Extracts from
Experiment in Using Open-Ended Software
Annemarie Sherlock B.Ed.

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment for the degree of the MSc. in Computer Applications for Education
School of Computer Applications
Dublin City University
June 1998

2.5.1 The software

A computer package called ‘Magic Theatre’ by Knowledge Adventure (Instinct Corporation) was used with the experimental group for a period of six weeks. This is an open-ended piece of software which allows the children to create their own stories in the form of animated movies by use of a whole range of multimedia tools. It won the 1994 Gold Medal from ‘The National Parenting Publications Awards’ (NAPPA) in recognition of its superior quality in children's software. In September 1995, ‘Technology In Learning’ Magazine gave ‘Magic Theatre’ the ‘Outstanding Product Award’ and in October 1996, it also won the ‘Thunderbeam Seal of Approval’.

In order for the children to create their movies, multimedia libraries (containing up to 80 items each) are provided for backgrounds, animations, objects, music, sound effects and visual effects. The program starts with a blank screen surrounded by pictograms of the tools available. The children can also record their own voices narrating the story and draw their own pictures with a set of drawing tools. The movie is put together by the children scene by scene. The ‘play’ and ‘rewind’ icons add the element of timing to the creative process. As the child draws, pastes and erases, each action is remembered and can be rewound and redrawn from the beginning. Each scene can be played separately or the whole movie can be played to check on the sequence of events and see how it all fits together. The final product can be saved on disk. For an overview of the multimedia tools and libraries available, see Appendix A.

4.1 Teacher’s Observation of Classes

During the six weeks of computer classes, the teacher made observations and took notes on how the classes were generally going, how the children were reacting to the software and what creativity was being shown in the production of their ‘movies’.

The first striking observation was the speed and ease at which the children took to the new product. There was no question of them being overawed or overly excited about the many possibilities ‘Magic Theatre’ had to offer. Rather, as each new tool was presented they grasped it quickly and very soon wanted to know ‘what else’ was on offer. There was a general impatience to move on past the introductory sessions of the Pilot Stage (see 2.5.2)and let them ‘at it’ by themselves.

The next stage was that of creating a movie in groups of three, Each child was in charge of the mouse for every third scene (e.g. scene 1 and 4 in a 6 scene movie). It was clear at the beginning that the children were very keen to make what they considered ‘their own scene’ the most exciting but were less interested in trying to make it fit in with the rest of the storyline. Their interest dropped as soon as they relinquished control of the mouse to another. The teacher had to encourage and remind the children on many occasions to make sure there was a connection between all scenes - a similar storyline- and to contribute ideas to all scenes in pursuit of this. As the children themselves learnt to work together in a group, their cooperation skills increased and this difficulty in making their scenes work together lessened slightly, though never completely dropped away.

It has to be said that two would have been a much more suitable number for working together at the computer. Three group members made it that bit harder for children, who are fairly egocentric anyway at this age, to keep their attention focused on their story until it came around to their ‘go’ again.

The children showed little interest in spending too much time at planning their movie before using the computer. This is quite natural and has to be encouraged also in story-writing at school as pupils usually want to get started straight away, creating ideas ‘on the spot’ and editing as they go along. As a planning exercise, each group was given a sheet of paper divided into six sections ( for a six scene movie) and they were asked to jot down ideas for each scene in the appropriate sections and explain their proposed story to the teacher at the end. Generally, the children wanted to get this done as quickly as possible. This was both due to time constraints and because they wanted to get down to what they considered the ‘real work’ of visually creating the animated movie. The boys, in particular, were far more interested in what the movie looked like than what the storyline was.

This procedure was necessary also for planning the dialogue for each scene. Otherwise their preferred method was to say the first thing that came into their heads after clicking the microphone button. They used to assert (with false confidence!) that they would ‘know what to say’ when they saw the scene. Generally, however, this would turn out to be a fairly predictable running commentary on anything that moved on screen. They would not tell the viewer anything extra above what could be seen for yourself, not even the names of the characters, unless prompted to do so.

e.g. "The caveman chases the beast and then turns and he is chased by the beast. Then the sun comes out and trees grow and you see a cliff and the beast roars…etc."

