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Comics in the Classroom – Technology Allows Students to Create their Own Characters and Strips

New comic strip site moves into the education market with BitStripsforSchools

It has been almost two years since we did our four-part feature on the use of comic books in the classroom. At that time we discussed the comics movement in light of the increased emphasis in the educational setting on student engagement and enhanced learning, two elements that spoke directly to the issue of teachers capturing the attention of their students.

Specifically, when it came to struggling young readers, it was clear that one way hook and thus engage students was to turn to the world of comics. While the initial reaction of some was that teachers were lowering their educational standards and reinforcing lazy reading habits, many others, understanding that teaching begins with getting student attention, decided to give comics a try.

For those educators still on the fence, we followed our initial post with an excellent interview with Chris Wilson of The Graphic Classroom. Most importantly, Chris clearly articulated how the graphic format could be used to enhance any reading program, not just those who struggled with the reading process.

Making Comic Strips

Teachers already using such the comics format no doubt understand how the creation of comic strips by students can become a teaching tool for reluctant writers as well.

Given what we had learned, we were extremely intrigued with a new web site called BitstripsforSchools.com. Just as one might expect, it is computer software that allows students to create their own comic book characters and story lines or strips.

JacobAtWork-CandidLike Chris who grew up with an interest in graphic novels, Jacob Blackstock, the CEO of BitStrips Inc., always had an interest in drawing his own comics.

In fact, Jacob acknowledges that on the one hand he often got into trouble for drawing comics instead of paying attention while in class, but that on the other would get high marks for handing in comics as schoolwork.

With his site BitStrips, Jacob appears to have resolved this longstanding paradox. Having started, and stopped the university academic scene a number of times, Jacob had to teach himself classical animation, a step that helped him create his own 14-minute cartoon.

But the process of drawing the same character over 15,000 times (3 years worth of work) had him thinking of easier ways to repeat a creative process that could become tedious at times. With the help of David Kennedy, Shahan Panth, Jesse Brown, Dorian Baldwin and Tom Smahel, the group would create Bitstrips and offer just such a path for other would-be cartoonists.

Over the past ten days we posed a number of questions to the CEO of Bitstrips Inc. Below, as is our practice at OpenEducation, we offer his Q & A verbatim for our readers.

Can you give our readers a brief history of how Bitstrips came to be?

Bitstrips Inc. is a six-man team from Toronto, most of whom have been friends since high school. Collectively, we’ve been making comics, cartoons, and interactive games all our lives. After years of drawing the same things over and over again (animation and illustration can be tedious work), we found ourselves looking for a way to speed up the creation process – to minimize the time it takes to bring an idea to life in a shareable form. This quest led to the development of our Comic Builder, which we strived to make the easiest, most fun, and fastest way to make great-looking comics using a computer. As we reached this goal, we realized that the Comic Builder had a greater purpose than just speeding up the process:

Now anyone could make their own comics, regardless of their drawing ability. The uniquely evocative language of comics had always been reserved for a select few who possessed the skills and the patience to create them; now this language could be used by everyone, and could perhaps even become a new mode of everyday communication, like online video, blogs and twitter. Seeing this potential, we set out to build a new kind of website – and after about two years of toil, paid for out of our own pockets, Bitstrips.com was born.

In March of 2008 Bitstrips.com was launched at the SXSW interactive festival in Austin, Texas, where it was the hit of the show. We suddenly found ourselves fostering a rapidly growing, incredibly creative community of dedicated users, churning out massive quantities of comics on a daily basis. And to our surprise, we discovered that many of our users were educators, who were using the site as a teaching tool. This, in conjunction with recent studies that point to comics as a solution for developing student literacy, led us to consider the development of a new educational version of Bitstrips, tailored for use in the classroom.

We approached the Ontario Ministry of Education with a demo version of BitstripsforSchools, and they agreed to help us run a pilot program in a handful of classrooms. The pilot was a huge success, with teachers excited by the educational power of comic creation, and students inspired by the sheer fun of it all. We licensed the service to the Ministry for use across the province, and just about a month ago it finally launched – not just in Ontario, but also available anywhere in the world via an online self-serve option.

Since then the response has been overwhelming, with increasingly phenomenal usage. In our first month, we’ve had over 50,000 student accounts created. Currently the students are producing more than 6000 comics every day, and this number is increasing rapidly. And, most importantly, the teachers are thrilled to see just how engaged their students are while using Bitstrips.

