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…

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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..


Moving forward

July 14, 2009

So I thought it was time for a run down of where I am at at the moment, and the issues and directions this blog is likely to take.

Around a week ago I completed my PGCE course, and I have been meaning to write some reflections on the course as a whole. However, I realised that really my head has been in my new job for some time now, so when the end of the course came it felt like more of a formality than anything else. I have met some really great and inspiring people in the past year, both students, lecturers and school staff, but I am sure we will keep in touch, and it feels like more of a beginning than an end to me.

There is much I could say about issues I have had with teacher training, one big gripe being the prioritisation of everyone ticking the same boxes rather than discovering their own areas of strength and creativity. At times I have been known to get quite irate about issues surrounding the PGCE, but now in hindsight they seem relatively unimportant. I think this shift in my thinking really came about when I truly took control of my own direction and learning as a practitioner, and this really tied in to my own search for jobs and realising just how much there was out there in the world of education that was exciting and interesting.

I made a strong personal commitment that I wanted to start my career in a school that was outstanding, both in terms of being really effective, and in doing things differently. Through this job search I discovered the potential of networking and sharing practice (often driven by Twitter). Once I realised how many inspirational people there were out there sharing their unique ideas, any moans about not being prepared for teaching in the way I thought was right largely dissapeared- the responsibility for that preparation was my own.

So it was some time ago that I mentally moved on to my job for next year, as I was lucky enough to find a school that not only fitted my criteria, but surpassed it. In September I will be starting at Robin Hood Primary School in Birmingham, where I will be teaching in Year 4.

Lots of exciting things are happening next year, and I am sure it will be even more of a learning experience than the past year has been. For starters we will be introducing to year 4 a scheme of one laptop per child. Being firmly committed to an integration of ICT across the curriculum this is a perfect project for me, although I am sure it will not be without it’s difficulties. Number 1 on my list at the moment being organising keeping the things charged… However, that kind if access should result in a very different use of ICT, and I already have lots of ideas for using collaborative and Web 2.0 technologies throughout the curriculum.

I will also be involved in the development of an Internet radio station for the school, and hopefully their unprecedented Masters course in Educational Leadership & Innovation with a focus on New Technologies (see Neil Hopkin’s blog). Whilst I am obviously very interested in New Technologies, I feel very strongly that the use of such tools should be based on research and reflection on their true educational benefits rather than merely the ‘fun factor’. With 14 members of staff lined up to do the Masters, as well as many from other schools, there should be a lot of such reflection going on!

However, I am not just about technology, and I am really excited about becoming a part of the focus on learner independence, and the development of a ‘negociated curriculum’ at the school. This is something my PGCE has certainly not covered, but something I believe is a really beneficial step in education, and intrinsic to the way my own learning journey has panned out so far. This is one of the many areas in which I am keen to learn from the staff at the school, and having been to visit a couple of times now they seem like a great team which I am looking forward to joining.

So, this is the direction I am going in for the next academic year, and I am sure I will be sharing my experiences and reflections on these projects and issues in this blog. For me these are exciting times..


Subversive tech: An IWB for £30?!

July 7, 2009

I love the idea of being creative with technology; not just creating things ICT, but thinking laterally with the technology itself. In the past I have tried this by creating a cheap digital visualiser, a £2000 audio compressor for £150, and using a modified touch screen shop till for music performance…

Therefore, when I saw Johnny Chung Lee’s YouTube video detailing making an interactive whiteboard from a Wii remote I just had to have a go! This method involves making a pen which emits InfraRed light, and setting up the Wii remote to track the light from this pen and interpret it into mouse movements.

Sounds complicated, but it was one of the simplest projects I have ever made. I ordered an Infra Red emitter from Rapid Electronics, and a switch to turn it on. When these arrived I set about removing the innards from a permanent marker and fitting these inside. The emitter, switch and a battery just had to be connected in a simple circuit, and the hardest part was simply getting them all to fit inside the pen which was a little fiddly. I ended up soldering the battery into the circuit, but I might revisit it and make the battery a little easier to replace.

Once that was done I nipped down to gamestation and bought a Wiimote for £20 (would be nice if they cleaned their second hand hardware before selling it though- yuk!). Then I downloaded the native Mac version of Johnny Chung Lee’s WiiMoteWhiteboard software, pressed the 1 and 2 button to link the WiiMote with my Mac and calibrated the board. You will obviously need a Mac with bluetooth, or a bluetooth dongle for this to work. The software exists for PC, and looks as easy to use but I haven’t tried it.

