Five of My Favourite Audio Services for Teachers

1. JustCast
A while ago I published this post, sharing one of my favourite new web services: JustCast which lets you publish any audio file on your computer as a podcast, simply by dragging it to a Dropbox folder.  Give your students your JustCast RSS feed URL and they can subscribe to it in their favourite podcast player app or subscribe to it yourself, then drop any audio file in there and listen to it on your commute!

2. Huffduffer
Huffduffer is another great tool, which is similar in purpose to JustCast. The end result is the same – a personal podcast feed for you or one to share with your students. The difference is that Huffduffer adds audio on the web to a personal podcast feed. If you visit a web page and there is an audio file embedded there, you can “huffduff it” using the browser plugin for your favourite browser. It’s as easy as bookmarking it.

3. Narro
Narro is similar in concept to Huffduffer, but whereas Huffduffer adds audio files to a podcast feed, Narro adds written text to a podcast feed.  Let’s say you find a really interesting but rather long blog post that you want to read. You can bookmark it using the Narro bookmarklet (available from the Narro website) and it shows up in your podcast feed as a spoken podcast.  Sure, it’s a computer voice but it’s surprisingly realistic. It even adds emphasis to key words. It is a great way to digest written content on the go.

4. TapeACall Pro
TapeACall Pro is an app (and service) that allows you to record phone calls made or received on your iPhone. There are obvious ethical (and depending on where you live, legal) considerations here. You should ask the other person for consent to record the call but it’s really useful for important phone calls discussing details that you need to remember – and so much easier than trying to scribble notes while talking. If you make a podcast for your students it’s also the simplest way I know to record an interview with an expert which you can then insert to your podcast.

5. SpeakPipe
SpeakPipe allows you to place a button, widget or link on your own website, blog or wiki. Your students (or anyone else who visits the site from any device) can click the link and record an audio comment or question – which is delivered to your email! If you like you can also reply, by voice, to their email. Again if you make a podcast for your class it’s a convenient, and very simple way to gather your students’ contributions together. If you’d like to see how this looks, check out the orange SpeakPipe button on the biology page of my website. You will need a SpeakPipe account to place the button on your site, but your students won’t need an account to use it.

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New media. New behaviour. New teaching paradigm.

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According to Leo LaPorte on This Week in Tech (October 13, 2013) half of millennials never watch television.

When I heard Leo say this, my first thought was … “hang on.. that can’t be right!” But then came the enlightening moment when I considered my own four sons, and it dawned on me that THEY almost never watch television!

Sure, they have a television (a really nice, big one at that!) and they use it as a screen for playing Playstation, or for streaming video from their iDevices via AppleTV – but they don’t come home from school, turn on Channel 9 and watch Happy Days like I did when I was a kid.  Nor do they listen to commercial radio or read mainstream newspapers.  Instead, my sons watch hours of YouTube videos, listen to podcasts and find out about world events from websites  blogs and social media.

This is a more profound recent social change than it seems at first. Our students are the first Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 4.30.19 pmgeneration in 400 years who consume content using media forms to which they can just as readily contribute.

As kids, we could watch the TV shows that were served up to us, but we could neither choose the content, nor contribute to it.  Our students can do both.

What an opportunity this presents in the classroom! For the most part we still treat students as though the “work” they are doing is merely an exercise; as though they are just practising for the real world; as though, like our younger selves, they have no avenue for publishing their work!  When English teachers have their students write an essay, why are they asking for it to be ‘handed in’ to them, rather than demanding it be published as a blog post? Why are science teachers accepting a lab report handed in on paper, when students could be reporting the results of their science experiment in a YouTube video?

When we were kids, publishing was out of the question. Our teachers didn’t have a choice.  We do.

Students can now conveniently publish podcasts directly from an iPad app

Some time ago I posted about iPadio a web service that for years has been a key part of my students’ toolkit.  iPadio allows a student to record a podcast (aka “phonecast” or “phlog”) directly to the internet, for free, from an ordinary landline or mobile telephone.  In my experience this is a really easy, no-fuss way to get students to publish their learning orally, anywhere, anytime they have a phone at their disposal.

