Flash (as in Gordon, not Marvel?)

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Flash Mob – JD Hancock

Actually I mean the software. Or the plugin. Which is a big part of the problem.

“Flash Banner Ads Banished By Google”, heralds the BBC. And bang goes another nail into the lid of the coffin of a software tool I have spent years getting to grips with. This morning I saw some comments, not for the first time, suggesting that schools, and teachers, should not be “teaching Flash”.

Well, I agree, and I disagree. Teachers shouldn’t ‘teach’ specific software packages – I don’t ‘teach’ Photoshop, or Fireworks, or IDLE, or Sketchup. I hopefully teach image editing techniques, programming, problem solving and 3D modelling. It might seem a trivial difference in phrasing, but the intention it conveys and the techniques used in the classroom are very different.

As for consigning my very expensive Flash licence to the dustbin, I’m not quite so sure.

There are a couple of issues here besides pedagogical nomenclature, and while my first instinct was to defend the software with which I have a long love/hate relationship, it bears some pause for thought.

  1. Are we talking Flash the program, or Flash the plugin? The program allows me to create multimedia products – whether I choose to focus on stop frame animation, tweening, embedding of other media types or scripting. Once finished then the natural output format is a SWF file, for which you need a Flash plugin.The Flash plugin has been plagued with security holes and its demise has been clear to see for years. The newer HTML5 standard means that you no longer need to play Flash video, and Flash banner animations (the subject of today’s BBC news story) is certainly well on the way out.

    However, even in my lowly CS3 incarnation of Flash the program (released in 2007 and superseded by several newer versions) I can export projects as a Flash Movie (SWF), Quicktime video (MOV) or animated GIF (along with a host of other formats, though I find those less useful). So the animations that my Y12 students made this half term can be embedded into a website as GIFs, providing all the functionality with none of the security holes or controversy. I could create the same animation in Fireworks, but find the interface more clumsy (and that’s before we get onto the Fireworks vs Photoshop discussion on obsolescence).

  2. The Flash plugin is not dead yet! OK, it’s not a forward thinking technology. Neither is VGA and look how much fun in schools has been spoiled by having to fudge a HDMI to VGA adapter, with Raspberry Pis. There are pros and cons in looking forward and also in using what works NOW. Yes, we want to prepare students for the future, but training them in HTML5 versus teaching them principles using current tools that are mature and stable is not a simple problem to get around.

    In the meantime the Flash plugin still works, and will for some years to come. So I can still teach about frame by frame versus tweening, still Rotoscope (thanks to David Philips for showing me that one!), still help students create complex interactive products that use a range of multimedia and interactive techniques and can still get them all to work in a web browser.

  3. The alternatives aren’t (IMO) great just yet. I have some software that is great for frame by frame animation (I Can Animate, Pivot, Fireworks). There is very little out there that does tweening well (I’ve played with Swish in the past, but haven’t seen much else). There are various languages out there for scripting (VB, VBA, Javascript, Python) but none that I’ve come across that will let me combine the animation and the scripting together (and I don’t just mean a script that will play an animation, or not, but one that I can embed into the animation). Ultimately, HTML5 may well allow me to do all this, but there is no package, or set of packages, that will let me achieve what I want THAT I HAVE FOUND (I do keep looking, but tell me if you know of one!).

We do have an obligation to keep a little up to date with what we are teaching, but the skills and techniques transcend (or underpin – depending on your visualisation of choice) the tools we choose.

I find it fascinating that this comes in the same week as teachers are celebrating the release of the Usborne programming books from the 80s, surely a much more significant example of outdated software and hardware (though certainly still valuable despite that).

Is Flash the program as irrelevant to students as Flash Gordon? Or, like the Marvel version, is there still a good use for the franchise? Flash is undoubtedly on the way out, and I fully expect to be teaching the same techniques and principles using different software tools in the future. Until I can find a mature and stable product that does what I need, though, I’ll be using Flash for a little while to come.

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The one in which Mark feels grumpy


In the last few days I’ve had several conversations about the use of programming software in schools. Scratch, Alice, Kodu, Logo, Starlogo, Gamemaker, Scratch BYOB, Greenfoot, BlueJ, IDLE… the list goes on.

A number of people have tried to convince me that I should drop Scratch for Scratch BYOB, drop Gamemaker for Starlogo, etc. Now I know these people (in a virtual sense, at least) and I know they are speaking from their own experiences and beliefs. I know they want what’s best for the pupils, the teachers, the future, etc. And I tried really hard not to get too defensive about my position. (And I’m really not aiming to offend them. Really.)

My position, as Head of Department, is to set out a curriculum that will help my students, as taught by my staff. That means that although one of my staff loves Alice, because a majority really don’t then we’re not going to include it. This doesn’t stop colleague A from using it as and where he sees fit, but the written Scheme of Work, resources, etc. for the department as a whole will not include Alice.

Likewise, I’ve tried Starlogo. We wrote a Scheme of Work, taught it, and it didn’t work. Maybe we should try again, maybe we should try harder. Well, one of my colleagues has spent a great deal of time getting into Gamemaker and writing a Scheme of Work. Under no circumstances am I going to turn around and tell him we’re not using it because someone on Twitter told me Starlogo would be better.

I’m also not convinced that there is a right way to introduce programming using these graphical tools. In fact I *am* certain that there isn’t one.

I got really grumpy a minute ago when I saw someone tweeting that Kodu “SHOULD replace Scratch in schools!”. I have several issues with this. First, our all-in-one PCs, our thin clients, our netbooks and our Macs all refuse to run it. We do have some PCs that will run it, but not enough for every pupil in a cohort. Secondly, WHY should Kodu replace Scratch? Nothing other than a link to the Kodu page was posted. I’ve seen Kodu, I’ve had someone from Microsoft demonstrate it for me. It looks lovely. I can see why someone might WANT to replace Scratch with this. I can see why someone COULD replace Scratch with this. I disagree strongly with the suggestion that we SHOULD.

Somebody asked me why I was considering a Scratch-based animation unit and not using Flash. This was a very fair question, and being made to question our decisions is a good thing. No-one was telling me I was wrong, they were just trying to get to grips with my point of view to see whether I had a point. In hindsight I think they were right and I think I’m going to run a couple of lessons in Scratch followed by a few more in Flash and then compare them. But at no point did anyone say that I SHOULD be using Flash.

To give another example, I am a *huge* fan of Moodle. Enormously so. I honestly don’t believe I have told anyone that they HAVE to use Moodle, or that they SHOULD use Moodle. I’ve told them that they COULD. I’ve told them that I will help. I’ve generally also told them about Edmodo in the next breath. Sometimes Frog. Sometimes a blog. Sometimes a wiki. I just don’t believe that telling people that they SHOULD do things is really the right way to go.

So there. I’m being a grump today. Harumph.

 

Image attribution: Grumpy #5 Originally uploaded by Dagza