I recently led a sold-out podcasting workshop at a state edtech conference. Two days before the event I learned that data uploading and downloading would be prohibited (on a non-school day). Since participants were not required to have iPods, I had achieved the perfect exacta for a podcasting class - no pods and no casting.
I am accustomed to such pedagogical humiliation. Although computers have indeed become easier to use, more reliable, more powerful and less expensive, you would not know it by how computers are deployed in schools. Since the mid-90s when the pandemic of web fever swept our schools, creativity and even productivity have taken a back seat to fear, compliance and prohibition.
As a seasoned professional, I was able to get through the podcasting-free podcasting workshop with sock puppets and folk dances. However, one ray of sunshine peeked into the basement computer bunker of the working class high school hosting the event. During my virtuosic plate spinning, one of the teachers in my workshop used her Bluetooth-enabled cellphone to upload her audio program to a remote server. Seconds later her podcast was available online. At least one of my students was able to achieve our educational objective!
Her ingenuity left room for optimism. It doesn't matter how ridiculous school computing becomes; the world will keep progressing. 130 years after Bell invented the telephone, many teachers may not use one at work. Yet, this changed recently when affordable wireless technology and a century of oppression resulted in teachers fighting back by owning their own cellphones.
At the recent MacWorld, iLife '06 was released. Apple's digital creativity suite managed to kick things up a notch for learners and educators. In the same way that previous versions made digital film-making, photo sharing, DVD publishing and music composition possible, iLife '06 lowers the barriers to personal expression in increasing variety of media.
Several iLife components got prettier, more powerful and easier to use. Animated themes in iMovie allow students to tell even more visually-attractive stories. iPhoto's photo-casting allows teachers to share field trip photos with parents before their students get home. Design photo books, calendars and greeting cards and sell them as fundraisers. iTunes looks at your music library and suggests other recordings you might wish to purchase.
One problem with school policies, including computing rules, is that they tend to endure for decades. The traditional policy-making process is so cumbersome that their edicts need to be timeless. This is problematic in "Internet time." Less than a year after podcasting was invented, I was selling out workshop full of teachers excited by the possibility of students developing oral narrative skills and communicating beyond classroom walls.
Attendance in one of my workshops six months ago would have required you to write XML code, use an FTP client to upload it to a server and announce your program on an amateur syndication site. Three months ago you would have used a shareware program to do all of the confusing monkey work so you could focus on your storytelling. Tomorrow, you will use Garageband 3.
iLife '06 combines the intuitive recording, editing and royalty-free music composition tools found in previous versions of Garageband and makes high-quality podcasting possible for anyone. Click record and start talking. Your voice will be enhanced. Drop a musical "bed" under a narration and the auto-ducking feature will automatically cause the music volume to lower when the narration begins and swell when it ends. Drag graphics to the timeline and they appear at key moments in your radio program. Interview experts via iChat AV and all of the voices will be recorded as separate audio tracks. Drop a movie into Garageband and score it with predefined loops or your own musical instruments. Add sound-effects on the fly.
Best of all, push a button and your audio or video podcast is automatically published on the web for your potentially infinite audience.
Putting it All Together
Apple lent its design flare to iWeb, the new web publishing tool built into iLife '06. Start with a gorgeous template and drag text or graphics onto the screen and voila! You have a professional-quality web site. Turn an image 34 degrees and add a reflection. iWeb can handle that and publish WYSIWYG. Create your own blog. Drag a podcast into a page and a button automatically appears allowing users to subscribe. Drag photos to a page and create an instant photo album, complete with the option to subscribe to your photo-cast. Add photos to your collection and your subscribers see them automatically. Drag a music playlist to a page and a list complete with links to the iTunes music store are published.
Not only can students and teachers express themselves in a greater range of ways, but low-level mechanical nonsense is being made transparent. Network protocols, meta-files and asking for permission should no longer be obstacles to creativity and communication. iLife makes it possible to publish in a variety of media, it allows you to do so in a fashion consistent with the design expectations of the modern world. In other words, your work may appear professional, even if you are an amateur. Students know this because it's on their home computer.
Liberation from the drudgery of school computing cuts out the middleman, reduces overhead costs and enhances human development. Schools should help learners develop their creativity and intellect. Like in the case of my mischievous podcasting student, school need not be an obstacle to realizing ones potential.
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.