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Sharing more than music

The mention of MP3s probably brings to mind stories of music piracy and of illegal music sharing via communities such as Kazaa, Limewire or the old Napster. And with several high-profile cases in the US of school networks being used by students to pirate and distribute music, you'd be forgiven for not seeing its potential as a force for good in the classroom. But that could all be about to change.

Audio has for a long time been an underused resource in the classroom, most often because of the difficulty in getting good results and the expense of the equipment needed. However, with the arrival of modern hard-disk MP3 players - epitomised by Apple's iPod - you have an easy and cost-effective way of getting things recorded and into the correct format for use with a host of other multimedia packages.

The MP3 format can turn your computer into a listening station for all types of audio, whether it be music or recorded stories. And with a computer in every classroom it's the perfect opportunity to wave goodbye to your old Coomber machines once and for all.

Furthermore, with the functionality of the software available with today's MP3 players, teachers can quickly and easily share audio resources throughout the school via the school network - providing, of course, they have the requisite copyright.

To date, MP3 has been associated solely with music, but increasingly the format is being used for wider purposes - ones which will have a greater impact on the classroom.

For example, Talkingbooks ( offers you the ability to download books in MP3 format. Donald Fergusson, chairman of MP3 Limited, which runs Talkingbooks, says: "Although we have not been focused on schools specifically, we have had many contacts with schools, colleges and universities world wide. Talkingbooks initially launched in 1996, but at that time downloading was far too slow. In 1998 we launched a wireless kiosk from which MP3 encoded music, speech or text (such as lecture notes of the day) would be bought by students. The advent of high-speed connections has made our service much more accessible and business is growing rapidly - about 50 per cent of our business is currently children's downloads."

However, as Fergusson explains, it doesn't stop at books: "One of our long-term plans is to put course-based materials on our system in the form of MP3 sound files and MP4 interactive video. We are currently trialling a closed-system version of this for one educational establishment. The aim is to make the best teacher of any subject available to a group of pupils who can be individually located anywhere. Although this is being met with some resistance, I am trying to get the focus put on the pupil benefits and the easing of the load on teachers, so that they can be freed to deal in a more tutor-like way with individuals who have a specific problem."

With the curriculum becoming more creative, MP3 offers another avenue to pursue. Most hard-disk MP3 devices have the ability to record, whether directly or through a computer. The modes for recording can be direct transfer from CD, MiniDisc, cassette, LP and even a microphone. This also makes it easy to record any form of audio and transfer it quickly and simply to any video-editing package.

For Sean O'Sullivan, deputy head at Frank Wise special needs school in Banbury, it's exactly this ability to record which is attractive: "With the added function of sound recording in portable MP3 players we can now replace the MiniDisc player we use. For us, the key reason we want to use this is for the voice and sound recording options. Many of our pupils will speak or vocalise more comfortably in certain situations that don't always lend themselves to having a laptop up and running ready to record them, and there can still be some hesitancy and distraction from having it held up near to them to capture what they say.

"The compact size and quality of the new portable MP3 players will make this much easier and more natural. Unlike the MiniDisc, you can connect your MP3 player directly to your computer and the sound files will be usable directly with any multimedia program. Also, unlike with MiniDisc, MP3s are easier to edit. We've always valued sound as much as images for work with our pupils, but now this means we can move on from laborious audio-tape methods to true ease of use and quality for the pupils."

Another advantage of these MP3 players is their storage capacity. With sizes ranging from 10Gb to 40Gb, it's like having a whole new hard drive.

This means you can just transfer any files on to them and carry them between school and home with the minimum of fuss.

In this instance, technology has certainly overtaken the curriculum, so could it be time to reinterpret the curriculum to fit the technology?

The May 14 issue of TES Online will take a closer look at digital creativity in the classroom, particularly audio.

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