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Diary of Lead Teacher: Episode seven - and we're off...

Author: Nick Trussler

A month has passed in the flash of an eye, partly because we took an extended Easter Holiday of three weeks before starting back to full time online learning from 20 April.  So it’s been just over a week of a new structure for the school that I described in my last blog post - mainly focussing on three hour long online lessons in the afternoon supplemented by activities and pastoral sessions in the mornings. 

I teach a range of topics characterised by quite heavy use of media, video recording, music and sound recording, animation as well as coding and computer science. And during the Easter break I had to come to terms with the fact that my heavyweight media programs are all sitting uselessly in school, and that I could really do with some replacements that worked just as well at student’s homes.  Time was a little short to sort this out but I already had one piece of software that worked on the Cloud in any case, and this was CoSpaces Edu, a drag and drop animation with-coding environment. 

Like many online providers the CoSpaces team were kindly offering free licences during the rest of this academic year due to the crisis, and I emailed them asking for a free extension of licenced users - which they granted within the space of 6 hrs (Thanks CoSpaces!).  So that was Year 7 sorted out for a few weeks.

What about our Foundation/Primary Year 6 class?  On a list from DSH I saw a neat and free Scratch-style coding environment going up through 100 levels to move cars around a maze (A bit like Scottie Go) called Code-For-Life’s Rapid Router.  This allowed you to create a class, give out enrollment keys and then track individual progress on a teacher scoreboard. Very nice too. 

Hmmm, Year 8 were going to be doing an audio recording project.  No GarageBand now though.  On a quick search for ‘cloud-based music production’ I came up with a product also offering free seats until the end of the year called ‘SoundTrap’.  I honestly can’t believe how well cloud-based programs can stream and manipulate tracks in real-time - this product does an excellent job.  It effectively reproduces your favourite music production multitrack software, running in the browser with a wide selection of music loop segments to drag onto screen.  It incorporates many features such as volume automation, full EQ and effects, as well as live audio recording.   

I decided to ask all Yr8 students to source a poem on the internet (or make one up) with at least three different verses or sections with different ‘feels’. They should then record it into SoundTrap, edit it and create music loops which accompany the poem - changing the music’s feel to reflect the three sections appropriately. 

The genius of this program is that of-course all students are already ‘troubleshooted’ (is that a word?) with their cameras and microphones in order to be using our Video Conferencing software. SoundTrap just uses the microphone feed from their webcam and can record their poem straight into a track.  I.e. It is streaming the audio from the camera over the internet and recording it onto a track on the cloud.  Works a treat, and like most cloud based software SoundTrap will export the completed project as an mp3 directly onto a cloud storage system (We are a Google-Apps school) without ever having to strain the student’s home bandwidth. In fact SoundTrap will even allow you to set up a project as a template already integrated inside a new assignment in Google Classroom (if that's what you use).

I have also started to trial a video editing program on the cloud (yes video editing on the cloud…) called WeVideo who were kind enough to give away free licences for the remainder of this year.  This is an amazing piece of software offering editing, transitions, animated text effects, multiple video tracks, audio tracks etc.  I will design a project for students after the half-term using this, but for now I am recording a documentary of my tutor group to become familiar with the process.

I am actually pretty pleased that I picked up a free enrolment to Google’s Apps for education about six years ago for the school.  Because we are such a small school I am the Google Admin, so have the freedom to ‘tweak’ the system when required.  

One aspect that we have found in implementing distance learning using our Google systems, is that some features may well work great out-of-the-packet, but some need some more serious thought in actual-life applications.

For example, I was quite eager to start using GoogleMeet (It’s pretty similar to Zoom) for tutors to do live group Video based classes with.  It is more clunky looking than Zoom, but has some great advantages if you already use the Google infrastructure. 

One idea I initially got excited about was that we could record all lessons and then make them available to students who were away for the lesson off-line.  In fact, GoogleMeet does this elegantly by recording the group video chat (on request) straight onto the cloud making a new folder on your GoogleDrive and plonking the video file right in there - easy and immediate!  However... I have now been alerted to the fact (by our brill safeguarding lead) that this is in fact against data protection regulations (Delete! Delete!).  Recordings must not contain any images or even voices of students in the class. 

Discussing this in our staff meeting we judged that the vitality and general human-beingness of seeing the group live and getting vocal feedback, and hands-up (or thumbs-up) on screen, far out-trumped making some kind of recording of just the teacher and in effect prohibiting students being able to interact with the live video-stream.  Babies and bathwater. Oh well maybe not then.  

Having said this, for our upcoming project with my tutor group I have been told that I will be able to ask parent’s specific written permission to record a ‘Memories of the Coronavirus’ documentary with students in video chat online. Just to add another layer of security during this process - interestingly, the materials recorded will remain authenticated (i.e. password protected) inside the school’s Google account at all times.  This is because once recorded from GoogleMeet (onto the cloud straight to my Google Drive), I then authenticate (using my school Google email address) into the cloud-based video editing system (WeVideo). The video is then worked on inside THAT safe authenticated cloud-based environment and finally transferred back as a final mp4 video file - directly into my own password protected GoogleDrive folder (School account again).  In this way the video file never actually sits on my own home computer at all - remaining very secure.  

Other juicy gossip about the brave new world of online learning?  I carried out an interesting exercise today asking each of my students to do a quick bandwidth test while I was teaching them online.  I now know why John (name changed due to data protection) was having problems logging in to his online coding class. He had a download bit rate of 0.1Mbps.  Not great, whereas other students closer to the town centre had healthy bit rates of 28, 37, 39Mbps. Unfortunately I live on the outskirts of town just in the countryside and am managing all my teaching on 6.2Mbps - so I feel the digital divide….

More next time when I have had time to experience three more weeks of teaching online - the goods, bads and uglies!

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