Can you explain the differences between the two sites, particularly the attributes that are unique to the BitstripsforSchools site?

bitstrips one

BitstripsforSchools.com contains all the technology from Bitstrips.com, but with added security and administration features designed specifically for the school setting. Unlike Bitstrips.com, which is an entertainment site open to the public, BitstripsforSchools enables teachers to create virtual classrooms, which are essentially walled gardens that have no links to the wider web. These classrooms are just for students, and the teacher is in control. Administrative functionality allows teachers to monitor all activity within the class, and moderate content before it’s shared with the class.

Another unique aspect of BitstripsforSchools is that it gives teachers the ability to create specialized activities, and even share them with other teachers. This makes the site much more versatile and applicable to specific curricula. For example, if the class is reading a certain book, the teacher can create an activity that involves adapting a scene from the book into comic form. Any subject, from language to social studies to science, can be turned into an engaging comic-creation activity. And, as these activities are shared between teachers via the Activity Library, BitstripsforSchools will become exponentially more useful – teachers can search for activities by grade and subject, and add comments or ratings to assist other teachers in finding what they need.

Can you talk a little bit about the creativity available to students on the site – while basic character traits are available, it appears that students can customize each of their characters? And what attributes are available should they try to ‘cartoon’ themselves?

bitstrips 5One of the key ideas behind Bitstrips is that it’s not just about making comics – it’s about making comics that star YOU and your friends. This makes the experience more personal, fun and engaging. So, when developing the character builder, we tried to make it as flexible as possible, so that it’s easy to create an appealing, recognizable caricature of yourself or anyone you know.

There is currently a wide selection of facial features to choose from – eyes, ears, noses, hairstyles, etc… with regular updates planned throughout the year. But it’s not just about choosing the right set of eyes – you can also re-size them and move them around on the head – and we’ve found that it’s this fine-tuning of proportions that can really help capture the likeness of the person you’re recreating.

One of the special features we’ve added to BitstripsforSchools is a class picture that lives on your homepage. As each student creates his or her character (also known as avatars), it automatically appears in the group shot. So, when a teacher creates a Bitstrips classroom, they get to watch this scene fill itself up with cartoon versions of the whole class, which is a lot of fun for everyone.

Can you describe the types of emotions and actions available for characters? Is this fairly limited at this time?

One of the best things about building characters on Bitstrips is that there’s so much you can do with them. These characters are not just simple designs, they’re actually very expressive little puppets that can convey a lot of nuanced information without even using a word balloon.

We’ve got eight basic emotions to choose from, but those can be altered with independent eyelid, mouth and pupil controls, to generate a nearly infinite range of expressions. The body is also very adjustable, with a wide selection of poses in various categories (talking, walking, sitting, etc). And, even though it’s a two-dimensional design, you can rotate the character to view it from multiple angles.

So, from a single character design, there are truly endless possibilities when it comes to facial expressions and body language – which plays a big part in the unique way that comics can visually communicate thoughts and feelings.

How about the strips – is there a limit to the number of frames available or can a student create a story length cartoon?

A comic can have up to eight rows, with as many panels per row as the action will allow (usually no more than four). Generally this seems to be more than sufficient – though, for those students with more epic inclinations, they can build longer stories by creating multiple chapters. On Bitstrips.com we’ve had users create ongoing series with hundreds of episodes.

Talk a little bit about the art library currently available (characters, scenes and props). And what is in the works for expanding this library?

In addition to the characters, there is an art library containing a growing selection of props, furniture, backgrounds, and special effects. We like to think of the items in the library not as clip art, but rather as ‘smart art’ – that is, any given object may have multiple viewing angles as well as different states. For example, we have a banana that can be peeled, drawers that open and close, and water that transforms from a drop to a puddle. Discovering these extra states (and finding uses for them) has proven to be a fun part of exploring the library for our users.

The art library also contains full scenes, which combine backgrounds, props and furniture to make it faster and easier to create your comic. We’re working on new batches of artwork and plan on releasing regular updates throughout the year. We get lots of requests for specific items to be added to the library, and we try to make sure that the most commonly requested bits go to the top of our list of new things to design. Currently we’re working on some major updates that should really add to the fun – new clothing, animals, musical instruments, and more…

Your site notes that students can email their comics home, print them out, or paste them into other applications. What are some of the other common applications students can use?

