Animation & History

This is one of the reasons I think FableVision‘s program Animation-ish is so important.  Yes, you can make silly movies, but you can also make quick digital content that explains important issues.

Everyone thinks of Alexander the Great as a superior general, but in fact he almost lost at the battle of Issus, as the preliminary maneuvers suggest.  A textbook image of this battle, or even one from Wikipedia (on which this animation is based), shows a series of lines that require a careful reading of supplemental texts to understand.  Most kids don’t bother.

But here — with the demo version of the program, as opposed to the full version — I’ve made a short 7-second video that displays the maneuvers of Darius in red, and Alexander in blue.  Alexander’s plan is to hold the Belian Gates (a mountain pass) against Darius.  When it’s clear that he can’t get to the gates in time, he presses on past the Syrian Gates to the Beilan Gates, and waits a while there for Darius to come to him; Alexander clearly plans on trapping Darius between the Syrian Gates and the Beilan Gates.

But Darius doesn’t fall for the bait.  Instead, he waits in Issus for a fleet bringing in fresh troops, and the warships necessary to cut Alexander’s supply lines.  He doesn’t look so great now, does he?  Alexander is forced to backtrack along the coast road to the ford, where he fights the battle.  But he doesn’t get to fight the battle on the ground of his own choosing.  Instead, he fights on the ground that Darius chooses.

So why does Animation-ish win the Gold Medal this year?  Because before Animation-ish came along, I knew how animated movies were made; you made a lot of little drawings, one after the other, and hoped — hoped! — when you put them together that they would tell a coherent story.  Animation-ish does that work for you, and rather easily.  This involved two hours of work in five or six 15-20 minute spurts: it was rather like a kid doing homework, in fact.

“Two hours!” you say. “That’s a lot!”  But with five or six copies of this program, and some other kids working on the script in a word processing document, and some other kids working on the music… well.  Now, with a week of classroom and homework time, you have a rather professional 3-5 minute podcast or movie. It will not only show the maneuvers leading up to the battle, but phases in the battle itself.  Kids do the illustrations, write the script, do the voice-overs, mix the sound, and so on.  And the content can be licensed under CreativeCommons, so every kid in the world can use it to learn.

As the months and years pass, you build a library of these little explanatory videos, that showcase battles, the movements of explorers, the paths of major trade routes, architectural principles, geometric and mathematical ideas, and more.  (TeachPaperless — maybe our classrooms can collaborate on a few of these?) One company, FableVision, earns money to make more varieties of kid-directed creative and story-telling software, the open-content folks get animations of turning points in history, and students get educated in collaboration, creativity, and building stories.

Now for some criticisms: I sped things up a little too fast in this animation.  Animation-ish itself doesn’t give you much idea of how long a frame lasts in time, so I guessed, and it’s VERY short. The whole thing needs to be stretched out quite a lot (In Animation-ish terms this is about 30 frames, and it probably needs to be 75-100).    Also, this was made with Animation-ish’s demo software, so it’s got a weird watermark in the way. And I do wish that Animation-ish’s tools were a little bit more finely grained (though that might improve if I had a sketch tablet instead of my built-in thumbpad).

But online digital content is going to NEED these kinds of explanatory content built into them, or they won’t be any better than the textbooks we already have.  We teachers can let the for-profit textbook companies build them, and charge us all sorts of expenses for the programmers’ and artists’ time, or we can decide that our kids are going to learn how to do this, and create content themselves, and learn to be creative themselves. (And that means, among other things, that open-source textbooks have to give kids the option of building new content for anything, including things that have already been built once, to see if they can do better).

Hmmm.  I know which I’d pick.  And given a choice between spending around $900 for one digital projector, or $900 for fifteen or sixteen copies of this program… well, I think you can see why.

The original map for this video came from Wikipedia.org‘s article on the battle of Issus, where the copyright information asserts that it is in the public domain since it was created by a US federal agency:  the Department of History, at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

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