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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Elephant in the (Class)room: Pachyderm’s Multimedia Tool

New software that will soon be available to teachers and students enables sophisticated classroom presentations. Cost? Peanuts.
Douglas Cruickshank

Something large, friendly, and highly capable may be in your future. It’s Pachyderm multimedia-authoring software, a tool that allows you and your students to incorporate audio, video, text, and images into classroom presentations, digital term papers, and any multimedia project you encounter. The completed presentation can then be put on a CD or DVD, or downloaded to the author's Web site.

Too good to be true? Not at all. According to its developers, using this powerful tool is as easy as completing an online form. Better still, access to the software and a Help desk is coming as early as September, and will probably be less than $10 a month -- or free if your school or school district installs it on its own server.

But wait! There's more. Pachyderm will soon offer hosted accounts, where those with individual subscriptions can store their multimedia projects on the Pachyderm server and access them by simply logging in. The potential for dynamic teaching, learning, and creative good times are considerable, to say the least.

Multimedia for Museums

In recent years, some of the country's leading museums have used Pachyderm -- an open source software package accessed using a standard Web browser -- to create compelling, interactive CDs, DVDs, and online learning experiences that complement and enhance exhibits for both teachers and students. Institutions ranging from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the Arkansas Air Museum and the Museum of Texas Tech University have enriched the viewing experience, before or after, for students and teachers by providing multimedia resources created with Pachyderm.

The current Pachyderm tool is based on software initially developed by SFMOMA. In 2003, when the museum wanted to expand Pachyderm's capabilities and make it more flexible and easier to use, a partnership funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) was formed with the New Media Consortium. Rachel Smith, previously the NMC director of the Pachyderm Project, is now a vice president at the NMC and member of the Pachyderm Advisory Council, the governing body for the project.

"SFMOMA had a Pachyderm product, and they wanted to share it, but at that time, the program wasn't as user friendly as it is now,” Smith says. "It was tied to SFMOMA's art-collections management system and was focused primarily on art. The goal of the project in part was to open it up so more disciplines could use it" -- disciplines, she explains, such as history and science. "So they sent out a call to partners to rewrite Pachyderm and make it more generalized." Several universities and museums joined the group to form the original partnership.

In those early days, "we had a model to look at, and we had a vision of what we wanted the new product to be,” Smith recalls. “There were a couple of intense project meetings where everyone came together and really worked on those requirements." The result was a lengthy document that precisely details the group's vision for Pachyderm. Four years later, the new, friendlier Pachyderm is ready to be let loose.

Pachyderm Makes the Grade

Among Pachyderm’s primary users will be teachers, and students ranging in class level from kindergarten through college and graduate school. "It has applicability through the whole range," Smith says. "Kids who can't read yet won’t be able to author completely on their own; however, teachers can still involve them by taking digital pictures of their artwork and getting them to journal about it." The students’ comments about their work can then be incorporated in the presentation as text, audio, or video.

More than a year ago, Smith tested Pachyderm's ease and affordability using her own son, five or six years old at the time, and his Lego creations. "He invented some Lego sculptures he was very proud of," Smith says. "So I took a video of him explaining why he made a certain thing or the characteristics of an animal he created."

"At that age, art is really not about the finished product. It's about the process of creating it," says Smith, a former art teacher. "The journaling, whether it's text, audio, or video, can really target that. You've got a record of the finished artwork, but you've also got a record of the process.

"And then older kids -- upper elementary school, middle school, high school -- can make their own presentations," she adds. "We've even had undergraduate and graduate students do term papers using Pachyderm." (One of the many presentations Pachyderm features on its Web site is "How to Write a Great Paper," which explores one approach to thinking and writing about complex subjects. See the sidebar for more selections from the Pachyderm Showcase.)

"The way Pachyderm works is that when you begin authoring a presentation, you upload your images, video, and other media to the server, then select a template or a screen to put it into,” Smith explains. “Right now, there are ten finished templates and three that are in testing." The various templates give authors choices: If, for example, they're embedding a video, they can select from many styles of text they want to appear next to it.

One enhancement Smith would like to see as the software develops is additional templates. "Although the templates we have are pretty flexible, it's just nice to have different designs and layouts," she says. And the beauty of open source software is that anyone can contribute. "You get all these ideas from the community that your core team might not have ever come up with," Smith says. Future Pachyderm improvements will include templates for touch-screen and handheld computers.

Resources, especially for technological tools, are always a concern for teachers. You may be thinking, "I don't have access to a video camera or the budget to buy one, so how will my students use video in their Pachyderm projects?" When Smith helped her son with his Lego presentation, she didn't have a video camera, either. "I used my Olympus digital camera. It takes thirty-second video clips -- you don’t want clips longer than one minute -- and saves them as QuickTime files and -- pop! -- they go right into Pachyderm,” she explains. “I also used a little digital audio recorder I bought at an office supply store. The process doesn’t have to be expensive."

Spreading the Word

But whether the author-in-training is a teacher or a student, won't he or she have to make quite a conceptual leap to start creating presentations effective enough for the classroom? Does Pachyderm offer that kind of training?

"We encourage people to learn the art of digital storytelling, and we have done some training at the Pachyderm Conference, although that training is not part of the NMC's mission," Smith says. However, the Center for Digital Storytelling has been involved in the Pachyderm Project and does offer workshops at its Berkeley, California, headquarters, as well as in several cities around the United States, and occasionally in cities outside the United States. (For more on digital storytelling, read "How To: Use Digital Storytelling in Your Classroom," and check out Edutopia.org's archive of digital-storytelling articles and blog posts.)

"What we find is that users will toss the first Pachyderm presentation they make because they’re just learning," Smith says. "But after that, the learning curve is extremely short." At the upcoming Pachyderm Conference, in September, Smith would like to see digital-storytelling techniques among the highlighted topics.

"One of the things we're hoping to feature is folks who do this a lot -- such as the SFMOMA -- and have a team process for telling a story,” Smith explains. “We want them to come and share their process, because we feel strongly that it's important for people to focus on that. Authors shouldn't just start putting media into the screens; they should have a conceptual idea of their entire project."

Smith is enthusiastic about the relatively new idea of teacher-museum partnerships in which Pachyderm plays a role, and believes there are two ways these partnerships can work. One way is to have museums -- such as SFMOMA, which has been a pioneer in this approach -- provide Pachyderm presentations about exhibits designed for students to view either before or after a visit to the museum. The second way is to have a a museum post certain images and video clips related to its collections on its own server and then give teachers user accounts for their students to access.

"After the students visit the exhibit and go back to their classroom, they already have those materials in Pachyderm,” Smith explains. “They can then log in and create a presentation about their favorite exhibit, or compare art pieces. It's great to have them go through an online Pachyderm exhibit, but by creating their own, they can really interact with the artwork on a personal level -- even after they've left the museum."

Douglas Cruickshank is the former editor of Edutopia.org.

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