For those who want to work beyond the confines of the comic strip format, graphics from Bitstrips can be copied and pasted into other image editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop. We’ve seen people copying their characters into posters, calendars, Powerpoint presentations, profile pics for blogs and Twitter accounts – you name it. Some industrious folks have even created flipbook animations on Youtube by exporting individual panels as frames. We’re constantly amazed to see Bitstrips art pop up in the least expected places.

What are some of the not so obvious, indirect learnings that Bitstrips can offer students?

bitstrips 3There’s been a huge amount of emphasis lately on the power of comics as a tool for enhancing student engagement and literacy. We’ve also seen teachers use it for other subjects – art, social studies, even math.

Meanwhile, whatever the subject being studied, there is always the underlying fact that BitstripsforSchools is a social media application, and I think learning to use social media in a constructive way is very important for today’s students. While using Bitstrips, students will find themselves indirectly learning about appropriate online behavior, digital collaboration, and other essential skills for navigating the increasingly complex world of the web.

One real key aspect of comics is its ability to help students who are English as Second Language Learners. Are there other languages currently available for teachers?

BitstripsforSchools is currently available in English and French (we are a Canadian company, after all). It is very likely that in the near future we will add more versions of the site in different languages. We’ve already got users in every corner of the globe, and since the teachers write the activities and their students write the comics, there’s really nothing stopping anyone from using the tools in any language. But, as demand increases, we will certainly add more support (ie properly translated interface, activities and documentation) for other languages.

Educators are always concerned with Internet safety – talk a little bit about what filters/precautions you have in place?

bitstrips fourWhile developing the site, we were very aware that safety would be a prime concern for teachers, and thus it’s been a major factor in how we set things up. Our guiding principle is that the teacher is in control. When a teacher opens an account, they create a ‘virtual classroom’ that is essentially a walled garden with no links to the wider internet. Students can still access this classroom from their home computers, but there’s no way for anyone outside the class to access it, and no way for the students to stumble upon any content that hasn’t been reviewed by their teacher.

We have a number of moderation controls, designed to help teachers track and deal with all the activity within the class. They can choose to have all comics sent to them for review before approving them to be shared with the other students. Students can flag comics or comments as inappropriate, at which point they are rendered invisible to the rest of the class and brought to the teacher’s attention. Comics containing profanities are flagged automatically.

Can you briefly go over the pricing structure and what comes with each pricing level? Can teachers sign off and on easily (so as to have access for one, two or three month periods should they choose)? And do you foresee a time when there might be a very basic option available to schools for free?

We offer subscriptions on either a monthly or annual basis. For a single-classroom account, which supports up to 40 students, it’s $9.95 per month, or $87 for a full year. Teachers with more than one class can also get a multi-classroom account, which supports up to 6 classrooms, for $29.95 per month or $265 for a year. All accounts come with free updates and upgrades, and unlimited comics and activities.

We also offer volume discount rates for school accounts and district accounts, such as our license for the Ontario Ministry of Education. School reps can easily get in touch with us via the site to determine the pricing.

It’s possible that some day we might be able to figure out a more basic version that could be freely available – but we still have a lot of work to do before we can afford to develop something like that. In the meantime, any teacher can try the full-featured service for free by signing up for a 14-day trial account. All paid accounts also include the free trial for the first two weeks.

Can you provide teachers a couple of contacts that are currently using BitstripsforSchools should new potential users want to pursue specific questions about the site and its application?

For a contact outside our company, I’d point people to the blog of Doug Peterson, who is a Computers in the Classroom Consultant here in Ontario, and is also part of the OSAPAC committee that recommended the license to the Ministry. He’s been a great evangelist for Bitstrips, and has posted some great articles on his blog, like this one.

Meanwhile, any potential users with specific questions should feel free to get in touch with us directly anytime by emailing us at info@bitstripsforschools.com. We’re always very happy to talk with educators about the service – direct communication with teachers has been a huge part of the site’s development since day one.

2 comments

1 Bobby { 11.04.09 at 7:39 pm }

What a unique idea. Talk about making learning fun. This is a great idea and is a perfect forum for students to to show some creativity. You are absolutely right about bitstrips engaging students. I think it is a very useful tool. Thanks for the update.

2 Anonymous { 03.10.10 at 11:39 pm }

Bitstrips is awesome…my students absolutely love it!

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