Podcasts are an incredibly flexible tool for students to plan, produce and publish projects that demonstrate their knowledge. This post is going to be a crash course, why and how to do a podcast, whether its to educate of entertain.
Pheww – why not?! OK, OK I can see you don’t have time for that. Podcasts are great for students of all ages. It can be as simple a an third grader talking about a country they have researched or as advanced as senior talking about the real reasons that World War II started and debating those theories. Students get to talk (not write, not posterize, not PowerPoint) about a subject they know about. It is fluid and a discussion. When you get a group project it can often be done by one or two people and the others are along for the ride. On a podcast, there is no place to hide. Now that can seem intimidating for some and that is certainly a valid point, so having an alternative in the wings would be a good choice. Also, if a member of a team is just being a pain, maybe that special student so go it on their own as well.
The biggest concerns for teacher not doing podcasts (or not doing them well) is the technology side of things. I get you, sometimes it is hard to know where to start. I’ll talk about that a little later in the post. Another concern is that teachers get too focused on the technical (not the technology) side of things. They get more focused with jingles, time length and transition sounds. Don’t worry about that. If you have an eager and technologically gifted kid, you can have him make a jingle for everyone or you can simply have no jingle or transition sounds at all. It’ll be fine as long as the students focus on the topics at hand. This goes for you IT teachers out there. Don’t focus on the technical side. Forget that! Focus on the content. If you focus on other areas, the podcast will suck. It will sound boring, the students will know it sounds boring and no one will care.
Another big concern is where and how to publish them. To make it short you can use Soundcloud (while it is still around) or my go to Podomatic. You get 500mb free of storage (that equates to about 15, 30 minute podcasts) and it helps you with getting the podcast on the iTunes directory, thus making it pretty universal and accessible from just about anywhere. If you don’t like either of those try archive.org. Completely free, will let you store as much as you want but no RSS feed (I could be wrong about that). Either way, one of those three free solutions will probably be enough for you and your students.
Technology – You have space and some money
If you have nothing else and no budget, then have one or squeeze three kids around a laptop and have them record using its internal microphone. It will sound bad but it is doable. I wouldn’t do more than three, four means the laptop probably needs to be pushed back a little and even inches can severely diminish the quality of the recording.
If you have the room and the means set up a podcasting studio with an inexpensive mixing board. You don’t need a huge one, just one that can support up to 6 channels will probably be enough. You can often find those under $100 USD. Now You need microphones and microphone stands (desktop stands). Since you’re not recording a full orchestra, jazz ensemble or auditions for The Voice, you can get away with some pretty inexpensive microphones. I picked up a 3 pack of Behringer Ultravoice XM1800S for $50. At the time of this writing it is down to $40 (IT Babble receives no money from Amazon or any other advertiser). Now pick up some mic cables (whatever will plug into your mixing board).
Desktop microphone stands are pretty inexpensive as well. You can find a pretty high quality stand for $15. I would check Amazon.com and BH Photo (if you’re in the States. I do not know if they ship internationally). Don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re doing with the mixing board. You will figure it out. Just know those things are hard to break so fiddle away and try new things. You’ll pretty quickly realize how to increase the volume for a track.
Now have the whole thing plug into a computer. If it is an Apple, you’ve got GarageBand preinstalled which will work for capturing the recording. Just plug the mixing board into the computer, fire them both up and you’re ready to start recording.
If you have a Windows machine (or don’t like GarageBand) then try Audacity. It is open source, free, pretty refined and for basic recordings it should serve you well.
Technology – No extra space and some money
This is probably most teachers I can think of. They will probably be recording in their room or a study room (if your school has those) and so your recording rig must be light weight, portable and probably the cheaper the better. If you have money then go with a Zoom Handy recorder You don’t need a computer, they have a built in mic but some cheap mics and mic stands would be the way to go. Yes, this is a little pricey but these devices are built very well, will last a long time and just don’t fail. That is what we record with on the IT Babble podcast and in more than two years has never failed me once.
Now if you don’t have that type of scratch to throw around, then a laptop and a USB microphone is what I would suggest. You may not be able to get as many people around as possible. USB microphones vary in price. You can find some as cheap as $13 USD and some that are $300 USD or more! The bottom line here and I’ll write in caps and bold is …
IT WILL SOUND BETTER THAN YOUR LAPTOP INTERNAL MIC.
It is the truth. You are able to get closer to the mic and it will be more directional cutting out more background noise and if it sounds better if will feel more professional – simple as that. If you’re looking for some good options then the Blue line of USB mics are great. You can almost find them cheaper than their website elsewhere so shop around. They are very sturdy sound pretty darn good, you won’t be disappointed. Their most popular mics (by far) is the Yeti and the Snowball.
Recording the podcast
For younger kids a script may be a good place to start. Definitely have them write it for themselves. It won’t sound as interesting to listen to, but it will get them (and you) time to get more comfortable with the equipment.
For older students (5th grade and up) I’d have them write talking points on an index card and make sure there is someone to moderate and keep the podcast on task. The moderator could be you the teacher or someone who is good at knowing when to listen and when to jump in and redirect a conversation. It takes practice.
One thing to have them keep in mind is not to stop if they make a mistake. Big mistakes (like someone farting or cursing) can be edited out after the recording. No stopping! Sometimes those mistakes allow others to point out the mistake and that little moment is someone learning captured right there and that is pretty cool.
Wrapping it up
You’ve got your gear and software now play around with it. Ideally all the kids should have to do is sit down, hit the record button and start talking. Don’t focus on the gear and technology too much with the kids. Let them focus on their content and you’ll often get honest, informative and entertaining podcasts. That is what will make or break the unit of podcasting initiative if you’re starting one in your school.
If you have a student who is really keen to learn the behind the scenes, then that is great! You know have an assistant (as long as you can teach them how to commit). There is a good chance they may be able to teach you a few things about your equipment that you didn’t know.
The last thing to keep in mind is that this is a process. Don’t expect perfection on your first recording. Take it as it is and as you listen to it, try and find ways to improve it. Maybe it needs better topics, maybe it needs one more or one less voice. As for feedback from your listening community and keep at it! This type of commitment sounds easy but it’s not. It is hard. Take it from someone who has fallen down more than once podcasting.