Some type of planning was therefore essential.

It has to be said that their vocabulary range did not increase or become more descriptive in any way, as hoped for. The soundtrack of the movie which was always recorded after all visual aspects of scenes had been created was not considered that important by the children. Some would have sooner left it out altogether ! This was in part due to the difficult nature of the sound synchronisation process (matching the correct words with the correct scenes). Also, the perceived ‘hassle’ of actual planning what to say. It was also often a rushed procedure towards the end of class. What they did say showed a lack of interest and effort, a desire to get it done quickly.

Sample soundtrack (in part):

"Hello and welcome to our movie. There is a ghost there and then there is a spaceman. And here comes a space ship, and then an alien was there just a second ago, and then planets come, and then a big huge ball comes and then, I don’t know what it is. And then a sun comes and then some money comes. Mmn. I like money."

As is clear from the above, the children seemed to see their job as listing the sequence of events they see happening on screen. They relate when each element appears on screen but never describe it properly. This was despite the teachers efforts to encourage them to do so.

It was mentioned above that the visual aspect of movie-making was seen by the children as the ‘real work’ to do. Unfortunately, they were involved very little in the auditory end of things. Picking a tune or piece of music for any scene only required one click of the mouse and the children tended not to use this library because they preferred hearing the sound effects. There was certainly an impressive range of sound effects in ‘Magic Theatre’ but these were already attached to objects and characters. It would have been more open-ended for these to be made available in a multimedia library where the children could themselves allocate a certain sound effect to a certain object or character.

As the study progressed, the children and teacher grew familiar with the characters and objects and what movements and sound effects were associated with them. After a while, including the most familiar in any scene became boring and repetitive. For example, you know, as you see him arrive, that the surfer is going to say ‘surf’s up dude’ and move from left to right in the same way.

Such familiar figures, which the children had no real control over, achieved little characterisation. They could not pick their clothes, voices or movements. Unlike writing a story, where the creator can see the character in his mind in whatever way he wishes - characteristics and emotions attached - the children never saw the computer people as real people.

Generally, the children were free to create a movie about any topic using any of the tools but as the lessons progressed, the teacher felt obliged to exclude particular backgrounds (space, sea, castle) on some occasions. These backgrounds, and as a result, certain pictures and objects, were being overused and the stories becoming very familiar because of this. The children needed new stimuli and these exclusions forced them to examine other areas or lines of thought.

Towards the end, however, all backgrounds were again open to be used but the children were encouraged to use them in new and different ways. For example, using a space background doesn’t necessitate the inclusion of a planet or spaceman. As long as a reasonable story is created around the choices made, any number of unusual combinations can be used. This is consistent with the idea of creativity as the ability to combine old concepts in novel ways (see 1.1.1)

The children were always encouraged to ‘create their own’ backgrounds, objects and characters as well as using those provided by the multimedia libraries. This was done to a certain extent but not as much as the teacher would have liked. The main problem seemed to be that they saw the backgrounds provided by the computer as themes for their stories, and thus a whole range of stories were not considered because they didn’t have the appropriate background or objects available. They seemed unwilling to draw their own pictures (with the drawing tools) because perhaps, it was too much effort compared to clicking on a ready drawn picture, it took longer and thus wasted their valuable ‘mouse time’, and also, in their eyes, didn’t look as good when compared with the computer-generated art objects.

It must also be noted that, from the experimental group, 17 out of 18 had used a computer before and 15 of these have a computer at home. A computer in a house with children usually means some type of computer games with, as is normal these days, high quality graphics and realistic animations. This leads to a certain sophistication of attitude towards technology and high expectations of any software product.

