The White House's new presidential pooch may have been just another story in the world's media earlier this year, but for pupils at Grays Infant and Nursery school in Newhaven, it grabbed the headlines in their weekly podcast.
The school's "news team" is a group of six and seven-year-olds who needed help with their literacy skills. The podcasts give them the opportunity not only to debate news items that interest them, but also to write and record scripts. They learn planning, keyboard and technical skills such as editing audio, as well as reviewing their work when they listen back with a teacher in class or with parents or friends over the internet at home. The benefits have been improved Sats results and motivation.
"The podcasts give children a voice and an audience. Speaking and listening is essential for young children, many of whom come to our school with lower than average literacy skills," says headteacher Christine Terrey, who pioneered podcasting in her East Sussex school following a visit to the BETT show three years ago.
Among the exhibitors, she saw the newly developed podcasting software Podium and thought: "Wow! My pupils and teachers could do that."
David Pearson, managing director of Lightbox Education, the company that publishes Podium, was one of the first to realise the educational opportunities of podcasting in 2005. He wanted to bring it to a wider audience, explaining: "We've taken something that was very niche and made it mainstream. Podium is the only tool which combines scripting, recording, editing and publishing in one piece of software."
Podium is now being used in 3,000 schools nationwide, half of them secondaries, but it is not the only podcasting software available (see panel, "How to start podcasting"). Other programmes providing specific functions can be downloaded free from the internet, including Audacity for editing or software. It takes the user through the process of publishing the finished podcast on the school website or other host site using real simple syndication (RSS). This allows the listener to receive new podcasts automatically as they are uploaded.
For those less confident with new technologies, the website design company WebAnywhere, set up by two young University of York graduates a few years ago, has a solution that also gives training and ongoing support.
The educational opportunities of podcasting are unlimited. It offers mobile learning where a student can listen to a podcasted lecture or missed lesson at a convenient time or place.
By 2012, the Government wants all schools to have a virtual learning environment (VLE) and at Chepping View Primary in High Wycombe, the VLE site not only provides a platform for podcast programmes created by the pupils, but also podcasts of stories, poetry, songs about science, maths and homework tips.
Caroline Twigge brought her podcasting knowledge to the school as an NQT after attempting a similar project during a 10-week teacher training placement at a previous school.
"To begin with, some members of staff were a bit daunted, but as long as you can press start and stop to record and cut out bits that don't work, that's enough to begin making a podcast," she says.
Following an Inset day, Ms Twigge's colleagues were encouraged to try recording a story. A group of 16 pupils were selected and a weekly session timetabled for them to plan and script the twice-termly podcasts, with other production work such as recording taking place in breaktimes and after school. A recent school trip to the beach and a visit from children's author Chris Powling offered good podcast material.
Ummarah, aged eight, is enthusiastic. "It's overcome my fear of talking to people," she says. "We get to interview people who are famous." She is composing a letter to Radio 2 DJ Terry Wogan with nine-year-old Heather, who says: "I try to make my writing good - this is the best lesson and all my friends want to do it."
The pupils benefit from a wide range of activities, researching jokes for the next podcast, evaluating listener response with bar charts and creating dramas such as an alternative Cinderella.
"It is writing with a purpose," says Ms Twigge, and when headteacher Richard Millington was at the sharp end of the microphone, he was asked about his favourite cheese and to tell a joke, among more serious questions.
As a national leader for education, he finds that "schools sometimes feel they can't do technology when in fact they can". He admits he is not "IT minded", but is motivated by a commitment to provide children with the best possible advantages.
The 420-strong multicultural school in Buckinghamshire has a high number of Pakistani pupils, some with very basic English, and he believes podcasting helps them improve their spoken as well as written language. The podcasts also reach parents and the wider community.
Such is the school's podcasting success that after only a year it won the 2009 Arqiva Commercial Radio Schools Award. With the #163;1,000 prize money it plans to buy better equipment. Quite remarkably, the prize-winning podcasts were created using second-hand microphones.
The award is in association with Vision, a charity supporting children with dyslexia and visual impairment. The organisation recognised the educational benefits of audio learning early on and launched a website - www.schoolsradio.co.uk - which now has some 500 school stations, about 80 per cent of them podcasting.
It was the brainchild of John Bradford, a pioneer of commercial radio and director of the Radio Academy. He had seen the benefits, particularly among dyslexic pupils, when Radio Sheffield took a recording project into schools as far back as 1987.
Twenty years later, he sees podcasting as the natural successor. "It's the easiest thing to start making podcasts," he says. "It's one of the fastest growing areas of educational activity. It's about getting the students to do it - and learn - for themselves."
WHAT IS A PODCAST?
The word "podcasting" is derived from iPod - Apple's ubiquitous media player - and broadcast. A podcast is an episodic media file, either audio or video, to which listeners can subscribe over the internet so that each new episode will be delivered to the listener's computer. It can be downloaded either on to an MP3 player such as an iPod or iPhone, or listened to through the web browser.
HOW TO START PODCASTING
There is a variety of technology out there for those with a PC or Mac who want to start podcasting. Perhaps the most straightforward is Podium, an all-in-one software package for PCs only. The website www.podiumpodcasting.com offers everything needed, plus training and ongoing support.
Lightbox Education says no technical knowledge is needed and it is as simple as using a text editor, possibly even simpler, with colour-coded scripting, which is mirrored in the multi-track editing. For a few hundred pounds, the software walks you through the process of making a podcast, saving the finished version as an MP3 file that is then uploaded to a web server for listeners to download. This can be the school website, or Podium can provide a hosted service with a real simple syndication (RSS) feed. This means any listener who has subscribed to the podcast will receive the next one automatically. At the BETT show, Lightbox Education will be launching a version of Podium to make video podcasts.
For those with a Mac, there is no all-in-one solution, but there are free and paid-for applications to help with the process. Audacity is a popular recording and multi-track editing software package that can also be used on PCs and can be downloaded from http:audacity.sourceforge.net. Another commonly used package for recording and editing audio is Garageband (www.apple.comsupportgaragebandpodcasts). Once the finished podcast has been saved as an MP3 file, an XML file needs to be created which contains information about the podcast. Finally, the XML file and MP3 files need to be uploaded to a server using an FTP client.