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The service also provides the ability to automatically cross-post phonecasts to iTunes, Facebook or a class blog.  That’s what I had my students do, so that my students and I didn’t have to visit 25 different websites to listen to each others’ phlogs).

I was excited to recently get an email from iPadio, announcing that they have finally released an iPad app which means students, armed with an iPad and having an internet connection can now record and publish a podcast conveniently from the classroom.  The app is incredibly simple to use and the sound quality is excellent because unlike iPadio’s free phone service, the audio is recorded on the iPad at a relatively high bitrate and  subsequently uploaded (rather than using the phone network in real time).

The iPadio app is free and available from the iTunes app store.  It is necessary for students to create a free account to use the service and they should be reminded to take appropriate cybersafety precautions, remembering that their iPadio page and the podcasts on it will be available to the public.

Why the Facebook Group My Students Created for Themselves is Better than the Discussion Forum I Created for Them.

Since 2004 I’ve created a website of some kind for each class, with a discussion board – a place where students can ask questions or make comments on our class any time of day or night and get a response.  I think it’s an essential component of any modern class.

This semester something new happened, though.  My students created a Facebook group for my class (and then invited me to join it!).  Slowly I’ve watched and noticed more and more, that students are posting on that Facebook group instead of the discussion forum I’d created for them!

While at first, the control-freak in me wanted to send them all back to the “official class discussion forum”,  The advantages of the Facebook group have become increasingly compelling and I’m wondering whether it’s time to let the forum I created go the way of cassette tapes and typewriters.  Why is a Facebook group better? For one thing, Facebook is a digital home for many students.  So a group based there is comfortable to them – it’s on their virtual turf. Because of this, the Facebook group is even more of a desire path than my discussion forum is.

Some other advantages of the Facebook group over the discussion board I created are:

  • When students (or I) find a youtube video that we want to share with the group, this can be simply done directly from Youtube by clicking the “share” button under the video as it plays.
  • The group can be accessed easily using a mobile device… for example from the iPhone Facebook app (see picture).  On the other hand checking my discussion forum in Safari on an iPhone is nowhere near as elegant.
  • Videos and Podcasts on the Facebook group wall play right there in the wall… rather than simply being a link that leads you to another page.  It’s a better user experience.
  • When someone posts on the Facebook group wall, all the members of the group get a notification, and since many of them are in Facebook at the time anyway, they get it immediately!  (In contrast, my discussion forum can be set up to send email notifications… but many students don’t check their email very often.)
Frankly I’ve been delighted to see the level of interaction between my students in that group.  It’s increased.  Look at the screen grab below for example.  Via this Facebook group, my students (independently of me) have been organising to buy some rabbits and breed them to test the genetic theory they are learning in class!  All the planning has taken place via the Facebook group.   In the last week there have been more than 50 comments posted just on this rabbit discussion alone!  And in addition, there have been posts on other topics, videos shared, etc.

It bears mentioning, too, that it’s not necessary to “friend” students in order to interact with them in a group.  Furthermore, if the group is set up as a “closed” group, as ours is, then access is restricted to people who are invited by the group to join, as I was.

See also “More Reasons Our Class Facebook Group Is Better than My School Discussion Board”  and “Facebook Killed the Discussion Board

♫ Thank You For The Music – For Giving It To Me ♫

I recently came across a web 2.0 application called uJam that may just be the coolest web app I’ve seen this year! When I first saw it I thought “Great idea! I bet it doesn’t work”. I was so wrong.

The concept of uJam is novel. You sing an original song, and uJam puts music to it in whatever style you want! Then you can export the finished song as an mp3. (listen to the example at the end of this post).

I’ve often encouraged students to present their work in a range of different formats, as do most teachers, and I’ve invited them to do something creative – such as write and sing a song (here’s an example). The results are usually charming, and often very entertaining, but a little … amateurish, sometimes even “cringe-worthy” and I think most students find the social risks involved in writing and singing a song outweigh even their desire to impress the teacher!

But I think uJam changes that, because the results sound surprisingly good. Even if you don’t sing perfectly in tune, uJam can fix your voice to make it right!.

