iTunes is your friend

I really like iTunes. It’s a wonderful piece of software that just works as expected and does it’s job really well.

I’ve been asked to talk at the PowerUp conference on the Gold Coast this weekend and was given an open opportunity to talk about whatever I wanted. Although I think the Web 2.0 story is the one most people still need to hear, the general feeling was that there were already plenty of people talking about web 2.0 stuff, so something a bit different would be good. (Besides, my other session will be about web 2.0 stuff anyway, looking at tools for collaboration)

I’m a bit wary of being caught out without Internet access when I present… I’ve been in situations before where I was told there would be access, where there was access, where I should have been able to get access, but for whatever reason the firewall gods were not smiling upon me and I had none. I don’t expect that to be the case this weekend, and of course I plan to present it live… but I’m starting to learn to cover my bases and to that end I’ve been making a few screencasts using iShowU, capturing those portions of my presentations that require access to the cloud. Just in case.

So if you’re interested, here is part of my presentation about iTunes. I thought this stuff was kind of obvious but I’ve spoken to many people lately who still haven’t got their head around this stuff.

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Pimp my Video

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There is obviously a great deal of interest among teachers regarding the possible educational uses of online video sharing sites such as YouTube and Google Video. Tons of new copycat services are popping up all over the web, with cryptic Web2.o names like iFilm, Viddler, Viddyou, Umundo and even the unambiguously named TeacherTube. It’s clear that the use of short video snippets is proving very popular with lots of people.

I attended a workshop a few years ago where I heard a talk by Hall Davidson. If you’ve not heard of Hall Davidson before he is the guy behind United Streaming, which I understand has since been acquired by Discovery Learning. Hall was really pushing this notion of giving teachers and kids access to short, sharp, to-the-point video clips in order to engage the learner and effectively impart a specific concept. He proposed that video was an exceptionally powerful medium, but that we don’t need to sit a class in front of a TV to watch a full 60 minute documentary (which is typically what we do in schools!) He contended that all you really needed to be effective was a few relevant 30-60 second video clips which conveyed the key points of the lesson, a means of delivering them on-demand, and a teacher who could tie the key ideas together. Video, he said, is exceptionally powerful, and he made the point that when cigarette advertising was phased out several years ago, the first thing to be outlawed was TV advertising. Print media advertising for cigarettes took far longer to be eliminated, his basic point being that when governments legislated against cigarette advertising they shut the door on the most powerful medium first, because video was capable of getting the message across far more effectively than print.

Regardless of whether you accept his contention or not, it would be hard to argue against the idea that video is certainly a powerful medium by which to carry a message. “Give me 60 seconds of the right video footage and I can teach you anything”, he said. The first time I was really struck by the power of this statement was at a staff meeting in my Canadian school where the head of the science department was giving a SmartBoard demonstration to the rest of the teachers. He was explaining how he was trying to teach the kids about basic Newtonian physics and to begin the lesson he pointed his web browser to YouTube and showed a short, sub-60 second video of a motorcycle accelerating down a highway. “Thats what acceleration looks like!” he announced. It made the point powerfully, setting the stage for a discussion about the nature of acceleration and the laws that govern moving objects.

Since then, I’ve been quite a fan of YouTube. I’ve found and shown short time-lapse videos of portrait drawing to my art classes, helping them see some of the drawing techniques that are sometimes hard to explain otherwise. I’ve discovered all sorts of snippets of footage that can be enormously helpful in engaging and explaining key ideas to my kids.

The only thing I don’t always like about these online services is just that… they are online. Sometimes relying on the vagaries of our school’s bandwidth can be a risky exercise when you walk into class and want it to “just work”. So what I was really interested in was a way of getting the video off YouTube and onto my hard drive. Doing this is not as obvious as it seems, since most of these video sites provide the content in Flash’s .flv format, which arrives at your machine as a stream, not a file. I would ideally like to get copies of these videos as stand-alone movies files – ideally QuickTime – so I can reuse and repurpose them as I need offline.

From the number of times I’ve been asked about this and the interest in the idea whenever I bring it up at conferences, it appears this same question is on a lot of other people’s minds as well, so I was keen to find a solution. Sure enough, there are several. The first way I was solving this was to use a Firefox Add-On called Unplug. Unplug can identify the media files on a page and strip them as standalone .flv files. Doing this, I now had a copy of the file in .flv format. But I wanted it in QuickTime. Behold a very useful Mac application called VisualHub which can convert pretty much any video format to any other video format. Drop in the .flv file and out pops a .mov file. Nice! If you’re a Windows user you can get nearly the same result from another free app called Freez flv2avi.

