Manufacturers describe them as "palm-sized perfection". And despite a few embarrassing moments when mine has gone off in my pocket, blaring my voice into a quiet room, a digital dictaphone has proved handy.
Digital dictaphones, or voice recorders, allow you to record sound and then input it via a USB cable straight into your computer as wav. sound files, useful for someone like me, who is a teacher, writer, digital educational resource producer and occasional musician.
A few years ago, when producing The Floating World, an interactive whiteboard fantasy game for North Yorkshire local authority and Cable Educational, we'd decided that the narrator's explanation of the game on the opening pages would be useful as a read-aloud sound file to enable weaker readers to have easy access to the game. This was a nice idea, but with limited financial resources, it proved more difficult than I had imagined.
The same problem occurred while producing The Mulgrave Tales, a set of interactive whiteboard stories, for Promethean. Recording versions of the stories to link with the flipcharts was complex and unwieldy, and because of the sizes of the sound files, only one of the five tales ended up with a read-out version attached.
Having eager and willing pupils as voiceovers for The Floating World project was nice for the free-to-schools North Yorkshire local authority version of the game, but for the slicker, commercial version our eager pupils were not legally, or artistically, viable.
The laptop digital recording studios we tried were OK, but cumbersome when it came to doing numerous takes, as well as difficult to edit. Basically, too many buttons were involved. The sound quality was also variable.
At Cable we eventually produced a reasonable voiceover after importing a sound engineer and recorder, at face-paling expense. To me, it seemed that we were being complex about something that should be simple - surely decent sound files to operate as easily opened hyperlinks couldn't be that difficult to make?
On my next project, known as Bluetooth Shakespeare, I begged North Yorkshire Council's ICT team for a small budget. The idea was to show trial animations of Shakespeare characters (for key stage 3 English) and transmit them via Bluetooth to pupils' mobile phones.
After some research, I chanced upon the Olympus VN-3100PC (see panel) digital voice recorder. Considering past experiences, it was painfully cheap at about Pounds 60. Thanks to cables and easy to install software I had it up and running within minutes. It could record voice directly via an inbuilt microphone, or via an input-microphone socket for higher quality production. In a quiet room, six takes in 15 minutes were sufficient to record two Bluetooth Shakespeare soundtracks. After all that time wasted with cumbersome, ineffective recording equipment and in expensive studios, I really did kick myself.
Digital dictaphones can be useful in a variety of other situations. In drama lessons, pupils have been able to record creative sound-scapes to accompany performances. When producing subject-focused PowerPoint or other presentations, it's easy to produce voiceovers.
Pupils have also been able to record microphone-free interviews and articles for the school newspaper and produce features for a website that are of adequate sound quality and size for easy online transfer. They have discovered that interviewing all age groups with a device the size of a small mobile phone is much less intimidating than a microphone, and in fact many have started to investigate and use the sound recorders that are now inbuilt into their mobiles.
I chose to buy mine outright and not claim its expense back out of the local authority budget. This was a canny move. It's mine. I use it all the time in all sorts of situations. I've jotted down shopping lists, random scraps of poetry on pen-inaccessible moorland rambles, Mongolian-overtone chanting sessions, band rehearsals and I've even learnt some poetry by heart over headphones.
It's also done the washing up, walked the dog and vacuumed the stairs. All right, the last few are fibs, but since branching out into digital resources, this simple and palm-fitting piece of hardware has been the most useful and successful piece of kit to date.
Chris Firth teaches English at Caedmon School in Whitby, Yorkshire
Let's get technical
Chris Firth chose the Olympus VC-3100PC digital voice recorder (left). It has a recording time of more than 71 hours, with four easily accessible folders for grouping and storing up to 100 recordings, which can be deleted if no longer required. The device takes two standard AAA 1.5v batteries, and there is an on screen battery-life indicator. For details of suppliers and prices, visit www.olympus.co.ukconsumer2581_VN- 3100PC.htm.