Being connected without being connected

SPARK LONDON AT THE HACKNEY ATTICI have finally – finally! – realised what all the Facebook status updates I find so tedious have in common. That is, apart from the fact that they ostensibly have nothing in common, and that I find them tedious. I talked about the things I find irritating in How much should we share online?, so there's no need to rehearse it all over again.
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Web 2.0 For Rookies: What is a Podcast?

A podcast is a recording in digital format that you can listen to online, or download to your computer, and transfer to a portable device like an iPod. In fact, the name 'podcast' derives from the name 'iPod' -- but you don't need an iPod to listen to podcasts.

podcastingIn many respects, podcasts as an educational tool will be familiar to even 'traditional' teachers. For many years, schools have made use of radio programmes and other recordings, and have incorporated the making of recordings into classroom practice. There are, however, important differences between podcasts and these older types of recording.

The main difference lies in the use which podcasts make of RSS feeds. By subscribing to a podcast's RSS feed you can ensure that you will automatically receive each new episode without having to make a special effort to go looking for the latest one.

There are differences, too, in the making of recordings these days. For a start, recording devices are a lot smaller than they used to be. Indeed, you could use an ordinary mp3 player as long as it is able to record, although I prefer to use a dedicated device like the Edirol recorders, which I find give superb results even where there is a lot of background noise.

Editing is easier as well. In the old days of reel-to-reel tape recorders it could take a long time finding the section you wanted to cut out, and then cut it out, and then splice the two ends of the tape together again. Cutting out was pretty much the only editing option open to the amateur, unless you had access to some fancy equipment that would allow you to add a musical sound track or sound effects. But there was little scope for subtleties like fading the music out and the commentator's voice in -- at least, not in the normal run of things in a classroom situation.

Not only that, but the results of cutting bits out were often jarring to listen to, and the process physically weakened the tape.

When cassette recorders appeared, editing was more or less out of the question altogether. Although there were editing tools available, the facts that (a) the format was so small and (b) most of the tape was enclosed made editing impossible to all intents and purposes.

Editing now is so much easier. Using a program like Audacity means that you can see what needs sorting out, so the process is less hit and miss. You can cross-fade, amplify soft parts, add music, and easily cut out gaffes. And you can do all this without fear of making a fatal error, as long as you make sure you've backed up the original recording first, and without weakening the quality. Best of all, Audacity won't cost you a penny.

Podcasting has a place in every area of the curriculum. Youngsters can have fun and be creative by making their own radio programme. They can even include interviews with people from abroad by using Skype together with a Skype recording program.

A number of projects in the Web 2.0 Projects Books make use of podcasting, so you may like to have a browse through that for some ideas. The original edition is still available from Not all of the links work now, but the ideas still do. The second edition will be out in January 2010, so look out for announcements for that.

One thing which has to be said is that, strictly speaking, a podcast is not Web 2.0, because it doesn't easily lend itself to collaboration with others, in the sense of editing the recording itself. However, people can leave comments if you create a blog to go with the podcast series, or if you have the podcast hosted on Podomatic, and the use of the RSS feed makes it worthy of being included in the Web 2.0 panoply. Besides, a well-made podcast should not only encourage others to comment, but will have involved pupils collaborating with each other in order to make it in the first place.

If this article has whet your appetite for creating a podcast, have a look at this how-to article. You will probably also find my account of my visit to the John Hanson Community School interesting.

My own efforts at podcasting may be found on Podomatic.

Finally, don't forget to check out the other articles in this series by looking in the alphabetical index for 'Web 2.0 for Rookies...'.

A Visit to John Hanson Community School

"We come up here in break times or in lesson times"
"Here being where?"
The radio studio at John HansonSuch is the impeccable logic of 14 year olds! As it happens, the "here" in question was the music room, and the recording studio, of John Hanson Community School in Andover, Hampshire, in the south-eastern part of England. I spent a most pleasant morning there a while ago, meeting staff and students, especially those who were working on a podcast for me.

A couple of years ago I wrote in my newsletter, Computers in Classrooms, that while I enjoyed making podcasts, I didn't really have the time or the inclination to devote the time required to make them as polished as I should like. I wondered aloud whether there was a school that would be willing to work with me. The benefits for me would be obvious, and hopefully the students would benefit from having an opportunity to work with a real client, and, if required, a reference or testimonial from me to go into their eportfolio. And, for the school, some extra publicity.

This item was picked up by Hampshire Consultant and newsletter subscriber Colin McQueen, who works for the Hampshire Inspection & Advisory Service. He passed it on to Mike Adams, Assistant Headteacher at the school and, as it turns out, one of the driving forces behind Hanson Radio. As soon as I heard one of their podcasts, I was entranced by the quality and the professionalism (as you will be: give it a whirl).

Up till the visit, communication had been via email, my website, and the school's VLE. I'd been sending recordings, and Mike sent me some original music, which I commented on. Then I visited the school and met Mike and Colin for the first time, some of Mike's colleagues -- including Alastair Johnston, Head of Performing Arts, who was also heavily involved with this project -- and some of his students.

I was impressed with what I saw and heard:

The pupils were not only confident users of some music-creating software (eJay DJ Mix Station 2.0, which appears to have been discontinued), but were confident in playing for me and the class the results of their efforts. They had every reason to be confident, because their compositions sounded great. (And just for the record, I'm not easily satisfied.) In fact, not only did it sound nice, it also satisfied the brief, which was to produce some upbeat music with a jazz funk feel. They had also responded well to the feedback I gave on the first one they produced.

In English National Curriculum terms, taking into account user feedback is Level 7, and taking users' needs into account is Level 8. Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting for a moment that taking part in this activity has propelled the students to the dizzy heights of Level 8, but it does serve to illustrate the fact that if you want your students to be able to work at those levels, you have to provide opportunities for them to do so.

Two pupils who have been working on one of the sections played me what they'd done and showed me how they'd achieved the miracle of making me sound fluid and coherent! They seemed very comfortable working with Audacity in the music studio.

Terry on airI was then interviewed by four students, Sophie, Ruby, Alan and Steven, who had prepared some thoughtful questions and who agreed to be interviewed by me in turn. It was in that context that we had the discussion about where "here" was. Their interview of me was featured in a Hanson Radio podcast (which appears to be part of an archive now), and in the one they did for me, as was my interview of them. You can listen to these interviews and the whole Hanson Radio treatment in this podcast.

(In looking up the URL for this episode, I realised with horror that Paul Harrington had left a comment about it, which I hadn't realised! Paul said:

Terry, I have just spent a very entertaining 45 minutes listening to the podcast, excellent work - could you pass on my congratulations for their professional job ( you weren't bad either -lol). The tips on BETT made me instantly rush off and print some business cards in order to save me writing - so thank you very much for that. Regards Paul

So I hope this is a case of better late than never!)

Mike has also had a couple of great jingles made for me, and sought and obtained permission to use the original works of a living composer, Kevin MacLeod.

As it turned out, we didn't get to make another podcast together. I suppose we're all busy people, and doing something like this is a pretty big time commitment. But it was a great experience, and I still use the jingle they created for me!

I was delighted that  a year later the school was awarded the ICT Mark. From what I saw, it was very richly deserved.