To demonstrate the power of uJam at a staff meeting yesterday, I asked Andrew, a colleague, to sing an impromptu song. I asked the audience to nominate a theme and someone called out “Valentines day”. Then I asked the audience to suggest a music style and someone called out “Reggae!!” So I selected Reggae from the exhaustive list of styles in uJam,  clicked the “Record” button and Andrew started singing.  After a minute’s wait, uJam had crafted a reggae beat  to fit Andrew’s song, and a click on the “save as mp3” button downloaded it to my desktop!

The result? Not lame at all! It’s like UB40 had sung a song about getting a tripod for Valentines day!

(Remember this was a live 5-minute demo in a staff meeting, with someone who had never before seen uJam, making up a song as he went along and set to a music style pulled out of a hat. As evidence of just how impromptu this all was, if you listen closely at the beginning, you can even hear me still pointing out the features of the uJam window … but uJam has even made those instructions sound kind of funky).

Listen for yourself: Valentines Reggae

Amazing isn’t it? You’ve got to love the 21st Century!

Different types of authentic audience (and a compelling use of Facebook)

One of my favorite education quotes is from Lisa Nielsen:

“21st Century educators don’t say ‘hand it in’; they say ‘publish it’.”


Based on university library borrowings in the UK, the average readership of a PhD thesis is 1.8 (according to Stephen Heppell). That’s got to be a deflating statistic for anyone who has poured years of blood sweat and tears into a thesis! But most secondary science students produce their work for an audience of just 1.

Over the last few years I have had my students publish their work online in a number of different ways. I’ve had students publish podcasts on Podomatic, iPadio and iTunes. I’ve had them publish blogs to WordPress, Edublogs and Class Blogmeister, post research findings on Wikipedia and had them publish videos and screencasts to YouTube. All these things are great and give students a more authentic audience than writing their work on paper and handing it in to their teacher. But this semester I had students who made screencasts publish them on their facebook wall.

When students publish their work on facebook, the audience is significantly different to what comprises their audience when they post it on these other sites.

When students publish their work on a class blog, screencast.com, podomatic.com or even iTunes, it can be seen by others in the class and by me, and although theoretically anyone in the world can see it, realistically, very few will. So while this is more authentic than doing their work on paper, it’s still a very small audience of classmates – and not significantly different to making a poster and pinning it up in the classroom.

In stark contrast, when students publish their work to YouTube or Wikipedia, their audience is larger and in some ways more authentic as anyone viewing the work is doing so as a result of an Internet search. But on these sites, my students are anonymous (I require them to create usernames that won’t identify them and thereby compromise their privacy). So while they have an audience of hundreds, it is an anonymous crowd.

But when a student publishes his or her work to their facebook wall, the audience is large and comprised entirely of people who are significant to the student. There is no hiding behind a mask of anonymity. The authenticity of this audience, I think was illustrated to me by the trepidation with which my students approached this task. Students who have become accustomed to publishing work online in various ways, were visibly nervous and had to dig deep to find the courage to put their work in a place which was so authentic for them.

“Victorian Teachers Who ‘Friend’ Students on Facebook will be Automatically De-registered by the VIT”

… or so said prominent child psychologist, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg during his presentation in Shepparton on the first of June.

But it’s NOT true.

Carr-Gregg’s presentation was clearly intended to shock parents and teachers out of complacency regarding unsafe Internet practice.  We all agree that cybersafety is important, and there is no doubt that many teachers and parents don’t fully understand the risks.  I applaud Carr-Greg’s mission to redress that situation.  But what I and others at the seminar were disappointed about, was Carr-Gregg’s use of half-truths (or in some cases untruths) in order to achieve the shock value he was aiming for.  When it comes to cybersafety, our goal should be to educate parents and teachers about the Internet’s dangers, not to frighten them by overstating the case.

Toward the end of his presentation, following inaccurate descriptions of the risks of nefarious technologies like bluesnarfing software and TigerText, he turned his attention to social networking and declared that the Victorian Institute of Teaching will automatically de-register any teacher who “friends” students on Facebook!

