School Radio: Introduction & Equipment

August 26, 2009

In addition to our introduction of 1:1 computer access at Robin Hood School, we will also be starting our own school radio station. The development of this is something I will be document on this blog, as I hope this can allow us to share ideas with other schools looking at/already working on the same thing.

I gained a lot of experience working on student radio in my days at Sheffield University, from building the studio and presenting/producing shows to managing the station for two years. Therefore I feel fairly confident in terms of the technical and content sides of this project- I just need to translate this into the school setting, which I think will be quite  a challenge.

For my first post I am going to run down the thinking behind our equipment choices, and advice I would offer regarding equipment to other schools looking to do the same thing

Radio Packages

It needn’t cost much to get started with a school radio project, and I have seen some schools do it with little more than a computer and a microphone. However, we really wanted to go for a fully featured radio station, so it was decided to set aside a room in school for a studio and kit it out comprehensively. There are several companies offering packages that cater for school radio, which provide all the equipment and software that you would need to start a station. These provide a great solution for schools wishing to build a studio, but who may not have the technical experience. Despite the fact I do have the experience I still felt that the P Squared ‘Small’ package was actually the best route to go down, as it provides very good value for money. One of the big deciders for that was the fact that P Squared provide with this package a license for their Myriad software, which is used by many stations in the industry, including the student station I managed. This comes as part of the package at a price well below what you would pay for it separately. This software will allow our pupils to try out lots of different types of radio production, as it allows for everything professional presenters use- from count downs to lyrics in songs, to full automation of jingles and sweepers. They also provide licences for two additonal PCs so you can prepare audio setups for shows without having to be sat in the studio- even when other shows are going out on air.

The package also includes everything from headphones, microphones, cd players, to the computer that runs the playout (playing audio such as music) and streaming (sending your show out to your listeners). Having dealt with them before they are also an excellent company, and offer some free training for a member of staff when you purchase the package.

Compression/Limiting equipment

The one thing I did order separately to the package was some a compressor/limiter. This is a unit which you run your entire radio programme through and it levels out the differences in volume between the presenters and the music, and generally gives it that punchy sound which you can hear if you compare BBC Radio 1 (VERY compressed) to Radio 4 (No compression used). The limiter also stops the signal from overloading the inputs on the computer if someone turns things up too loud, and stops it distorting on loud peaks, such as if someone shouts. These are often optional extras to these packages,l but the units offered are closer to £400 than the £70 the one we ordered cost. Whilst they are undoubtedly better quality I really think this is overkill for a school station, however, the model I have ordered is more configurable, but much less user friendly, and compression is not the easiest thing to get your head round at first.. so you might want to tread carefully if you are looking at buying something like this.

Mixing desk options

Some of the more expensive packages also come with ‘proper’ broadcast mixing desks. Personally, I also think these are overkill for a school radio station. They will undoubtedly be more durable than the cheaper alternatives, and they ‘look the part’ a little more. However, I ran a student station which broadcast 13 hours a day every day on a Spirit Soundcraft, and we never had a problem with it. As far as I know it is still in use now, 4 years later. One thing I would say is that you will need a desk with stereo channels, so that there is one fader controlling both the left and right of audio signals. Many mixing desks have mostly mono channels, which will mean you have one fader for the left and one for the right hand side of any audio source- which is ungainly for radio, and confusing for presenters.

Portablility vs. Usability

You can get this equipment in flightcases, allowing easy portability and storage, on it’s own, or built into a custom made desk. Whilst the flightcase option might sound attractive to schools who are short of space and want to use it with several classes, I would question how portable it really is. Between the CD players, mics, computer and mixing desk there are quite a lot of cables to connect together, and I would say the process of getting all the gear out and connecting all of these is likely to be quite daunting and time consuming to teachers who do not have experience of using professional studio equipment can see this resulting in some schools in this leading to the equipment sitting unused gathering dust, so I would seriously consider if this is a possibility before investing in a portable system. Personally I think a dedicated studio space is far more preferable, and any more portable broadcasting could be achieved with portable recorders, mobile phones, or even laptops running skype (more on this once I’ve tried it out!).

