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    However, even in my lowly CS3 incarnation of Flash the program (released in 2007 and superseded by several newer versions) I can export projects as a Flash Movie (SWF), Quicktime video (MOV) or animated GIF (along with a host of other formats, though I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.

Web Design in WordPress?

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Image: eisenrah

In Y8 our students do a web design unit. We do a little HTML, introduce Dreamweaver, plan a 4-5 page site and build it using templates and tables. The end result is, largely, not very good. We’ve tried a range of contexts; ‘choose your own’, ‘rock bands’, ePortfolio of DT work – and the result is always a plain looking website that isn’t finished and students that don’t really understand what they’ve done or how to do it again. Those that have their own website outside school generally use a website builder to do it, and feel a lot more ownership of it (that said, they’re also not very good in general).

On the other hand, what I do in terms of web design usually involves Moodle, WordPress, Joomla or some other CMS (Content Management System) in which the design and the content are separated. I hack a round a bit with CSS, I change images, I install the odd widget or external module. The individual content blocks (like this) are either written in a WYSIWYG editor or done quickly in Kompozer and the HTML cut and pasted in. Although I both have and do write website from scratch, it’s pretty rare these days.

A third option would be to us an online website creator – Google Sites, Wix, whatever else is equivalent to Geocities. The students use these as easy ways to quickly create a website – the reason being that they are easy. The problem with that is that the underlying skills are not being taught and there is little or no understanding.

So what skills do we want the students to pick up? HTML coding, how to set out content (whether through CSS, DIVs or tables), the nature of embedding media (tags linking to images, videos, etc.), hyperlinks, design principles…

There’s no reason why you couldn’t do this with WPMU blogs. Students choose their own theme, customise the layout, change the banner and add the bulk of content as pages rather than posts and use the blog feed as ‘news’. The hardest task would be the logistics of setting up the software on a server and getting the LDAP authentication working.

Any thoughts?