Category Archives: Blended Essentials Learning course (#FLble1)

Reflections on using Audacity for learning

I’m a bit behind on the excellent University of Leeds’ Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started (BLE) course. Work, illness and family have got in the way.

It’s nice however to ease my way back into week 3 with the case study on open tools such as Prezi, Audacity and WordPress. I’m familiar with each. However, it’s really interesting to hear other people’s uses of such tools; familiarity can breed contempt and it’s important to remember there’s always something else to learn. I’ve been an avid user of Audacity – one of the internet’s best kept secrets – for a couple of years. I produce a podcast about the Welsh national football team as well as using the medium to share learning among a disparate workforce on the Communities First tackling poverty programme in Wales whose learning I support. These podcasts are currently hosted on Soundcloud but will soon migrate to our new moodle.

Here’s an overview of how I use it and some top tips.

Audacity is free to download and can be used on a number of operating systems. As someone familiar with Microsoft (MS) packages and Windows, Audacity’s similarity to these was reassuring at first. The File, Edit, View tabs largely do as you would expect them to in an MS package. There are also lots of the same Ctrl+ shortcuts such as Ctrl+c for Copy and Ctrl+v for Paste. Furthermore, the Play, Record, Pause, etc. buttons resemble an old tape recorder. How simple can it get?!

audacity 1

In order to record there’s very little else you need to know; the entire interface tends to be for navigating your recording during the editing stage.

There are some exceptions to this. When recording it is important to ensure that it recognises your microphone (often this is automatically done; if not, close and re-open Audacity) and you will need to set your recording level (the scale to the right of the mic symbol below).

audacity 2

The microphone is in my opinion your most important consideration, over and above familiarising oneself with the software. If you are starting out in recording and editing lesson content it is worth investing in the microphone. But don’t go crazy. A piece of advice someone gave me was to buy a mid-range mic. Spend hundreds of pounds and you no doubt have a brilliant mic; but it will capture more sound than you know how to edit. A cheap mic won’t capture enough quality sound with which to do anything.

blue yetiFor about £60 I bought a second hand Blue Yeti (right) and have been perfectly happy with it. It is powered by usb, has two simple knobs (for volume and gain), four settings depending on the direction from which people are contributing, and has a long usb cable which is handy for moving the mic around. It also folds down as well which makes it easier to carry round, though it is heavy, but reassuringly so. I also dig its retro look.

The other important consideration is your recording environment. The ideal recording location will depend on what you wish to capture. A monologue précising a lesson or recapping key points will require your voice to be the focus so somewhere quiet and without interruptions will be helpful. If you want to record a lesson in a classroom environment complete with contributions from learners then the background noise will not matter so much; the location of the mic within the recording space will be key though. The Blue Yeti allows for voice (i.e,. yours) from a single direction to be prioritised over those from others but doesn’t exclude them altogether. This might be particularly useful in a classroom setting when recording an actual lesson. That long usb cable may also come in handy here.

Echoey rooms can be difficult to record in and rooms with windows close to main roads will pick up low frequency sounds like roadworks or traffic. The best thing to do is to play around with whichever space you are in beforehand and have a practice with different settings, both on the mic and in Audacity.

My top tips for recording:

  • let learners (and yourself) get familiar with the presence of a microphone. It can be off-putting for some (and brings out the extrovert in others!) and if this inhibits people’s contributions then it undermines the quality of the content.
  • have a dry-run at the start of every session. Record a couple of minutes, and listen back through headphones. You will better judge the audio quality through headphones than through your PC/laptop speakers.
  • consider issuing a briefing sheet to learners/contributors beforehand. I remember recording with someone who was extremely nervous and expected to be sitting by the mic with headphones on, like in a radio studio. This is a quite logical assumption if you don’t know what to expect. For the podcasts I record with workers in Communities First I issue this briefing.
  • place a folded piece of clothing or piece of carpet under the mic to serve as a dampener. A lot of sound can be picked up from underneath.
  • talk naturally. No-one needs to be an orator of Richard Burton standards; similarly some people feel the unnecessary need to shout their contributions or lean in close to the mic. Again, these are reasons to have a practice couple of minutes at the start.
  • don’t panic! If a contributor gets tongue-tied, pauses, forgets something then just pause, wait and resume making the point. The “ums” and “ers” can also be easily edited out.
  • feel free to move the mic around (within the radius allowed by the usb cable obviously), tilt it re-point it.
  • Always, always record a few seconds of ambient sound i.e., the sound of ‘silence’ in the space you’re recording. This ambience can be invaluable for adding in to your final edit. It sounds counter-intuitive but don’t be surprised by the number of times you will want to add some ‘nothing’ to your edited version.

