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    Andrew :)
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IWB choice

If, like me, you use an interactive whiteboard (or IWB for the acronym obsessed) for much of the active content of lessons, then you’ll often find yourself feeling frustrated by the software developers behind such devices.

In the UK there are two varieties of IWB that have found favour in our secondary schools, abbreviated by teachers to the terms ‘Promethean’ and ‘Smart’. Of course each of these IWB ‘platforms’ has its own software to support resource development and lesson delivery.

In the case of Smart boards, this means using their proprietary ‘Notebook’ software and in the case of Promethean, ‘Activstudio’. Both have their merits. Travelling from school to school, I have had to make myself expert in each though this often means having two copies of the same resource depending on which board I’m using.

Smartech’s Notebook software is relatively easy to use and ‘feels’ much more polished than its main competitor’s effort. Currently in version 10, it uses a flip chart metaphor to produce lesson materials that can have multiple pages, attachments, simple animations, text and tables. Its most accomplished feature is its ‘gallery’ through which one can add interactive and multimedia elements that build very attractive active learning resources quickly. For example, using Notebook it takes less than 5 minutes to make a ‘vortex’ sorting activity that could be used as a starter for a lesson (see below).

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By contrast, Promethean’s Activstudio is much harder to learn but, once mastered, offers greater control and flexibility of page objects. It does give a user access to additional resources via its website, Promethean Planet, but to build interesting interactive resources with Activstudio is a labour counted in hours rather than minutes. In addition, no one could claim that the Activstudio’s interface is anything other than uninspiring and, let’s be frank, ugly. The software interface is highly reminiscent of Windows 98 and looks outdated to the modern eye yet it can produce some very pleasing results if you are prepared to stick with it.

The trouble is, of course, that many teachers are not in a position to choose which IWB or attendant software platform they would prefer. To most of us, we are restricted to whatever is screwed firmly to our classroom wall. We are stuck with whatever choice our school managers made when these devices became de rigueur.

So in a ‘betamax-versus-vhs’ sort of way, teachers are caught in a format war that pits ‘easy but limited’ against ‘compex but versatile’. For what it’s worth my vote goes with Smart. And my reasoning? Well, an interactive whiteboard is no more than a useful tool for teaching and in that respect anything that allows teachers to make engaging interactive content quickly and efficiently has got to be the better option.


Ah, it must be Monday again and, ensconced in my comfy thinking chair, I thought it would be a good time to share a few practical tips on using audio in lessons.

Firstly, if you haven’t already done so, investigate the wonderful computer program, called Audacity. Audacity is free, open source software for recording and editing sounds and, in my opinion, one of the best. You can download it here.

I know it doesn’t look like much but trust me, it is a wonderful piece of programming.

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Once you have installed a copy on your machine, you are set to record (or edit) sound files. These can be saved as *.wav, *.mp3 or ogg vorbis format (whatever that is). Mind you, before you start dickering, its a good idea to reboot your PC to allow Audacity to pick up the precise settings of your sound hardware.

[NOTE: if you do want to save to MP3, you will have to install an encoder. The free option is the ‘LAME’ open source encoder. It can be downloaded here .]

Audacity has many tricks but the one that I’d like to share today is its ability to record anything that your computer plays or that you can hear through your computer speakers. Just think about that one for a second, I mean your PC can play DVDs right? or YouTube clips? or TV and radio programmes? Yes. Now I would not be a responsible educator if I didn’t remind you of the laws of copyright at this point. Uh-hum, consider yourself reminded.

So, you’ve rebooted. Now what? Well the best way to demonstrate the power of Audacity is I think to use a practical example. This week in my teaching I wanted to create a listening exercise for a group where they were invited to listen to a soundtrack and to identify all the separate sounds. The learning was to do with writing to describe and I had selected the topic of ‘at the beach’. I remembered that I had a good bookmark for beach-type sound effects and loaded it into my browser.

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The site is called http://www.soundsleeping.com/ and is meant to provide users with relaxing sounds that assist a peaceful night’s sleep. However, it is perfect for sound effect listening games too. On the site you’ll find a series of sliders. Select a sound from the drop-down menu, slide the volume up, and your PC will become a creek or forest or indeed, be caught in a thunderstorm. (Don’t hear anything? try switching your PC’s speakers on :o).

So, with my PC making the sounds that I required for my listening exercise, all I had to do now was to record them and that is where Audacity comes in. The program has many options and just to the right of the Audacity window is a drop-down setting that you will need to alter (see picture below). PCs vary but on mine this needs to be set to ‘stereo mixer’ though on others I have seen it set to ‘what you hear’. It all depends on your machine’s sound card settings.

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Once the setting is changed, Audacity is ready to record anything that your PC can play. Simply press its red circle button (record) and Audacity will start recording. This can be confirmed by its display changing to a representation of the sound’s wave form (see below).

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You’re almost done. All that’s left is to use Audacity to save (click ‘file’ then ‘export as WAV’) your resultant wave file and ‘insert’ it into a PowerPoint or IWB notebook file.

The joy of this technique is that , with Audacity set to record, you can operate your PC as normal and all its sounds are included in the recording. I was able to alter the sliders on the ‘sound sleeping’ website to produce a simple ‘mix’ of all the noises one might associate with a day at the beach and Audacity placed them in the one wav file. Of course, if your PC is set to squeak whenever you perform certain actions then that will be recorded too; you may want to turn off that particular function of Windows before you begin.

It seems to me that this simple technique could be used to create any number of audio files for teaching purposes. Listening exercises are just a beginning. We can create extracts of any significant audio content and make our teaching all the more audacious for it.

Yes, I know it’s been a while.

Okay, okay – yes, hands up, I know I’ve been neglecting my blog but I have news dear faithful readers. You see, changes are afoot. Having worked at my school for the last 14 years, I have decided that a change is in order. This, among other things, will mean more time to write which hopefully means that I can blog a bit more often.

On that note, today was one of those very special ones in teaching. Thanks to Sian Pascoe and those lovely people at Doncaster I took my Year 10 Media BTEC group to work with a professional animator today. I was alerted to the visit by my ever-vigilant deputy head with only a relatively short time to organise it but hey, if someone makes a learning opportunity available for free, you bite their hand off don’t you? It may have been a bit tight to organise but it was fantastic nonetheless. And why would this possibly interest yourself? Well, it brought to my attention two learning avenues very definitely worth exploring.

Firstly, Autodesk Maya. What? Well, yes, that’s what I thought too. Maya, it turns out, is an industry standard 3D graphics and animation package that my students loved. Put simply, it is a program that allows the user to create very complex three-dimensional drawings that can then be animated with a very high level of detail and fluidity.

maya 1

Our professional animator was from WAK Studios and showed students how to create a 3D model using Maya and then how to perform some simple principles of animation. Not only was he patient and incredibly skilful but also able to model (no pun intended) the principles of animation workflow.

The result was eighteen completely absorbed students, working for a full day with good humour and a large degree of creativity. Far less daunting than working with Flash, Maya gave the students fairly immediate rewards and they loved it. Best of all, they (like your own students) can download the Personal Learning Edition of the program for free to carry on the work away from the session.

And the second avenue? Well, that takes us to the amazing Arts Council’s Creative Partnerships programme. This is an initiative designed to “support thousands of innovative long-term partnerships, between schools and creative professionals – from architects to scientists to multimedia developers and artists.” There is no doubt a project near you – get involved!