MP3 - a sound idea

11th February 2000 at 00:00
First, they got you to throw away your 78s, then your eight-track, then vinyl, cassettes and now the days of CDlook bleak with the dawn of MiniDisc... oh God, here comes MP3! Ian Harris sets us straight

You'd be forgiven for wondering what on earth MP3 has to do with schools, or why anybody in education should give a flying fig about a file format that lets you download music from the Internet. Thanks to music fans posting and downloading chart hits to and from the Internet the word MP3 has become synonymous with music piracy, and some search engines have begun reporting that "MP3" as a search term beats even "sex" into second place, and although nobody denies MP3 has a chequered history the revolutionary file format is gaining more and more momentum. Even in education.

For the uninitiated, MP3 technology provides a way of compressing the enormous music files on music CDs to make them small enough to send across the sluggish seas that constitute the Internet. MP3's real magic lies in its ability to perform this compression without noticeably shedding any of the music's quality.

This makes sharing MP3 files across a school network a breeze. The files can be played using free software such as Microsoft's Windows Media Player, and their small file size delights ICT managers since downloading and listening to them across a school intranet won't take up acres of space on a file server. Creating an MP3 file, for whatever reason, is a simple and relatively painless process - something pupils will be happy to help out with. All it requires is a PC with a suitable sound card, and some MP3 encoding software (like AudioTech from XingTech) that turns CDs into MP3s.

There's a whole host of reasons to make and share audio using an MP3 file. A Young Enterprise group's mission statement, the school's response to an OFSTED inspection, or messages from pupils' foreign penpals are all excellent uses for MP3. Sharing classwork with other schools has long been considered a sure-fire way to encourage interest and enthusiasm - especially among pupils bored with their usual weekly fix of glockenspiel plonking and xylophone bashing. But while English, maths and French staff enjoy swapping text and pictures through email in mere seconds, "multimedia" departments such as music, drama or media wishing to join in partner programs have, up until now, had little choice but to send cassettes or videotapes through the post.

MP3 is the perfect mediumfor exchanging music and speech over the Internet, and there are hundreds of schools and educational groups across the world actively posting their projects and class work to online MP3 libraries like and It's hard to think of a better incentive to encourage a school orchestra or student band than having their endeavours posted on the Internet for all to listen to. even allows such amateur artists to easily set up a website, post music, and perhaps even make a little money by selling tracks online.

However, one potential downside of MP3 mania is already posing a headache for those in charge of ICT. Illegal websites offering MP3s of current chart hits are increasingly being visited by music-hungry student surfers, and any pupil downloading the latest Robbie Williams single using their classroom's Internet connection leaves the school open to prosecution under UK copyright law. In one recently reported US case the University of Oregon was attacked by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), angry that students had been downloading and distributing copyright MP3s. And many pirate MP3 sites are sponsored by explicit banners advertising hardcore pornography, another minefield for schools with Internet connections and MP3-savvy students.

Although a school has yet to face prosecution over an illicit hard drive full of Britney Spears tracks, most ICT managers routinely keep a vigilant lookout for malignant MP3 files just as they make a point of trawling PCs to ensure all computer software is properly licensed and paid for.

Listening to MP3s can also be just as much fun as making them. Apart from the software to play them on a PC or Mac, there is a burgeoning crop of portable MP3 "walkmen" which allow a user to listen to transfer digital music from a PC to listen to "on the go". The most popular model is the Diamond Rio player which costs around pound;100, but as with most players its memory can only stretch to holding around an hour's worth of tunes. It's widely agreed that MP3 is the future of music, and with stars such as Oasis and David Bowie releasing and previewing songs over the Internet, MP3 is a technology pupils will increasingly adopt. Whether they use it to pirate music or create their own just depends on who introduces them to it.

Ian Harris is a staff writer with PCFormat magazine

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