I and several others questioned him on that point after the presentation.  But he was adamant that this is a VIT rule, and that it is written in black and white on the VIT website.  “Don’t blame me”, he said, “I don’t make the rules; I’m just the messenger”.  But that’s just the issue that worries me.  Many teachers and parents will have listened to what he said, and assumed it to be true.  After all, they heard it from a well respected authority on child psychology who is also the author of a book on cybersafety.  Someone who assumes a position of expertise, claims to speak for the VIT, and then makes a sensational claim such as this has a responsibility to make sure his facts are straight.

That evening I spent several hours trawling the VIT website and Code of Conduct but finding nothing prohibiting social networking sites, let alone anything specifically naming Facebook.

The following day, I spent an hour with a representative of the Cybersafety and Wellbeing Initiative of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation (the body responsible for the eSmart Schools initiative).  She had not heard of such a policy either – and laughed that as part of her tour of Victorian schools using technology successfully, her next visit was to a school that uses Facebook extensively.

Finally I phoned the VIT, and spoke to several officers including a senior field officer, who each said that there is certainly no such policy, (and that furthermore the VIT does not “automatically” (without due process) de-register teachers for any action – even when the action represents a clear breach of the Code of Conduct). When I asked the field officer about Facebook specifically, she confirmed that the alleged VIT anti-Facebook policy was unfounded, but cautioned that teachers who choose to use Facebook should make sure that their practice adheres to Principle 1.5 of the Code: “TEACHERS ARE ALWAYS IN A PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STUDENTS IN THEIR SCHOOL, WHETHER AT SCHOOL OR NOT”  Part D of this principle says that a breach of this standard would include (among other things) “having contact with a student via written or electronic means including email, letters, telephone, text messages or chat lines, without a valid context”.

Therefore Facebook has no different standing to any other form of interaction, electronic or otherwise, between teachers and students.  It is the nature and topic of communication that is subject to the code of conduct, not the conduit of communication.  This is just as it should be.

To “Friend” or Not To “Friend”?

What is a Friend?

Firstly let’s be clear about the semantics of “friending” on Facebook because it’s a common sticking point for teachers.  Just because adding someone to your list of Facebook contacts is called “Friending”, doesn’t mean that all your contacts are friends in the normal sense of the word.  Looking down my own list of Facebook “friends”, Some are indeed friends but many more are professional colleagues, some are fans of my podcast, some are students, some past students that I taught 20 years ago, some are relatives, and some (to be honest) I don’t actually remember who they are!

What makes someone a friend is the fact that you share with them a relationship based on mutual respect and trust in which there is an equality of power.  Friendship is all about the way you relate to someone and not at all about the arbitrary terminology a website designer uses to group information!  Just because Facebook places everyone you know into a list it calls “friends”, doesn’t make them all friends.  It is irrational to think otherwise.

The Choice to “Friend”

I think the question of whether or not to “friend” students comes down to a straightforward choice.  If you are a teacher and you have a Facebook page, you should either:

(a) Use it for social interaction with your friends, and keep students out. or

(b) Use it for professional interaction with students and colleagues, where it represents you in your vocation as a teacher.

If the first option is chosen, you should carefully tweak the privacy settings to keep your students out.  Even so, you should still be aware that you will often lose control of things you post on facebook and they are likely to be on the Internet for ever. For example, if someone else comments on a photo you post, the photo will stay on their page, even if you delete it from yours.  It is also prudent to realise that Facebook is notorious for changing privacy settings without notice.  You should therefore still assume that anything you post on Facebook (or anywhere online for that matter) could become public.

If, like me, you prefer the second opinion and choose to “friend” students and use Facebook as a conduit of professional communication with them and others, then you should not post anything on your Facebook page that you would not say or show in class or in the presence of your students and their parents. I also think you should be vigilant in “pruning” any posts by others from your wall if they are unbecoming of a teacher.  I would “unfriend” anyone who repeatedly posts things that I am uncomfortable with.

Personally, I think the second option is more rational and it’s certainly more transparent.  Furthermore, it models to students safe and effective use of web technology.