My top tips for editing:

  • don’t edit your original source recording. Rather, open a new Audacity file into which you copy and paste from the original file. It is so much easier and allows you to edit in bitesize chunks. It also makes navigating your edited version easier.
  • in the early days, split your original file into mono (from stereo) and edit in mono. The final recording will still be played back in stereo. Again, it simplifies the task in hand. Once you become more skilled you can edit in stereo.
  • be clear on your file-naming system early on. I used to get into a pickle between using words such as ‘final’, ‘main’, ‘draft’ in filenames. I also used to date the original recording but you might not publish the final mp3 until several days later, or in a different month. Again, I’d get confused.
  • audacity 3fade in and fade out (under the Effects tab, right) the beginning and end of your recordings. They serve to gently lead in to your recording, rather than jump straight into it at excessive volume; and indicate that the recording is drawing to a close. You can aslo use fading to distinguish between distinct elements within a recording.
  • have a play around with a practice recording and try different features to see what they do. I’ve never met anyone who knew what the ‘Nyquist prompt‘ does when they started off using Audacity.
  • But don’t feel obliged or pressured into using them all or even most of them. I use about 20% of Audacity’s functions and am perfectly happy with the content I produce.

Pob lwc/Best of luck!

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Personal reflections on online learning #4

The aim of step 2.3 of the University of Leeds’  Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started (BLE) course is to introduce:

“a wide range of digital technologies available to support blended learning in formal and informal learning scenarios [and] the key principles to consider when embedding digital technologies into your practice”

This held particular appeal. With our Learning Zone – the branding of our Moodle virtual learning environment (VLE) – almost constructed and with a range of learning content ready to be unleashed on the Communities First workforce I am at the stage of wanting to push different elements of Moodle to see if they are useful for our content and the learning styles of our potential learners. What impressed me with Moodle during my initial training in its administration and use was the sheer versatility and flexibility of the platform; in fact, there was a danger of being overwhelmed and disorientated by the volume of features.

nearpod

Nearpod

So what would the likes of Nearpod, Google Classrooms and DREAMS (the examples cited in the accompanying video) do that Moodle doesn’t? I wasn’t alone in querying this either with others posting similar comments in the accompanying forum.

Well I’m not clear they offer anything additional at all, though perhaps they may do some things better. All the case studies featured appear to use these platforms in a traditional FE setting and this is different to my context where workforce support and development is my focus. Thanks to the course I now realise learners from Communities First largely learn in a constructivist manner i.e., by constructing their own knowledge and meaning through experience for instance by engaging in ‘real world’ activities (on the job?) and building on their prior knowledge and experience. I am seldom an instructor but more usually facilitate people’s learning. As an aside, with budgets for workers to attend traditional ‘classroom’ training likely to decrease then this constructivist pedagogy.

CC - Cover Photo with Icons

Google Classrooms

Both Nearpod and Google Classrooms appear to be helpful in creating a collective identity among a class and have embedded within them the sociability that I increasingly recognise is de rigeur in many blended learning technologies. But Moodle’s group function can do similar. A sports lecturer in one of the case studies mentions that he has embedded Google Classrooms within his VLE and this is interesting. He seems particularly keen on how the classroom can be designed and be “more personal to a tutor which they can control”. Reading between the lines, is this a way of the tutor circumnavigating the restrictions in Moodle that its permissions ethos impose on course creators and teachers?

The convenience of Google Classrooms for those with Google accounts is certainly attractive; but I know people who resent the enveloping effect of Google over their online and social media activities (and with which I have more than a little sympathy). But the reality is that the fewer the (perceived) barriers to a new technology the more likely people are to try it and eventually adopt it and ‘mainstream’ it in their learning.

Nearpod appears to offer a seamlessness between use of Powerpoint for instruction and, for instance, formative assessment in a face-to-face context and is probably the one element that I can see myself adopting.

