Bitstrips is a Toronto-based entrepreneurial venture that lets people create avatars of themselves (and others) and to create comic-strips starring the avatars. The Ontario government has licensed a classroom version for use in all public schools across the province, reaching 500,000 teachers and students (http://www.bitstripsforschools.com/activities/).
Eleven-year-old Nathaniel McMurray could tell you lots about the culture of Scotland. But he’d rather let Wee Angus do it.
“He’s supposed to be a Scottish guy,” Nathaniel says, reluctantly heaving his eyes from the computer screen. He’s just finished pulling together eyes, a nose, a leprechaun hat and other features that he coloured, reshaped and assembled to create the star of his comic strip on Scotland.
On every desk of the Grade 5/6 class at Charles Howitt Public School in Richmond Hill, Ont., a black laptop is logged into a Web-based program for making comics. At one time, this would have been seen as a misuse of school computers. But for Ontario students this year, it will be schoolwork.
“[Angus]starts telling you about how Scotland invented the game of golf,” he says, eagerly narrating the comic to come. “And some great things like haggis and shepherd’s pie that came out of Scotland.”
Nathaniel’s teacher, Royan Lee, watches over the classroom – wandering among desks, and logging in to see what students are up to. Each class has a password: Students can see each other’s work and talk to their teacher, but are invisible to the rest of the Net.
It keeps kids in “a little walled garden” at school, says Jacob Blackstock, one of the founders of Bitstrips. It started as a “YouTube for comics,” a site to make and post strips. The company was run out of Mr. Blackstock’s Toronto living room until last year.
He and co-founder Jesse Brown, a tech journalist formerly with CBC, revamped the software for schools.
“It’s an explosion of creativity,” Mr. Blackstock says.
Internet-age kids, both boys and girls, turn off easily in class, Prof. Rowsell says. “Teachers are competing with these very advanced forms of communication outside of school … students like [comics] and they’re motivated by them. They understand them. They invest in them.”
Mr. Lee has seen the effect. “I don’t have to convince the students to do their work,” he says in a delighted whisper. In his digital-savvy classroom, kids learn to podcast, make slideshows and Google wisely.
“We need more of that in schools. Not just worksheets,” he says. “We’re trying to focus on really communicating information in a dynamic way … not just random facts or memorization.”
There is also a Facebook app that now has 1 million users: https://www.facebook.com/appcenter/bitstrips/