That was all fine, and many people I mentioned Unplug to were excited to hear there was a solution. However, it wasn’t until I sat down with another teacher the other day to show him how to do this task, that I realised just how much the average user struggles with the idea of multistep tasks where you have to flip around from one app to another. The thought of downloading with one application, using an extension app, swapping to another converter app, etc, is just more fiddly than some people are willing to put up with.

And then I found Vixy. What a cool tool is this! Vixy is simply a website that lets you paste in the URL of the site which contains the desired video footage, then it does an immediate conversion task on the file and allows you to download the converted video file to your computer. You get a choice of formats, it’s fast and it’s free and it’s all Web 2.0.

Once you have the video in the desired format, you can now start to reuse and repurpose it as you see fit. Drop it into a PowerPoint slide. Add it to a movie project. Copy it to your iPod.  It’s all good! Thanks Vixy!

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Running for Someone Else's Life

I’ve taken up running lately. That might not sound very impressive to you, but as a childhood asthmatic who could never even run 100 metres without falling in a heap, the fact that I can now run for over 5km (and improving all the time) is a big deal for me. I don’t know what happened over the last few years, but my asthma just sort of got better and now I can do all sorts of things that I was never really able to do before… I like it!

Of course, technology has played a big part in keeping me motivated too. Since I discovered the joy of the Nike+iPod combination I’ve found it much easier to stay focussed and motivated about running. For those that don’t know about this little gem of technology, the Nike+ kit comprises of a sensor that goes in or on your shoe and a receiver that connects to your ipod Nano. The sensor contains an accelerometer which detects your footsteps, reports them wirelessly to the receiver which then calculates your statistics as you run. Because the system knows your average stride distance, the sensor counts your steps and works out your distance and pace per kilometre, as well as keeping time and calculating average calorie burn. You load the Nano up with your favourite tunes, start recording your run stats and off you go. It’s amazing just how more motivating it is to have some music to run to, and to be able to collect your stats and monitor your progress when you get back home.

When I get back from a run I just connect the iPod to my computer and all the run data is dumped right back into iTunes, where it is then automatically passed through to the Nike+ website where all the data is stored and managed online. From this site I can go back through my previous records, analyse my performances over time, map the running routes I’m using, set personal goals, and even challenge other Nike+ users to run against me. Linda and I are actually having a little contest at the moment to see who can get to 100k first… I’ve discovered we may be on two different continents but we both have a very competitive streak!

On an educational note, I showed the Nike+iPod to some of our PhysEd staff the other day and they told me that they do a whole unit of work where the students have to exercise and monitor their progress… they mused on just how great it would be to use this sort of technology in the classroom. And why not? Why not have a class set of Nike+ kits? Why not load them up with music that the kids would enjoy exercising to and set them on a challenging exercise program for a few weeks. Why not loan them out through the library perhaps? The end result is that kids are exercising, having fun and meeting some of their learning outcomes in the process. I think it’s a great idea…

Now, I have a favour to ask…

Because I can be a little obsessive when I do new things, I’ve also entered a couple of community fun-run events. The main one I’m doing in a few weeks is a 16k event to help raise money for research into MS. MS is a terrible disease that affects way too many people, and I like the idea that I can be doing something I enjoy while helping raise money to improve the lives of other people. I have a goal to raise $2000 in the next few weeks, and although I have a long way to go yet I think it’s quite achievable. The MS people have some excellent fundraising tools these days, including a personal fundraising website for every person who enters their events. I was further encouraged today when I got a newsletter from the MS organisers with a list of the top fundraisers and I was pleasantly surprised to see I was ranked number 9 in NSW! Of course, that competitive streak in me means I would like to be ranked even higher still!

So here’s my request… I know there are a lot of people who read this blog regularly, and I hope you’ve gotten something out of it over the last year or so that I’ve been writing it. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it, but now it’s my turn to ask for something back in return. If you feel like supporting a very worthy cause, may I suggest you head over to the website at and make a donation. It doesn’t have to be big, but I know that it every little bit would help make a big difference to people suffering from MS. I think it would be kind of cool to get a nice boost in my fundraising from this wonderful web community of which I so love being a part. Besides that, the money goes to a great cause and it would be kind of cool to show how just a handful of voices in the blogging community can make a big difference.

I hope you can help out…

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