Lastly, having learned last night that Dropbox acquires ownership of anything you store with it (note to self: read the small print), I’m curious whether the likes of Nearpod and Google Classroom (or the previously-introduced Edmodo and Padlet for that matter) allow a tutor to retain ownership of materials he/she uploads. So far the BLE course hasn’t touched on the ethics of using such resources.

Still learning, still exploring, still reflecting….

 

 

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New to blended learning? Start with Padlet!

As part of routinely reflecting on the Univeristy of Leeds’ Blending Learning Essentials course through Future Learn I blogged about first impressions of using Padlet.

In this re-blog Helen Dixon describes more fully some of Padlet’s benefits to online and blended learning; namely that its

“Usability, simplicity, accessibility and shareability make Padlet ideal for introducing blended learning.”

Source: New to blended learning? Start with Padlet!

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Personal reflections on online learning #3

I’ve finally reached the end of week 1 of the University of Leeds’  Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started (BLE) course on The Open University’s Future Learn online platform. A convenient juncture to reflect once again.

I love discovering a new online app or platform. I can barely recall what life was like before I discovered Twitter (actually I can. I shared opinions, observations, ideas and interesting links with friends via texts and emails; but I didn’t make as many friends that way, as I have through Twitter). I discover more new music via YouTube than via any other means. I have finally discovered a relevance for Google+. I now run four WordPress blogs across my work-life continuum. Of course they don’t all push my buttons (I’ve been free of Facebook for over six happy years).

So when the course introduced Edmodo and Padlet there was the usual frisson of curiosity. I haven’t got round to exploring Edmodo yet but I have made my inaugural posting on Padlet.

My first thought was that Padlet resembled Pinterest. My second thought was how daunting it is to navigate. This is a only a small proportion of the number of posts on it.

padlet.

How will I navigate all of them or discern which are relevant to my learning?

Reassuringly, the end of week summary poses a similar question:

How to keep up with everything being contributed?

We can’t, of course, and should not try to – join the conversation as you can, as you would join your colleagues over lunch.

And this makes perfect sense of course. Just because a library has thousands of books doesn’t mean you are expected or need to read them all. But libraries help you navigate their collections and I’m not sure Padlet conveniently does that.

I can see how it might complement our podcasts on community involvement with listeners able to post different links, resources and comments inspired by the podcast discussion they are listening/have listened to.

It’s still early days though. As a visual learner and ‘scanner’ of websites, rather than someone who reads in detail, Padlet is certainly a better stimulus for me. I don’t suppose, either, that applying Padlet to a Communities First context the wall would grow anywhere near as large as the BLE course one.

On to work 2!

 

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Personal reflections on online learning #2

I’ve managed to squeeze in a few more hours on the University of Leeds’  Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started course on The Open University’s Future Learn online platform. So time for some more reflections.

Well, actually less reflections, and more confirmation of some pre-held assumptions.

The video that accompanies unit 1.6 (Digital technology and learners) stresses how technology enhances the flexibility of learning for a learner and cites a learner’s ability to skype his tutor and engage with him via Google Hangouts. He also cites being able to submit assignments via Turnitin, and merely ‘chatting’ with his tutor via Facebook, Edmodo (which I’d not heard of before) or Hangouts.

Professor Laurillard acknowledges the ability of the learner to manage his time with such technologies. But she skirts this in favour of drawing attention to what she calls the “crucial value of the technology” which is that they give him “flexible access for social learning” (emphasis added). Enhancing the sociability of learning is an important – “crucial” even – aspect of blended learning. In the cited instance Prof. Laurillard concludes that the learner “isn’t isolated”.

I touched on this in my first Personal reflections blog and how the Blended Learning Essentials course appeared to place an emphasis on sociability and learner interaction. Clearly, this is designed in, not because it is a nice, fluffy thing to do; rather it is a pedagogic necessity that enhances learners’ achievement.

moodle-laddersConsidering the Communities First workforce as potential users of our Learning Zone moodle many of our potential learners are remote-working, peripatetic and working directly with clients, many of whom have multiple needs and/or difficult personal circumstances. I had already recognised their need to have flexibility in determining when/where it suits them to learn. But I had previously considered the sociability aspect to their online and blended learning on the Learning Zone has an optional extra.

