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Casting couch

Not content with being a must-have fashion accessory, Apple's iPod has now spawned a technological hit that looks likely to storm the classroom. George Cole uncovers the potential of podcasting

The internet has thrown up some intriguing new words, and none more so than "podcasting". It's an amalgam of iPod (Apple's hugely successful portable digital music - and new video - player) and broadcasting, and it offers a new way of reaching people across the globe via speech, music and sound.

Many of us are already used to listening to music tracks or radio programmes via the internet and most of these are streamed across the net and into our PCs. It's a neat way of listening and, thanks to the spread of broadband, a painless process from a technical point of view.

But the snag with streaming media is that it's consumed live - you have to listen to it there and then. True, the streams are often available 24 hours a day, but you are still essentially tied to the PC when you play back the sound clips. But podcasting is different. Instead of streaming the audio, it is sent to your PC as a small sound file (usually MP3), which is downloaded to your hard drive. You can then listen to the sound file on your PC, or even transfer it to a portable digital music player and listen to it on the move.

This is where the term podcasting originates from, but it is a slightly misleading description because you a) don't need an iPod to listen to podcasts and b) don't even need a portable digital player - any computer with an internet link will do.

Over the past year, podcasting has exploded, not least because the basic ingredients are so simple. In addition to an internet connection, you need to download a small software program called an aggregator (iPodder is one example). The aggregator allows you to subscribe to podcasts and will then automatically collect and download content, for example, new or updated sound files.

Traditional broadcasters are interested in podcasting, which Steve Jobs, head of Apple Computer, describes as the next generation for radio. The BBC has launched a podcasting trial that offers around 20 radio programmes for downloading, including items covering sport, comedy and news (you can even download the 8.10 interview on Radio 4's Today).

People seem to like podcasting, as witnessed by the fact that the BBC had 270,000 downloads in the first four months of its trial. But it isn't just professional broadcasters who are into podcasting; anyone with an interest in sharing their thoughts with others online can do it too. In the same way there are vast numbers of bloggers on the internet (people with online diaries), so there is a growing number of amateur podcasters or audiobloggers.

And this is where it really gets interesting for schools. Some higher education institutions are interested in using podcasting for distributing lectures, notes and course content to their students, who could download them on to their PC or portable music player.

But podcasting can also be an active experience, with pupils creating their own online audio content. The process is simple. All you need is a PC with a sound card, a microphone and audio recording software (such as Audacity, a free sound recording and editing program). Students could record audio diaries, opinion pieces, debates or musical performances of original material. After the recordings have been edited, they need to be compressed (made smaller), otherwise listeners would have to download massive sound files.

There are lots of programs you can use to convert the sound file to MP3 format, which is uploaded to your school website. To make your podcast available to users of podcasting software, it needs to be combined with what is known as an RSS feed. This allows people to find and download your podcast.

Musselburgh Grammar in East Lothian and The Downs CE primary in Kent have already launched school podcasting services that offer downloadable radio shows (see TES Online June 2005). I downloaded Musselburgh's latest podcast and was impressed with how much they packed in to an eight-minute show. The package was also professionally produced, with sharp editing, tasteful background music and clear speech. In other words, amateur podcasting does not have to mean low production values.

Podcasting opens up many opportunities for students and teachers to reach a wider audience through the power of speech and sound. It also presents many opportunities for using skills such as planning, scripting, recording, editing and uploading. Interest is already turning towards video podcasting ("vodcasting") with home-made video clips being made available online. Now that Apple plans to launch iPods that can download and play many hours of video, vodcasting could well take off in a big way and we could see broadcasters such as the BBC offering educational video podcasts for schools.

When the internet was first launched, some compared it to Citizens Band radio, but that proved to be well wide of the mark. What the future holds for podcasting is unknown, but the signs are that it is here to stay - and that schools have a great new way of using ICT in the classroom.


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