For our station we have a dedicated space, in a room which leads off one of our year 5 classrooms. We have also gone for the built in desk option, which will house the equipment in a well organised way, as well as making it look professional. I think having our dedicated space gives us lots of benefits besides the obvious practical ones, and I can see lots of potential for allowing the pupils to design branding for the station, and encouraging them to get into the right frame of mind when entering ‘the studio’.

I hope this post might be of use to anyone looking at starting a school radio station, and I would be happy to offer specific advice on equipment if anyone needs a hand. In future posts I will be looking at the organisational aspects of broadcasting in school, live broadcasting vs. ‘pre record’ or podcasting, and following the work we do on developing our station at Robin Hood School.

Links to schools already noted for their radio stations:

Ballsall Common Primary School

The Downs CE Primary School

Lickhill Radio

Leamore Primary School

Please send me any more links to schools who are established in this area…


1:1 Primary: Starting thoughts

August 24, 2009

As I have mentioned before on this blog I am fortunate enough to be involved in the introduction of a 1:1 computing environment at next term. As of September every child in years 3 and 4 (Ages 7-9) of our two form entry school will have their own netbook. These will not only be available in school, but also for the pupils to take home, one of the ideas being that they will facilitate an environment of 24 hour personalised learning, where pupils can access the resources they use in school at home and choose to extend their learning in their ‘free time’. They are also being introduced alongside a timetable hour of ‘independence time’ every morning, where children will be encouraged to follow their own interest through independent project work.

Whilst this is very exciting, there will be many challenges, and it is apparent that in order for our pupils to gain the most benefit from a 1:1 environment we will need to explore new ways of thinking about our pedagogy and their learning. I will be blogging about our experience both to allow others to learn from them, and to invite comment from those who are further down the line in implementing this kind of learning environment. Below I have laid out the challenges I have considered so far, and would welcome any suggestions of things I may not have thought about yet.

Managing Digital resources

Given the strong ethos of ICT use in our school I am expecting my new class to be fairly computer literate for their age, however I can see that it may take some time to get every child in the class to the same webpage or document to work on. Simply displaying addresses on the board for them to input is likely to waste an inordinate amount of time across the year, and I first considered a twitter account as a means for me to broadcast links to them all. However,given some of the content on recent spam followers of my own account I am reluctant to use twitter in this way (although as a broadcast channel for parents and the wider world I still have plans).

Luckily I found Edmodo, and I am very keen to use this not only for broadcasting links, but for setting and submitting tasks, and for general communication across the class. Edmodo is billed as ‘twitter for educators’, although I think it is actually much more than that. It allows children to in a class and receive (and send) short messages, calendar events, and assignments. The assignments feature is particularly good, as work can also be returned either as a file upload or a link, and marked online by the teacher, with an option to send marks and comments back to the pupil. A combination of this and Google Docs could allow us to set, submit and mark work paperlessly, and I intend to use Edmodo as a central pillar of our digital classroom.

Physical classroom management

Not the first issue I considered, but this is the first issue friends mention when I tell them about our project- just how we are going to manage having thirty laptops in the room. The most pressing of these issues to my mind is that of charging. The netbooks we are receiving should have around 3 hours battery life, which I can see not being enough for a full day’s work without charging. The first aspect of this will be to make sure pupils get into the routine of leaving their netbooks on charge over night. Hopefully the novelty of using the machines, along with encouragement from teachers to cement this as routine will keep the pupils keen to do this at the start. The challenge may be maintaining this routine later on. Likewise once the novelty has worn off, the issue of netbooks or power adaptors being left at home may become a problem. We are lucky enough to have two iMacs in our classroom, however I am wary of the idea of those who have forgotten their netbooks being allowed to use these (possibly more attractive) machines, and am currently thinking we may have to be quite hard line about pupils who leave their machines at home.

The other aspect of charging is the organization of putting 29 machines on charge in a classroom in terms of physical space to put them in and electrical sockets, especially as they will likely need a charge over lunch. As I have only spent a brief amount of time in our room so far I am waiting until I go in later this week to think through this one, although I would be very interested to hear of other people’s solutions to such use of space.

