Monday, April 07, 2008

Lessons Learned As the Student Podcasts Arrive

A creative, tech-savvy music teacher at my school gave her students the assignment to create a podcast about gamelan music, since that is what they have been studying. She sent a letter home to the families explaining the project and the due date.

To her delight, a few days later, the first podcast came in and it was far better than she had expected. We figured out how to easily attach it to her web site and waited for the rest to arrive.

Now that they are pouring in, we are needing to overcome some technical difficulties. Here are a few things we discovered.

  • iTunes, or at least our flavor of it, wasn't liking the disks that came in in audio CD format. I assume they had been burned on a program such as Nero. Fortunately, we discovered that Real Player not only plays them, but by tweaking a preference, it will save them as mp3 files. This nicely compressed format was easy to upload to the website.
  • Audacity is a great tool for podcasting, but its files aren't portable. Saving Audacity projects generates both a .aup file and a separate data file. We have a student who keeps bringing in the .aup file. Since he doesn't have the LAME encoder plugin for Audacity at home, we are trying to get him to use Audacity's export command to turn it into a .WAV file. From what we read online, that should make the file portable.
  • Internet Explorer 7 doesn't have a very good upload engine; files move better with Firefox.
  • mp4 files play with in Real Player. For some reason, the podcast that arrived in this format plays fine on the teacher's computer, but when we attach it to the web page, the link isn't playable in the browser and when you try to right-click it to download it, you get a page not found error. We are trying to use to convert it to mp3.
No word yet from the teacher as to whether or not Zamzar did the trick. It is a handy website that lets you upload a media file or enter a URL (think YouTube video), select a format you want, and then enter your email address. The site converts the file to the selected format and then sends you a download link.

This is one of many ways you can download YouTube videos. I haven't tried it in it's latest version. Our system engineers tell me it works well, but slowly. It took 3 hours to capture a 4o MB YouTube video, but it worked.

Anyone else assigning podcasts as homework for elementary students? How did it go? How did most students record them? What format were they saved in?

I'll post the URL when the teacher is ready for visitors.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Student-Created Avatars

As my colleague and I met a few months ago to plan out how to bring more multimedia and online goodness into our curriculum, the topic of avatars came up. They can be a fun part of developing an online identity, but we have so little time with our classes, were they worth the time?

That lead me to think about Moodle. A few years ago, I set up a Moodle for my fifth grade classes. We frequently used it to host our asynchronous discussions. From the start, some kids loved it. Quite a few others approached it with suspicion because it looked too much like work. They weren't connecting with it.

Then I got the idea of avatars. Moodle allows each user to upload an avatar which appears beside their screen name when they post into Moodle. Since our Moodle was private, I figured educational use of graphics allowed us to choose avatars from one of the many online sites offering them. To my surprise, it worked. Being able to personalize Moodle, even in only that small way, helped many of them connect and they began taking part much more.

Based on that experience, we decided that if time permitted, we would devote a short amount of one class period to creating avatars. If time didn't permit, they would go without.

Our first thought was to use Kerpoof since they have a kid-friendly avatar creator. Unfortunately, you have to create an account to make an avatar.

Our next idea was to create them in Kidpix. This had a few advantages. First, we have it and the kids know how to use it. Second, our students adore using it, but we haven't had much call to use it this year. Third, self-created images are free of royalty complications. Finally, it is difficult to create photo-realistic type of drawings in Kidpix so there is no danger of making the avatar too realistic if the child decided to do a self-portrait.

Here's how we did it. First we modeled using the rectangle tool to create a square, since so many programs crop avatars to a square shape. Then me modeled making our drawing be large, fill the square. I showed them an avatar still in Kidpix, then how it looked after it was in Voicethread so they could see how much the image would shrink. Finally, I showed them how to export their avatar as a JPEG file to their My Documents folder rather than to the network location that the network version of KidPix uses by default. Then they went to work.

I was impressed by the creativity the students showed. I had expected that they would make representational art, and some did, everything from sporting equipment to animals to cartoon-like portraits. However, Kidpix has so many tools that many kids created abstract images and were pleased with their final product.

I have a number of classes working on Voicethread projects but most aren't to the point of adding their avatars yet. However, my colleague is ahead of me on it and already he is seeing that the avatars are once again proving powerful, helping the students feel connected to the activity. They also make viewing the Voicethread feel more personal for the viewer.

Do your elementary-aged students have avatars for their online school identity? Did they make them themselves or use ready made avatars? Do you think the avatars are worth the effort?

For an insightful article regarding bloggers and the reasons for having an avatar, check out Sue Waters' recent blog post, Is Your Photo Avatar Making You Look OLD?.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Wikispaces Finally Has Text Formatting Toolbar

I've used Wikispaces for years. I've appreciated their teacher-friendly willingness to set up accounts for students who don't have email addresses (or who are under age 13 so are prevented by COPA from creating their own accounts.) I've loved their program to give away ad-free wikis to teachers. I've steered numerous teachers to consider Wikispaces.

However, many times, teachers would check it out and then disregard it because there were no text formatting options. What's a class poetry wiki without the ability to center text? What fun are color poems when you can't change text color?

Fortunately, those are now problems of the past because Wikispaces has added a text formatting toolbar that allows you to to easily change the color, style, size, alignment, and background color of your text.

I know my students will greatly appreciate these new formatting options. I see them as a blessing and a curse. They will allow us to make the pages more user-friendly, but they also allow the children yet another tool in which they can focus on style over substances. For some classes, the lack of options helped kids keep on task.

What do you think? Does the new text formatting toolbar affect your likelihood of using Wikispaces? Does it make you more or less likely to use it?

Do You Drupal?

Our school is very close to making the plunge and moving to Sharepoint. We need it to provide off site access to files, both individual and shared. We will most likely also use it for some of our web page needs for groups and departments.

Before we make the plunge, I'd like to hear more from people who are using Drupal for file storage. Is it working well? Have the roles and permissions available out of the box been enough for you? Or have you had to code your own changes? Does the search feature meet your needs? Any modules you'd strongly recommend or strongly NOT recommend?

One of our engineers has installed a demo version of Drupal and we hope to play with it this week, but as I've done my research, Drupal seems to be more of a toolbox than a product. It looks like you'd need lots of time on the forums to find the best modules for your needs. Is this indeed the case?

Thank you for any light you can shed.
(I have been reading forums, EdTech listserv, etc. I'm hoping that I can gather other information via this blog post.)

Google Does it Again

I don't know how long the link will be active because they don't usually leave them up very long, but Google has once again made a very enjoyable announcement on April 1. I hope you get to see it. After all, it's not every day that Google messes with the time-space continuum-- or is it?