Online Biology Class – Update #1

This year, for the first time, I’m running a biology class with no physical classroom, and no place in the school timetable.  See also this this earlier post.  The students meet with me online, at mutually suitable times in the evening using a 25 seat Elluminate room and we have a website at Squarespace where we share asynchronously on a group discussion forum.  Each student also has a jounal on the Squarespace site, and there is a calendar, file storage, and various other features.

This is a bit of an experiment, that I feel fortunate to be allowed, and funded to conduct. My intuition tells me that the students who are in this class, will do as well as those who study in traditional biology classes (that’s my hope, at least).  If that is so, then it will make online classrooms a viable option for students in any school – not just a fallback for students in remote locations.

So far, I have been very pleased with how the class has been running. Below, is a short list of some of the impressions and experiences that have surfaced so far, grouped into benefits and challenges but in no particular order within those groups.

The Benefits

  • The students are very enthusiastic – passionate even, in their feelings about how the class compares to their traditional classes.  (see image below, of a post-it note left on my desk by my school principal.)
  • All our meetings are recorded for us – so if a student doesn’t understand something we talk about s/he can go back later and “re-live” that part of the class – something that is not practicable in a traditional class (without quite a bit of extra effort to arrange).

  • Elluminate works really well.  We have had very few technical problems.  It launches quickly and has been surprisingly reliable.  (for some reason launching it at school takes a long time – but at home – where we use it – it is very quick).
  • Elluminate is a much more capable application than I had previously realised.  I am constantly finding new things we can do with it.  For example, I hadn’t previously realised that I can show ANY application on my computer to my students, via Elluminate’s “Application Sharing” feature.
  • Teaching this way de-specifies our work hours. I teach a few hours online in the evening, but I often go home at lunchtime on Friday (in lieu of that time) to have lunch with my wife, or to go shopping.
  • If we get through a class in less than our planned time, we don’t have to work till the end of the period  – we can just finish early.  Likewise if we move slower than expected, we don’t have to finish on time – because after all, students don’t need to get to another class.
  • We can teach and learn wherever we happen to be.  Tonight, for example, I’ll be in a hotel room in Melbourne in readiness for my keynote at the VALA conference tomorrow.  But I will still conduct my biology class right from the comfort of my hotel room.
  • My impression is that teaching this way is more (not less) interactive than a traditional class.  For example:
    • Everyone can draw on the screen simultaneously… which is much more interactive than an IWB. (see image and caption below).
    • There is a built in Multiple-Choice and True/False polling tool – dispensing with the need for an expensive student response system (SRS).
    • The live Chat window acts as a backchannel – providing all the benefits of a backchannel that I have tried to incorporate into my traditional classes using such tools as Today’sMeet.  So even when I am explaining something – students can be asking and answering each other’s questions in the chat window… and I can see what is being said, conveniently on my screen.
    • In these days when everyone is feeling the need for a 1:1 laptop program – this class IS already 1:1 – because they are all sitting at a computer already – even though it may be an old desktop computer in Dad’s study and not a late model laptop.

Students all pointing (with "laser pointers" - see various red dots) at named structures in a cell.

The Challenges

  • One night, there was a storm, and some of our students could not get Internet access … although the other day there was a storm and students were told to stay home from “real” school as well.   But still, the point is that occasionally one or more students will experience Internet issues, which is inevitable.  But if they miss part of a lesson as a result at least it’s recorded.
  • We found that if more than two people are using their microphone at a time (Elluminate will allow six simultaneous speakers) they really need to be wearing a headset (headphones and microphone).
  • Unless everyone has fast Internet, things slow down if everyone turns on their webcam at once.  It works fairly well though with a small number of webcams.  But after initial introductions, we have found that we tend to just turn the webcams off, unless I need to show them something, or use hand gestures in an explanation.  Turning one’s webcam on or off  is as simple as a mouse-click.
  • Not being able to see each other all the time or move around the room using body language, requires a new skill set – and a different teaching style, on the part of a teacher. I am getting better at it, though.
  • Preparation (on my part) needs to be more thorough, and is a little more time consuming than for a traditional class – although I am becoming more expedient in that as well – as I discover more efficient ways of doing things.

Thanks for following this experiment.  I’ll continue to report on it as the year progresses.

