, I came across the technique of pixilation.

The name "Pixilation" is derived from“Pixies”, the mythological creatures and not from computer pixels - hence the spelling. It is because it is deemed that the characters appear being controlled by pixies. This animation technique goes all the way back to the beginning of animation history when pioneer animator Norman McLaren made the short film Neighbours (1952) - see below - while working for the National Film Board of Canada. He used the technique to make people fly in the air without any green screen or fancy effects software.

Always looking for 'guerilla' techniques to combat the lack of equipment we have, this struck me as a way for learners to create some interesting special effects. Stanley Pickle (Mather, UK, 2010) - an award-winning short pixilation film - was shot entirely on a stills camera on two sets and two locations at the National Film and Television School (NFTS).

A2 learners have the option of creating a music promotion package. Again, Pixilation is an effective technique used in music videos - think Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer. Here is a particularly great example:

Wanting my learners to be able to try this technique out and see if they at to use it for their coursework, I had a go. Straight away. I didn't wait to be perfect - I just tried it. That is how you learn, right? I made the below in about half an hour with the help of my beautiful assistant, who starred in the pixilation film and helped direct the stop animation. We used JellyCam, freeware that works for Windows and Macs, that we downloaded that morning. You can see that the quality is not great but it is free and a great way to practise until shelling out for something like, I Can Animate, which works on both Windows and Macs.

I look forward to getting this year under my belt. To having a full curriculum written and websites, blogs and YouTube channels established. To having developed many more skills. To have more equipment and more knowledge to help learners be successful. To having maybe chipped away at some of the walls that prevent our true success.

I will keep you posted.

1 October 2015

Dream Computer Room

One of my latest projects for my MEd, required me to design a computer lab. I had a budget of $45,000 and it had to accommodate 30 learners. My total, outlined in more detail below, came in at just under budget, at $44,171.90 - and goes against the grain of the traditional lab design.

Having had the luxury of re-designing and implementing a new classroom design whilst working in Singapore (see any posts regarding The Octopus's Garden Project, and photos in posts from 2013-2014 in particular) I already had a few ideas that meant I very much wanted to move away from a traditional layout. 

For more inspiration, I asked for the dream design of educators I have worked with in different countries and different schools. What was interesting to me, was those who have worked in tehnology-rich environments, where the idea of a dedicated computer lab is outdated and technology infuses everyday learning, had many more suggestions that broke the mould of lab design and fitted with my own. Many thanks in particular to Marcus and Ed - I miss you guys - as well as my hubby.


Instructional Purpose

The design of this computer lab challenges the status quo offering an up-to-date multi-functioning, highly flexible interactive space. Too often, “institutions give little thought to the design and layout of the lab…they simply fill a room with computers and set up the machines any way they fit inside the room” (Garger, 2011); a mind-shift in how we view learning spaces manifests in a requirement to “renovate or repurpose classrooms to address the needs of the future…through the concept of Makerspaces” (Smith, 2015). The purpose of this room is to move beyond merely using technology to begin controlling it – in short, to start “tinkering” (Stager & Martinez, 2013). As the requirements are to accommodate 30 learners, the requisite number of devices is available in a mixture of iPad Airs, Dell Chromebooks, iMacs and a HP Sprout. There is no designated ‘front’ of the room, as the whole space is designed to be re-purposed according to needs - the majority of desks and tables are mobile and on castors, laptop tables are foldable and portable, tables can be placed in different configurations in terms of height, and chairs, sofas, and beanbags are either stackable or moveable. Storage is available to accommodate all learners’ bags keeping them out of the way for safety and additional work space.

Five beanbags, five rugs, three sofas, ten lap-tables, ten tablet-stands and ten stand-up laptop tables are versatile equipment that will allow learners choice in how they work – sitting alone, collaborating in groups, on the floor, or standing up. Small tables on castors can be moved as needed and house the printers and document camera. The Bekant tables can be adjusted “electrically from 22" to 48" to ensure an ergonomic working position” (IKEA, 2015) and the Niselrik stools are also adaptable to meet the heights of the tables – seating a total of twelve. A conference table seats ten allowing for large group work, whilst six iMac computers are housed in pairs on UXL tables that come equipped with “locking casters for easy mobility” (Demco, Inc., 2015). A ‘teacher’ desk and chair is home to the HP Sprout however, it is not exclusively for the teacher’s use. Once the teacher has taken the register, demonstrated and modelled, the Sprout is available for use by anyone. Indeed, the teacher may decide to use a laptop or tablet to model and take role, as the network and projector set-up allows for all devices to connect.