This particular unit on the course suggests it is more a necessity.

Another interesting element in considering what technologies offer in terms of flexibility is the permission to use particular platforms/websites.

The Communities First workforce is primarily employed by Welsh local authorities whose restrictions are frankly Draconian when it comes to allowing which sites their staff can access outside lunch breaks, if at all. The video cites Google Hangouts, Edmodo and Facebook as examples of platforms which enhance the sociability of learning but I would hazard a guess that none are available to the majority of CF workers at, say, 10.30am on a weekday morning.

blue yetiTo illustrate this point, I have had first-hand experience of this with respect to a pilot podcast that I recorded with members of the CF workforce in May.

I had identified several people with whom to evaluate the recording for content, audio quality, length and ease of listening. The mp3 was too large to email and so I placed it in a Dropbox folder and on Soundcloud for people to access to either listen in situ or download to a device of their own choice. Variously, people could not access one or other site via their work PC; had to do so from their own home PCs, requiring them to share with me their personal emails; or could access the sites but had no media player through which to listen to the mp3.

Flexibility isn’t something that is brought about by the the availability of technologies alone. There are external factors that can greatly, even completely, constrain a learner and educator’s efforts to make learning flexible.

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Personal reflections on online learning #1

CF logoI manage the Communities First Support Service at Wales Council for Voluntary Action and it is presently developing a range of online learning resources and courses for the CF workforce. These will complement our ‘traditional’ forms of support to the CF workforce:

  • training
  • action learning
  • bespoke consultancy

WCVA‘s Learning Zone will be hosting these resources and courses. In readiness for the launch of it and the ongoing development of learning materials I have been undertaking the University of Leeds’ Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started course on The Open University’s Future Learn online platform.

It requires around four hours of learning a week for four weeks and I can complete it at my own pace and in my own time. It’s flexible as well; so if I do only two hours one week I can make it up the following week.

The course encourages you to reflect on the learning and as someone schooled in community development practice this has come naturally to me as I have started the course; the encouragement is always helpful though!

One thing that struck me immediately was the informality and friendliness of the experience. It was very welcoming with a simple film introducing the institution, the platform, the educators and examples of the forthcoming learning content. I was encouraged to introduce myself via a learners’ forum and, without realising the function existed, attracted a follower within minutes. It has a look, feel and lexicon similar to those of social media platforms. On reflection I suppose this allows for a more sociable aspect to the learning. There’s no common room, refectory or (*hiccup*) student bar to where one can share learning experiences, collaborate or socialise with other learners/students; so the forums allow for more peer-interaction and doesn’t make the blended learning experience as lonely as one might fear it will be.

This is interesting from the point of view of the CF workforce. I am of the opinion that there is insufficient interaction between the CF workforce, certainly beyond county and cluster boundaries; and therefore we don’t learn from each other as much as we might. Our Learning Zone will have a forum capacity and perhaps this is something that could be made more prominent. Again, much like social media platforms with a personal avatar and opportunity to describe oneself, the profile function aids this.

imageThe Blended Learning Essentials introduction was not only welcoming but practically helpful as well. This has also highlighted the importance of practical ‘how to’ guides for people; with our Learning Zone, it is not enough for us to expect to ‘build it and they will come’.

For learners unfamiliar with online learning it is not only the course that needs introducing but the platform itself and environmental considerations. With this in mind the Blended Learning Essentials course features a short video (there are lots of visual resources, which as a visual learner I greatly appreciate) that helps make the “learning experience effective and enjoyable” including advice on how to make your environment conducive to learning; how to take notes; how to listen and reflect, and several other key preparatory aspects to learning.

featured image blog 1bWe must not assume that the CF workforce are learning ready. People may not have undertaken learning (of any nature, not just online) for a while. Neither is the CF workforce a traditional office-based workforce. A large proportion of it works remotely, peripatetically, in community venues without ready access to a PC, or only has hand-held devices available to work on. It is feasible that CF workers will be learning in short sharp bursts and our Learning Zone needs to be responsive to this.

So, so far so good.

I have been made to feel welcomed and valued as a learner. I have already begun to think of some changes to make to our learning Zone and have completed my first blog. Now I just need to catch up as I’ve already fallen behind because work gets in the way!

Featured image from nelsoncroom.co.uk

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