Managing pupil’s attention

Many teacher friends have voiced concern to me about the possibly distractions of every child having constant access to the Internet in class. I have to say I do not see this as any more of a problem than pupils having constant access to their voices! I am sure there will be off task activity, but I hope that this will not be as disruptive as my colleagues imagine, as it will not be like the novelty of marching the whole class of to an ICT suite for a limited time.

The other aspect of this is a characteristic of modern working environments, which our pupils will have to learn to manage- modern technology makes distraction and procrastination very easy and commonplace. I am sure they will get distracted by the Internet, as I certainly do! However this may be the opportunity for some valuable lessons regarding motivation, focus, and time management.

Sharing work

During my PGCE year I discovered the wonderful world of visualisers, and the potential they bring for sharing and critiquing pupil’s work before the ink is dry (and many other things…). However, when pupils are working digitally such sharing of work could easily become cumbersome. Although we will be largely using web based tools accessible from any computer, the process of a child coming up to the class computer, logging out and logging to a tool then finding the file they have been working on is far more cumbersome than simply putting their book under a visualiser.

Having worked with servers in my previous life as a technician I was aware of screen sharing tools such as VNC, and I wondered if these would be useable to send a child’s screen to the computer with the projector in a more efficient way. I am sure this solution would work, but I also came across iTalc, a free classroom management suite based on VNC. The main use of this software seems to be to allow a teacher to monitor the screens of all of their students to check they are on task. However, it also allows any connected computers to broadcast their screens to the main classroom computer, or to all of the other machines in the room. I can see this being very useful for sharing work in a straightforward way, I only hope it is straightforward to set up and our wireless network can handle the volume of traffic it produces.

Keyboard skills vs. handwriting

Although I expect our pupils to be fairly computer literate, if we do go down the road of them completing most of their work digitally they will need to be able to type with a fair degree of speed and accuracy. This will necessitate some time spent working explicitly on keyboard skills, much as is spent on handwriting in order for them to be able to effectively and efficiently work on their laptops.

Personally, I am someone who hardly ever writes. I keep notes on my iPhone (even shopping lists), and I sms/email people instead of writing them notes. Since I have been like this my handwriting has noticeably suffered, and I do not think this is something we can allow to happen with the children we are teaching, so I think handwritten work still has an important role. I recently attended a lecture in which Dr Jane Medwell presented research that suggested that handwriting is innately linked to the development of composition skills in young children Whilst it could be argued that keyboard skills could link to composition in exactly the same way I think we need to tread carefully in this area so as not to end up disadvantaging children when they do not have technology to hand (as might be the case when they get to secondary school).

Knowing how much is enough

Ultimately I believe our aim is to have technology on hand, and give children the skills so that they can choose to use it when they think it is most fit for their purpose, rather than producing two year groups full of pupils who use technology for the sake of it. This is something we will have to think carefully about when setting tasks, and recognise that seeing something on a screen is no substitute for real, practical experience. Personally, I think this might be more of a problem for me given my obsession with all things digital, and I’m sure my colleagues will make sure we don’t drift too far into the digital world!

All of these thoughts are merely ideas at the moment, as I do not start at Robin Hood until September, and I am sure some of them will take time to implement. I will continue to blog on how they pan out, probably in a more focused way, but I hope this general introduction to our project and my thinking at its outset is of interest, and I welcome comments and further ideas.


Some tools and tricks I swear by

August 2, 2009

People are often asking what tools and apps I am  using, and I usually struggle to remember. Therefore, I thought I would create a run down of a selection of tools that are essential to me. Rather than a simple list I have tried to add some value by way of some tips and tricks I have discovered to get more out of these tools…

Dropbox

This is a killer application/web service for synchronizing files, a real lifesaver if you use multiple computers/laptops. You sign up for an account, install a small service program and it creates a folder on your computer the contents of which are uploaded to their server and instantly synchronized to any other computer you have set up with that account. You can also access them from anywhere using a web browser, which also works great on the iPhone (an app is also on the way).