Three wall-mounted charging cabinets of twelve slots each can “mix and match mini-laptops, tablets, and hand-helds for even more flexibility” (Ergotron Inc., 2015) and are chosen not only because the lab is open for whole-school use meaning portable trolleys are not required, they also maximise floor space. Two Epson interactive projectors with “wireless networking” and an “interactive pen” (Projector Central, 2015) offer connectivity on a number of devices meaning all learners can connect and share work easily, and are mounted on the ceiling at opposite ends of the room adding to the idea that there is no designated ‘front’ of the room. A whiteboard is not included in the design instead Idea Paint is an up-to-date alternative. Idea Paint makes surfaces work like a whiteboard meaning the whole room can become a scribble space. Enough has been included in the budget to paint the majority of the walls (less the windows, door and top section of the walls that are out of reach) as well as some of the tabletops. The necessary materials to use the surfaces effectively have been included in the budget. Black-out blinds are fitted to the windows to allow maximised viewing and five floor lamps mean that ambient lighting keeps the space lit yet homely creating a nurturing and safe environment for experimentation. The design outlined in the images below (see Figs. 1-3) show only one possible layout for the room.


A blend of technologies is used in this lab to offer the widest and most flexible use and exploration of the power of technology on learning – this includes desktops, tablets, laptops, 3D scanners, interactive projectors and printers - all of which have been chosen for their ability to work with a variety of devices allowing this design to be realised. Relevant extended warranty and/or service agreements are also included within the budget.

Six iMacs provide exceptional desktop power particularly in terms of editing and creating films, podcasts and music. Apple products do not require additional virus software meaning that, whilst they can be more expensive than PCs, they offer advanced security at no additional cost. In addition, Apple offers an educational discount. The 21.5-inch screens with 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage are chosen, as the school is opting for use of Google Apps for Education (GAFE), which offers “unlimited storage” for schools (Google, 2015). Each machine comes with a magic mouse or track-pad (I would order three of each to offer choice) and wireless keyboard (Apple, Inc., 2015). Insignia mono-headphone sets that are ‘”compatible with most cell phones, tablets and other devices” are available for each learner allowing them to be able to focus on the room and their work simultaneously; these include a microphone with “noise cancellation” (Best Buy, 2015). In addition to the six desktops, there are 15 iPad Airs and 15 Dell Chromebooks – meaning there are more than enough machines available for everyone in the room, including the teacher. These can be charged when not in use in one of the three wall mounted cabinets.

Fifteen Dell 11 i3 Chromebooks have “no problem working with more than 15 open tabs at once” and also lasted “more than 10 hours 0n the Laptop Mag Battery Test” (Spoonauer, 2015). The option on the budget comes with a “rubberized LCD and base trim” that “absorbs shock for superior drop protection” and is “U.S. Military Standard tested for durability, pressure, temperature, humidity, shock and vibration so it can handle the unpredictable” – namely, a classroom full of students (Dell Chromebook 11, 2015). As Chromebooks allow connectivity to GAFE, these are an affordable and workable option for the classroom particularly as there is also the option of using one of the iMacs, the HP Sprout or on the of the iPad Airs for more advanced requirements.

