Some sound advice

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Schools are increasingly exploiting the power of sound in creative projects including radio stations and digital storytelling, John Davitt reports

Sometimes it seems like TV arrived before we had made the most of radio.

The good news is that schools are now rediscovering the creative power of sound.

Melike, a Year 9 student, looks confidently out of the window, ascertains the climatic conditions then turns to her microphone and records a weather forecast that is broadcast across the school live. "Yes it's looking a bit grey and I think it's going to rain," she says.

Melike is a pupil at Little Heath Special School in Redbridge and the two pieces of software she is using - Winamp MP3 player and Shoutcast server software are both downloadable from the net for free. Later I will hear her run a "Spot the Tune" competition.

The school radio system, housed in the classroom of ICT co-ordinator David Ware, has been running for over two years now. "It gives many of our children who have problems with text a chance to communicate in a medium where they have considerable mastery," says David.

The radio uses the school network to "broadcast" audio out to all the PCs on the system. Students broadcast a variety of programmes including news shows and film reviews. Staff have even started to put together one-minute homework help programmes to go out at home time.

The biggest step forward in the creative use of sound in the classroom has been the development of sound-editing software. This software records sounds from a microphone and displays the recording in wave form on screen.

The wave can then be edited to get rid of errors and add special effects, such as resonance and reverb.

For years we have been saying, "I see what you're saying" but now you really can and the curriculum possibilities are huge. Better still, the software can run on any computer with a sound card.

The sound editing software Audacity runs on Mac,PC and Linux and is free for home and school use. In many schools it's now the standard tool for working with sound. It can even handle multi-tracking, so that voice can be mixed with music. Children as young as five are using the software to record their own stories.

In Birmingham's Frankley High School a class are working with tablet PCs with Eamonn Duffy, the support centre manager.

"We were studying onomatopoeia and the students suddenly had the idea of adding their own sound to the words. We used the Sound Bites option in the Sticky Notes application, which is built into the tablet PC software."All the students have to do is click on the record button and they can save their own crash, bangs and wallops."We find the use of sound helps to lock in the learning for many students," says Eamonn.

For years primary teachers have used the simple sound recorder built into Windows to record WAV files. These files can then be inserted into PowerPoint to produce talking books. The one drawback is that these WAV files are big.The real breakthrough came with the more compact MP3 file format. MP3 is to sound as JPG is to pictures.The MP3 format keeps file sizes small enough to store lots of audio and they can be easily streamed across school networks.

Brendan Routledge, co-ordinator of the Suffolk Learning and Management Network, is working with schools in his local area on developing digital storytelling projects for the LEA intranet. "It's a new concept based on the old principles of storytelling," says Brendan. Using MovieMaker, which is free with Windows XP, students record and edit stories linking them to a series of still images using the record narration facility.

Apple's iMovie, with its improved audio editing features, will also be ideal for use in digital storytelling and the good news is that it comes free with all Apple computers.

Some dramatic work has been produced as part of the project. In one case a boy who "never usually got past writing his name" produced a detailed audio story with pictures titled, "How I made my apple crumble". The work provides a fast track to the senses, particularly when the spoken word is linked to images and mixed with music.

John Davitt runs courses on digital creativity and sound:


* If sound is important give it a defined space - set up a computer with good quality sound capability. For mobile recording MiniDisc recorders are popular, and if you have an iPod consider an add-on microphone (p34) * Use sound to run a parents' news service by recording one-minute school news bulletins for parents in a variety of languages, if required

* Invite the music department to convert GCSE performances into MP3 files so the school radio has examples of in-house excellence

* Invest in a good microphone

* Invite parents to a local history "Scan-in" - where they take along their local pictures and have them scanned. Get students to interview them about memories triggered by the pictures and save the results as a sound file to use in digital story-telling projects


* RadioWaves has a network of online radio stations so schools can run their own shows

* You'll find guidance on the ICT Advice site - type "using sound" into the search box at

* Copyright-free music can be downloaded from

* For technical help and free downloads visit

* Apple offers a free download which allows iTunes to broadcast across a school network at

* If you want to experiment with a school radio station download Winamp and Shoutcast server at

* To record and edit your own sound files download Audacity from http:audacity.

* Take voice and music editing a little further with Garage Band from Apple,

* Windows Movie Maker for XP can be downloaded at

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