In tune with podcasts

19th May 2006 at 01:00
A fictional character created by two teachers is being downloaded all over the world. David Bocking reports

Faced with the problem of competing with Pete Tong, Ricky Gervais and Ronaldinho, the maths teachers at Millthorpe School in York had only one solution: get cheesy.

"At work or play, I demand the best. That's why I use fractions fusion," says Mr Smith, after a video sequence depicting the teacher heading a football, sauntering through the maths department, then casually throwing his jacket over his shoulder (and, inadvertently, his left ear).

"Fractions fusion," he pouts. "Because I'm worth it." After getting back into his jacket, Mr Smith goes on to explain the difference between numerators and denominators and how to add using the concepts of equivalent fractions.

Maths in Motion by Millthorpe School is the world's first video podcast for secondary maths students. Last year, Millthorpe maths teacher Simon Jowett was looking for ways of using his new laptop to help parents understand their children's maths coursework. Fired with an enthusiasm for iPods, he searched for free downloadable material on the iTunes music store website, and discovered Mr Crother's maths podcasts, in which an Australian sitting rather too close to his microphone discusses angles and the four times table and recites the value of pi to 100 decimal places.

"That's where I got the idea," Simon explains, as he turns the volume down on Mr Crother's heavy breathing. "But I felt that maths was quite visual, particularly for younger kids and for the non-specialist."

Non-specialist is the kind of phrase Simon uses for mathematically-challenged parents who might like to help with their children's homework but have forgotten how, or worry that teaching methods have changed since their own maths lessons a generation ago.

Simon's colleague, Matthew Smith, had recently become the maths department's community programme co-ordinator, and the pair decided to produce a series of video podcasts to complement the Year 78 maths syllabus. The aim was to provide revision material for students and help parents learn about maths alongside their children, on home computers or video iPods.

Monika Maloney, parent of a Year 7 pupil, says: "It's a great way of looking at something in a format we can both enjoy and understand. The podcast on fractions not only helped me to understand and remember what I did so long ago, it also made me laugh. Maths was never like this in my day!"

The idea of maths by podcast goes down well with students. "It's cool, so more people want to see it," says 12-year-old Yasmin Bowerman. "And it's good that it's not just people talking. Being cheesy makes it funny, and the humour makes it more interesting to watch."

Matt and Simon soon realised that the cheesy approach was the way forward.

"When we tried it out with the Year 11s, they spent the first 30 seconds laughing their heads off at their maths teacher, then they were transfixed," says Matt, who was happy to become the humour element of the project.

The podcasts take the form of an expert (one of the other maths teachers) explaining a concept from the current programme of work to "Mr Smith". His character is not an idiot, Matt stresses, but it was crucial to have a means to ask the sort of questions parents might ask. The fact that Mr Smith leaves overlong pauses, looks the wrong way every so often and says "Hi, folks" and "over to you" a lot is all part of careful scripting by Matt and Simon early on Wednesday mornings, when the school is still quiet enough to record the podcasts.

Simon then sets to work in his free periods to edit the digital video and add graphics (using Garageband, iPhoto, iMovie and iWeb software included free with most Apple computers, and Motion, part of the Final Cut application).

The finished podcast is usually uploaded to the school's .Mac account later that evening, with the iTunes music store listing appearing soon after, alongside links to podcasts by the likes of Ricky Gervais and Ronaldinho.

It's a lot easier to use an Apple computer, Simon feels, since all the applications work together to make the job relatively simple, but the same effect could be achieved with some IT expertise using Windows. The cost of a small Apple computer with iLife software (containing most of the applications used by Millthorpe) together with a .Mac account to store the podcasts and link to the iTunes music store would be pound;400-pound;500, says Simon. Graphics software like Motion is available for around pound;200, but isn't essential.

Millthorpe is lucky in that most families have broadband connections at home, but Simon and Matt ensure that students without broadband can access printed material on the subjects covered. The podcasts now receive more than 500 downloads a week from all over the world, and the initial plan for 12 podcasts is now likely to be extended. "We're now number one if you search for 'maths' on iTunes podcasts," says Simon, "which makes us very proud."

lPodcast hints: find a quiet room; use an external microphone; use no more than four lines of text so the material can be read on an iPod; try to be funny For more information contact Simon Jowett Tel: 01904 686400

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