The iPad Air has been chosen as it is light-weight yet has the large screen, and with an in-built camera, can operate as a film recorder. Three Structure sensors along with the requisite ‘launch bundle’ will mean that learners can that attach the scanner and “wirelessly stream 3D scans…in real-time” where “the 3D printer can be accessed wirelessly to print out designs” (Occipital Inc., 2015). Installation of a 3D printer and a HP Sprout into this flexible space allows for the creation of a ‘makerspace’ where learners who can “create tangible portfolio pieces may find their work of interest to future employers” (EduCause, 2013). This emerging technology would be housed on a ‘teacher desk’ with chair, as more supervision may be required. The Dremel 3D printer is recommended for use with the HP Sprout but also connects to the iPads for use with the Structure sensors. 3D printers are new in education but offer a large scope across the curriculum (see infographic, 3dprintingsystems, 2014). A regular printer that connects wirelessly to all devices is also available along with two projectors that are mounted on the ceilings at opposite walls meaning learners do not have to be seated to face the ‘front’. In addition, a document camera is also available and all of this equipment can be accessed by via WIFI and from a variety of devices. An Apple TV enhances this capability for the Airs and the iMacs.


A dedicated ICT teacher is roomed within the lab but it can also be booked for other teachers to use as and when required and available. Training is provided to all staff via in-house sessions delivered by the ICT department and a member of the department remains in or near the room for support as required.

Server Hardware & Network

The school provides the server. It is located within the ICT department and has been installed and updated to cover the requirements of the entire school. Login for each learner is via the GAFE accounts administrated by the ICT department. A wireless router provides the WIFI within the room which is linked to the school server that controls and monitors web-browsing for the safety of the learners and in accordance with the state and school requirements. An Airport Extreme boosts and ensures a strong signal and optimised connectivity.


The budget allocated for this Computer lab, was $45,000. The total spend for the above outlined comes in just under budget, at $44,171.90. A full breakdown of costs is below (prices correct as at July 2015):


Figure 1: Design (Autodesk Inc., 2015)
This design was created on Homestyler (Autodesk Inc., 2015) and annotated using Skitch (plasq.com, 2015). Due to limitations in the software, some items are either not to scale or not as described but the correct size. The room is the exact measurements of one of the ICT labs at my current school. In all cases, the closest possible matches in terms of size have been used. Not included: stand-up tables, printers, laptop- or tablet-stands. This is only one of many possible layout designs.

Figure 2: View from door (Autodesk Inc., 2015)
Figure 3: Annotated design (Autodesk Inc., 2015) (plasq.com, 2015)


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Apple, Inc. (2015). iMacs. Retrieved June 21, 2015, from Apple Store for Education: http://store.apple.com/us-hed/buy-mac/imac?product=ME086LL/A&step=config#

Autodesk Inc. (2015). Homestyler. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from Autodesk: http://www.homestyler.com/designer

Best Buy. (2015). Insignia™ - On-Ear Analog Mono Headset - Black. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from Best Buy: http://www.bestbuy.com/site/insignia-on-ear-analog-mono-headset-black/5648055.p?id=1219147137985&skuId=5648055

Dell Chromebook 11. (2015). Retrieved June 27, 2015, from Dell: http://www.dell.com/us/p/chromebook-11-3120/pd

Demco, Inc. (2015). Smith System UXL Computer Tables UXL Computer Table with Castors Fixe Ht. 29-1/2" x90" x30". Retrieved June 20, 2015, from Demco: http://www.demco.com/goto?PRD12209620

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IKEA. (2015). BEKANT 5-sided desk, sit/stand, white. Retrieved June 20, 2015, from IKEA: http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/S89022027/#/S49022034

IKEA. (2015). NILSERIK Stool, Havhult black, Havhult black. Retrieved June 20, 2015, from IKEA: http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/40279571/?query=NILSERIK#/40279571

Occipital Inc. (2015). Structure Sensor – Capture the World in 3D. Retrieved June 26, 2015, from Structure: https://store.structure.io/store

plasq.com. (2015). Skitch (v. 2.7.8).

Projector Central. (2015). Epson BrightLink 536Wi. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from Projector Central: http://www.projectorcentral.com/Epson-BrightLink_536Wi.htm

Smith, D. F. (2015, March 08). CoSN 2015: The Emerging Tech That's Transforming K–12's Horizon. Retrieved July 9, 2015, from EdTech Magazine: http://www.edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2015/03/cosn-2015-emerging-tech-could-transform-k-12-we-know-it

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Stager, G. S., & Martinez, S. L. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.