Positioning the WiiMote takes a little playing, and I would recommend opeing the camera view in the software and checking that it can “see” the WiiMote at any point on the screen before trying to calibrate. You just have to get a feel for what the angle of view is on the camera. Once this is done you have a suprisingly responsive and accurate IWB on any screen, or with a projector – any surface!

I have been really pleased so far with this, and am already thinking of ways to use it in the classroom (google earth on a table anyone?). There’s a demo video below, and you can find all the info you need to make your own on Johnny Chung Lee’s website.

Here’s to subversive technology!

Edit: Have just found a much more powerful solution to the software side of this in Smoothboard. I haven’t tried it myself, but it looks worth looking at if you are using a solution such as this.


A visualiser on the cheap

June 15, 2009

I had been aware of visualisers for a while, but it was at the BETT show last year that I first had a play with one on the Smart technologies stand, and I knew straight away that I had to have one! The ability to show children’s work immediately on a large screen, and even highlight and annotate it on the IWB without actually writing on it seemed fantastic, and an ideal tool for encouraging children to reflect on and improve their work. They are also fantastic for sharing books and small objects with the whole class.

However, there was no way as a PGCE student I could afford the £800 odd Smart were charging, so I decided to try to find a way to get the same functionality on a shoe string budget.

I turned first to the internet haven for cheap technology- eBay. Having once bought a £2000 mixing desk for £60 on there I am ever hopeful of true bargains, and although there were lots of bang up to date visualisers at silly prices, after some scouring and waiting I was lucky enough to find an old analogue model for £30!

This wasn’t the latest model by far- no USB connections here- just an analogue video output, and the plastic casing is almost as yellow as my 20 year old Amiga… However, it did the job of displaying childrens work when plugged into a data projector.

SV100352

Me being me, I was never going to be satisfied with that, so I started looking into getting an analogue video input for my computer, and again eBay came up with the goods. Somewhat skeptically, I bought an RCA video to USB dongle for £15 (search for EasyCap USB), which turned out to be perfect. It isn’t the greatest resolution in the world, but it is good enough for running through a 1024×768 data projector, and allows you to bring up any video source on your computer screen. There are a multitude of these on eBay, but if you are a Mac user be sure to get one which specifically says it is Mac compatible as not all of them are.

Once I had this hooked up all I needed to do was find some software. Smart Notebook has fantastic integration with visualisers, but it only works with their own model, so I sought out something else that would allow me to achieve the same thing. For the PC I had in school that turned out to be a program called ‘Open Video Capture‘. This is only a limited trial, but for displaying a video input full screen you don’t need to pay for the full version.

For the Mac I found a program called VideoGlide capture, which you will have to pay for to remove a watermark, but it is not too expensive, and it does a great job.

With either of these programs active displaying the video input from the visualiser ‘Smart Tools’ allow you to pick up a pen and annotate, and scribble over the live video. You can even click the camera button to capture the screen as a still to Notebook- leaving the annotations editable so you can rub out and change them.

Annotating work

 

Since I have started using it I have found all sorts of uses for the system beyond simply displaying childrens written work. I have used it for displaying a live science experiment so we could annotate it with arrows showing the force, to allow a child to demonstrate to the class with clarity how to use a ruler or a mirror to find a line of symmetry, and recently to analyse the information on juice cartons for my year twos to allow them to define success criteria for their own carton designs. The camera is also a high enough quality to zoom in on a photographic negative, invert it, and display the photograph contained in it. This filled my Year 2 class with wonder during a lesson about the history of cameras (most of them had never seem a film camera before).

 

Force Diagram

 

 

Analysing fruit juices

 

Mirrors for symmetry

VideoGlide also allows recording of video and stop motion filming from the visualiser- so who know what we will end up doing with that… If you are using it on a Mac I highly recommend setting up application assignments for your spaces so you can flip between full screen video and notebook (as described here).

All in all I have found it to be a great tool for encouraging pupil reflection, and genuinely enhancing their learning many ways. For a total cost of around £70 and a bit of tinkering I have been able to achieve most of the functionality of a new model costing many times the price. It’s always easy to lust after expensive new technology, but sometimes a bit of tinkering can get the same results for much less, so I thought I would share my experiences with this as it may be useful for others lusting after a visualiser as I was!