Phonecasting with ipadio

It has never been easier to have your students make a podcast and publish it to the Internet.

I’ve been looking for something like ipadio since Utterli discontinued its support for Australian phone numbers around this time last year.

The ipadio service allows a student to pick up any telephone and record their phonecast (or “phlog”) directly to the web.  Best of all, its completely free.  Even the call is to a freecall 1800 number! (note: 1800 numbers are not free from cellphones). In comparison, even when Utterli was available to Australians, it cost a local phone call and if outside Melbourne or Sydney, users were charged for a long-distance call.

ipadio works seamlessly, too.  To test it, I gave my students each a small research task – a question to find an answer to – and asked them to ‘phlog’ their response.  If you would like to see the results, have a look at my students’ phlogs.

The best way to set this up is to first create a class blog (I use WordPress – but you could alternatively use Posterous, LiveJournal or Blogger).  Then have each of your students point their browser to www.ipadio.com to set up a free ipadio account which takes about 5 minutes (remind them to sign up using their first name only).  ipadio will give them a 1800 number to call and a 4-digit PIN number.  Once logged in, have your students click the “Social Media” tab, and fill in the details of the class blog site you created earlier.

That’s really all there is to it!  Now students just need to pick up a telephone, dial the 1800 number, enter their PIN, wait for the tone and start speaking.  Whatever they record is cross-published to your class blog where you and your class can listen to and comment on each.

Obviously there is no easy way to edit your recording or add jingles and sound effects in post production (because there is no post-production!), and the audio quality is limited by the quality of the telephone’s mouthpiece – so I won’t be using ipadio to record Douchy’s Biology Podcast, but when all I need is a simple and elegant way to get my students podcasting from home, or anywhere,  ipadio is just what I’ve been looking for. In fact, it feels almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Social Goal-setting

It’s the start of the academic year and once again we are all setting goals for ourselves and expecting our students to set learning goals for themselves.

I discussed goal-setting with the students in my Home Group at the end of last year. They don’t like doing it. They don’t see the point in doing it. They see it as a waste of time.  As I’ve reflected on that conversation, I think there may be two reasons why they find the process uninspiring.  Firstly, I think many of them list such easy-to-attain goals that it’s really just a matter of writing down what they are fairly sure they will achieve, anyway. Perhaps that’s our fault.  We tell our students to make their goals “achievable” and “realistic”.  God forbid they should experience failure.  Instead, maybe, we should be telling them to make their goals “ambitious”, “bold”, “audacious”, “daring”.  Robert Kennedy said “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly”.  Seth Godin said: “Fail often. Dream big and don’t make it. Not every time, anyway”. Thomas Edison said “I didn’t fail 1000 times; the light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps”.  But we say “make your goals attainable and realistic”.

The second reason I suspect students find goal-setting a chore, is that it’s so very un-social.  Sure, they share their goals with their teacher, and maybe a friend.  The friend listens … but the friend has different goals.  It’s essentially an individual process, dressed as a collaborative one.  The same is true for me as a staff member.  I’ve actually always enjoyed the process of setting goals and sharing them with my staff buddy.  But my buddy’s goals are always different to mine, obviously.  So, likewise, we’ve listened to each other’s goals, and nodded approval.  Occasionally we’ve asked each other how they’re travelling. We do genuinely care how each other are going, But we don’t really identify personally with each others’ goals.

This year I’m setting my goals using a novel social networking site called 43Things. ( http://www.43things.com )

After registering, you begin listing your goals.  Then 43Things then matches you up to other people who’ve set similar goals to your own so that you can follow each others’ progress, and encourage each other by “cheering” or leaving comments.  Obviously the more esoteric your goals are the fewer matches you get.  One of my goals didn’t get any matches – another got 107 and another got 9,495 matches!.  After listing and saving a goal, there doesn’t seem to be any way of revising or rewording it.  It’s locked in. But you can create entries about how you are travelling.  It’s micro-blogging about your progress to an audience, however small, of others who are pursuing similar dreams.  There’s even an iPhone app so you can make notes on your progress wherever you are.

Its a social goal-setting.