To return then to the issue of how creating a movie was similar to creating a story by virtue of following the same stages of creation (or stages of writing). The stimulus to create a movie (1.) was very strong during the first few weeks of the project. Towards the end, however, it grew weaker as the elements of the multimedia libraries and the sample random movies played at the beginning became over-familiar. The pre-writing and planning stage (2.) was always rushed by the children as their priority was to be physically creating the movie instead of just talking about doing so. Unfortunately, this planning stage was considered a ‘waste of computer time’ and this showed itself later in weak storylines and sequencing. The ‘play’ button provided good feedback during the actual creation of the movie (3.) though the children could have used it more. The ongoing editing process (4.) proved to be more difficult than expected, especially as the ‘rub-out’ facility related only to the most recent action and not any previous moves. The sound recording was very difficult to edit. The presentation and response(5.) stage at the end was, due to time constraints, very limited and given more time, this certainly would have proved valuable. During the creation process, however, the children did criticise themselves and other group members, though criticism was usually related to what their scene looked like, rather than a weak storyline. Again, the visual aspect took over. In general, it seemed that. although the children became very adept at using this particular product, the specific story-writing skills, which it was hoped would transfer to the writing process did not do so.

4.2 Pupil Questionnaire/ Pupil Reaction

On the last week of the study, the children were given a simple ‘Pupil Questionnaire’ to fill out (see Appendix D). The purpose of this was to find out their views on ‘Magic Theatre’; whether they enjoyed using it or not, their favourite and least favourite parts, and their ideas for its improvement.

On the question of whether they liked using the software or not, most children said that they ‘liked’ or ‘loved’ using it, four said it was ‘ all right’ and one said ‘no’.

They were then asked what things they liked best about the software. There was a variety of answers here. Many liked the actual process of creating the scenes, some liked the whole idea of ‘making a movie’ and a lot liked the sound or music aspects and recording their own voices with the microphone. Other favourite parts were the spray paints, the animation (‘the way the people walked’), the drawing tools (‘the way you can draw pictures’), and the general provision of library pictures (‘the backgrounds’, ‘the animals’, ‘the buildings’, ‘the characters’).

The following question asked what they did not like about the software. Many children picked out the ‘tracing’ of the pictures as too difficult. Many others felt that the scale of the pictures and objects was sometimes strange e.g. the piece of money was ‘huge’ in relation to the house. A major source of discontent (for children and teacher) was the difficulty in sound synchronisation. Firstly, you could not record your voice for more than 60 seconds so they could not say all they wanted to say in the narration of their movie and secondly it was very hard to match up the recorded words with the appropriate scene. Many disliked the fact that you could only erase the most recent action made and not any previous moves. This made editing of a scene very difficult and often they had no option but to start over. Many of the boys repeatedly complained about their inability to manipulate the characters or objects in any way e.g. make the people ‘pick up things’.

The final question asked for ideas for improvement in the product. The most popular ideas were to give more time for recording your voice, provide more backgrounds, be able to change the size of objects and be able to rub out more than once. They also would have liked to be able to manipulate the characters in some way e.g. make the boy ‘kick a football’ or ‘turn on a light’ and to put in voices for the characters. Others asked for the ability to make ‘special effects’ and to ‘make things 3D’. Generally, their demands were very high but at the same time, they showed themselves to be innovative and creative in producing ideas for improving the product.

4.3 Summary

As a whole, the children were very enthusiastic and excited about using the software. Some said, at the end, that they would ask their parents to buy it for them. Although the boys, in particular, had many criticisms to make about what it wouldn’t do for them and the ways they would make it better, this seems quite the norm for children these days. They are certainly very demanding and have high expectations of any product. Rather than say ‘oh, isn’t that wonderful !’, they will say ‘o.k., that’s good, but what else can it do ?’ At the same time, it has to be said that there was not one of them who would have given up one minute of their ‘mouse time’ to another child.

Posted with kind permission from Annemarie Sherlock, School of Computer Applications, Dublin University.

©Instinct Corporation 2010