It makes problems knowing which computer has the latest version of a file a thing of the past, and the fact you can access all the files online or offline is really useful. You can also share folders with others which was a lifesaver for sharing hard to track down reading on my PGCE course.

Get it here, or if you want a little extra free storage than the stock 2GB  you can sign up using my affiliate link.

Trick > Sync Apps Preferences and Data

If your on a Mac you can also use it to keep applications synced. Most apps store their data in your Home library folder (eg Address Book is in /Users/[User_Name]/Library/Application Support/AddressBook/ ). If you move this folder to your dropbox, then create a symbolic link to this moved folder in it’s original location on all the computers then you can keep the app synced across all your machines.

For example to sync your address book, move the /Users/[User_Name]/Library/Application Support/AddressBook/ folder to /Users/[User_Name]/Dropbox/AddressBook/ .

Then open a terminal and type:

‘cd ~/Library/Application\ Support/’

and then ‘ln -s ~/Dropbox/AddressBook AddressBook’.

This creates a shortcut where Address Book is looking for it’s files which points to the folder in your dropbox. On your other machines delete the original AddressBook folder, and repeat the terminal commands. Address Book files are now synced across all your machines.

Google Reader

I watch an awful lots of blogs, and the only way I have found to keep track of them all is using Google reader. Instead of visiting each of the sites you want to keep track of to see if there are new posts, Google Reader aggregates all of them into one place, showing you when they have new articles and posts. All you need to do is Sign up to Google Reader, then find the link to the ‘RSS feed’ on the sites you want to follow. If you click on this link and choose to open it with Google Reader then it will be imported and you will never have to check the site for updates again!

Trick > Share items to Twitter.

Every article on Google Reader has a ‘Share’ button at the bottom. when you click this the article is published to your own personal ‘Shared’ page, so you can share interesting articles. This page is available at http://www.google.com/reader/shared/%5BYourUserName%5D/

However, this page also has it’s own Atom (Similar to RSS) feed. If you sign up to a service like Twitterfeed, you can get any RSS or Atom feed automatically tweeted and shared with all your followers. Just copy the link to the Atom feed, and paste it into this service. Now whenever I click the shared button on an article I am reading it is automatically tweeted- a much more useful way of sharing than your public shared page. Note there is a delay on this, it checks feeds every half hour.

Calendars

I am a big fan of iCal on the Mac, and the calendar on my iPhone is constantly in use to keep me organised. I also like to be able to access my calendar on a large screen wherever I am, so I also use Google Calendar. I use a variety of methods to keep all of these different solutions in sync.

Firstly I use Spanning Sync installed on all my Macs which synchronizes my iCal calendars to Google Calendar. This is an inexpensive and powerful program which is linked to your Google account so you can install it on as many Macs as you want. I then use Google Calendar Sync to keep these calendars synchronized with my iPhone. This might take a bit of setting up, but it is far cheaper than a MobileMe account from Apple, and Google Calendar is way better than their online application.

Google Docs & Gears

Google Docs is (are?) brilliant. Not only is it a complete office suite for free, it makes your documents available from any computer with a web browser. The collaboration features are also amazing, and put an end to having email chains with multiple copies of files with different revisions having to be collated. Everyone can simply work on the same Google Doc, and all the revisions are kept track of in one place.

However, it does present a problem if you use a laptop which is not always online, as you have to access your office suite through the net. Step in Google Gears, which is an extension for your web browser which allows it to synchronize your Google Docs so that you can work on them even without an internet connection. Just install Gears, log in to Docs, select ‘offline’ from the top right and it will guide you through the quick set up.  It can even allow you to read and send your GMail when you are offline.

Trick > New Docs Offline

One thing that does annoy me is that Gears won’t let you create a new document when you are offline, only edit existing ones. A trick I picked up (I can’t remember where from!) to get around this is to create lots of blank documents when you are online. Name them ‘Blank Doc 1, 2’ etc. Then when you are offline and want to start a new document, simply open one of these blank documents and get started.

I hope these tricks and examples are useful to some people, and I am always looking for more tricks like these so let me know if you have any to share..