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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Bypassing DRM

There’s a lot of talk in the music industry about how to protect music from copyright infringement and illegal use. Record companies as a whole were fairly slow to give in to the whole music download idea because they see it as a threat to their empires… for years the record companies had an exclusive stronghold on the production and distribution of music. As the world has gotten flatter and the gap between an idea in a musician’s head and the release of that musical idea to a waiting public has gotten smaller, cheaper and easier, the role of the record company has shrunk in importance.

So as we’ve witnessed the rise of digital music across the Internet, we’ve also seen the record companies fight tooth and nail to hang on their ivory towers. They’ve used their legal muscle to crush filesharing services like Napster and Morpheus, while others such as Limewire have so far somehow managed to avoid being taken down. The reasoning goes that if people are allowed to share music files with each other then they won’t buy CDs and the artists can’t get paid. (Perhaps more importantly, the record company execs won’t be able to afford a new Lexus.) Truth be told, if anything, people seem to be listening to more music than ever, and across a much wider range of musical styles and tastes. In that sense, there are plenty of bands and musicians for whom the ability to distribute their music digitally without the interference of the big record companies has meant they actually get their music out to more people, not less. And not just for free either… for many musicians that extra exposure means they end up selling more of their music as well.

So a couple of years ago Apple comes along with iTunes and says, “Hey, let’s do this right… let’s create a huge online collection of music, let’s charge people a fair price for each song (US99 cents), and let’s put a DRM in place that is actually fair and reasonable.” DRM, or Digital Rights Management, means that each song file has metadata embedded into it that makes the file self-aware – it knows what devices it lives on, knows how many times it has been burnt to CD, and keeps track of its own usage. The Apple DRM, called Fairplay, was quite a coup and I’m sure that getting the record companies to agree with it was somewhat due to the infamous Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field – a name given to the way that Jobs always seems to be able to convince people to believe things and do things that they would never have imagined they’d agree to.

Apple’s lead with iTunes was followed (as usual) by others, such as Rhapsody, The Zune Marketplace, Amazon, and a host of other operations that now sell music legally. By and large these online music stores are profitable and seem to sell a lot of music. If you walk into any classroom though, and ask the kids how many of the songs they have on their MP3 players have been bought, it is a tiny percentage. Mostly they just look at you with a confused expression and say “How many have I bought? Why would want to do that when I can just download them off the Net for free?”

DRM prevents music files from being endlessly shared. After a certain number of sharings, or a certain number of plays, or after being placed on a certain number of devices, the files just stop working. That won’t make the kids happy but it should keep the record companies happy, and more importantly the artists get paid and so keep making music.

However, the songs that are floating around the Net’s many filesharing services at the moment are generally devoid of any DRM. They CAN be copied and shared an infinite number of times, if not legally then at least without any real technical barriers to doing so. So if the songs “out there” in cyberspace are not DRMed, and are open to illegal sharing, then where do they come from?

And then tonight, as I was ripping one of my CDs into iTunes so I could listen to it on my iPod, it struck me that the source of all these illegal files is probably the very same place that the record companies are desperately trying to hang onto… CDs.

The irony is that if record companies would drop the whole CD distribution model and just accept – no, embrace – the digital downloading of music then all the music files in cyberspace would eventually be DRMed, since the source for non-DRM files would basically dry up. Would you share your DRMed music? I’m not sure I would want to share my legal music collection over a filesharing network if I knew that I would be giving away the rights to listen to it myself. As long as the record companies insist on hanging onto the control of their market and insist on selling musical bytes encoded onto plastic disks which they seem to feel are more real and therefore easier to control, but much easier to rip as non-DRMed files for sharing online, then we should continue to have an ongoing source for non-DRMed music.

Let’s hope they never wake up to this.

An Invasion of Armies Can be Resisted…

…but not an idea whose time has come, wrote Victor Hugo.

I just read a wonderful post over on the Fischbowl blog about a school ban on the use of certain “electronic devices” in class. The school I’m currently teaching at has just implemented a similar policy… and I think it sucks.

I was quite horrified when I heard the “new rule” for the start of the school year at my school here in Canada…

“No iPods, Cellphones or other electronic devices in class at any time”.

I can see little point in introducing rules that clearly cannot be enforced. I approached the vice principal after our first staff meeting and quizzed him about it, pointing out that I felt there were many educationally sound uses of an iPod in class, from class podcast projects to their use as a portable harddrive to some quiet private music to work to without bothering the rest of the class. He nodded sagely and said that of course, if it was for educational purposes it would be ok.

So what constitutes an “educational use” of these devices in the eyes of the administration? Apparently not very much, as we get reminded every morning that these devices of the devil are NOT to be in any classrooms.  In my opinion, any use of these devices that makes the classroom a better place to be or for learning to be made more effective, relevant or just plain enjoyable counts as an educational use. I really don’t think many teachers would be prepared to tolerate too many ongoing “un-educational” uses of them, such as having kids blasting music into their heads while the teacher was trying to explain something to the class.

But other than that, what really is the problem? Can’t teachers, if they see the MP3 player being used in a disruptive or annoying way, just say so to the kid and use it as a chance to impart a little “learning experience” about appropriate behaviour and appropriate uses of the device?

By placing a blanket ban on iPods and cell phones and “any other electronic device” (whatever that means), the administration sets themselves up for failure, or at least an ongoing battle that they will ever really win.