Sunday, May 15, 2005

Podcasting with Audacity

I'm up in Anchorage, working with a variety of people on Digital Storytelling. Last week, I met with my daughter's 8th Grade Language Arts classes, and gave them a brief introduction to Digital Family Stories. Tomorrow, we start constructing their own digital stories. Yesterday, I worked with a colleague and a young mother, to help them both begin the process of recording their stories. One had been working on her story for several months; the other for just a day. By the end of the day, they both had recorded their stories, adding a music track, and were ready to add images to the timeline of their video editors.

I was a little out of my comfort zone, mostly because I was helping them use software that I don't normally use (Audacity and MovieMaker2) on a platform I normally don't use (Windows XP). So, we plunged in together, learning as we went along, making the usual mistakes, and referring to the online reference manual only when we were desperate. By the end of the day, we produced what I suppose is called a "Podcast" file...a digital audio clip suitable for use in a variety of formats, including a digital story, a website, or an iPod or MP3 player.

I had seen Audacity before, but normally use Sound Studio on my Mac to record audio. We normally record each paragraph of a story as a separate file, and then place them in order on one audio track of the movie editor's timeline. On the second audio track, we place the music, and adjust the volume so that it doesn't overpower the voice. But since we were working in MovieMaker2, the free software that comes with Windows XP, we only had one sound track available. So we had to construct the sound track outside of the movie editor. That's why I plunged into learning Audacity.

Audacity is free, open source software, available for Mac OS X, Windows or even Linux. Once I experimented a few times, I determined how to work around the limitations of the software to meet our needs. For example, after recording a track, when you record a second track, it places it in the same file, at the beginning, so that both tracks play simultaneously. Maybe there is a setting I don't know how to change, but we figured out that if you open a new file, record the second clip, select all of it and copy it, you can paste it at the end of the timeline of the first clip (a process we repeated until the story was complete). Within about an hour, both women had their 3 minute stories recorded, paragraph by paragraph. Adding the music was another challenge, but I was able to import a second track in Audacity, and lower the volume under the voice-over track, and produce a final audio file that included both narration and music.

Why am I struggling with free software for this task? Why not purchase software that will do the job more effectively (and also, why not just use iMovie on a Mac???)? For the simple reason that I am working with novices who already have Windows XP computers, and they just want to get started learning the digital storytelling process. Rather than making an investment in new software, which has a higher learning curve (and level of frustration), we chose to use what they had, or could download for free. I warned them about the limitations of the tools, and that they might outgrow the software very soon, but I wanted them to have a successful first experience. Of course, I may grumble later about the difficulty of publishing these movies to more accessible formats, like DVD, but that will be all part of the learning process.

I have been having a debate with other digital storytellers about the pros and cons of using the more high end tools (Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, Pinnacle Studio, etc.). Those are all what I would call "pro-sumer" tools: lots of capability, but with complexity comes confusion and frustration at the beginning of the learning process. And since I began my career studying how people teach themselves how to use personal computers, I know that a positive first experience is important, and the ability to intuitively explore a tool contributes to the process of self-directed learning. One of my mantras (from my dissertation) is, "When learning new tools, use familiar tasks, and when learning new tasks, use familiar tools." When we make it too hard, we turn off the beginners. My goal is to get them excited about what they have achieved, and to understand the process, so that they can transfer that enthusiasm and awareness to more advanced tools when they are ready.

I am convinced that philosophy works with adult learners. This week, I will have an opportunity to test it out with 8th graders. Stay tuned (and wish me luck!)!

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