Blogging and Podcasting in Drama

The following article appears in MASK, the academic journal of Drama Victoria.
Author: Justin Cash

In the age of iTunes, Skype and MySpace, the traditional way we teach Drama is suddenly under threat. Our students spend a great deal of their social life communicating with their peers using various forms of Internet-based technologies.

So why are we still teaching Drama like it was 1984? If you want to connect with your students better, spice up your Drama course a little, move into the 2000’s and make Drama way cool, then embracing new technologies is your answer!

“…increasingly, universities and schools need to incorporate more of the technology used by students for social networking and entertainment into education content and delivery systems”
The Age Education Supplement (30th October 2006)

In this article, I will focus on using blogs and podcasts in Drama and along the way convince you that both of these activities are fairly easy to understand for even the most technophobe Drama teacher.

Blog, baby, blog
In the beginning there were web logs and then we saw weblogs until finally the Internet Gods settled on blogs. A strange little hybrid term, blog really means a web-based log or journal.

Blogs date back to the 1990s when they were somewhat unknown and the software controlling them, cumbersome. They began as online diaries chronicling people’s lives on a daily basis, spread into a stream of blogs on US politics and then some time around 2004, exploded into the mainstream.

Today, there are literally millions of blogs on the web on every topic imaginable. It seems the curiosity of human nature means that no matter what the subject matter of your blog, someone is going to read it.

Blogs are mostly text-based. You can add the occasional photo to a blog entry and all of a sudden it will become more appealing to your readership. But blogs that are purely image-based are known as photoblogs. There are even blogs containing video content, or vlogs.

Blog posts appear in reverse chronological order, with the most recent posts at the top. The blogging software automatically creates monthly archives (or weekly, if you prefer) in the sidebar of the blog, so visitors can readily find older posts. Blog posts can also be labeled for specific categories, dividing a blog into ordered sections.

Coloured themes (skins) can be added to blogs to make them funky and cool and a range of template designs are always available for the user. Links to related websites on the blog’s subject matter can also be added to the sidebar and photos can be easily uploaded to individual posts. All these features (and more) are easily configured by the blog administrator (you!) in a simple-to-use control panel that makes changes for you in the form of a wizard-like tool.

So the once humble Drama journal can now take place on the web in the form of a blog. They are fantastic for performance-making projects. Students can chronicle the process of a performance from the day the teacher distributed the task, through a possible research phase, scriptwriting or improvisation periods, rehearsals and finally the big performance. Blogs are the best reflective tool to use in Drama and if my own experiences are anything to go by, I guarantee you your students will love using them.

One of the best features of blogging is the ability for other users to add comments to posts. In the past two years, I have blogged with Year 10, 11 and 12 students on the web. A strong sense of collegiality has formed on each occasion, where other students have posted comments of encouragement and advice to fellow students’ blogs. These examples covered both individual and group blogs (yes, an ensemble group can keep a single blog where every member contributes posts) and even different blogs on the one website, where students from two neighbouring schools shared the same performance task (Year 12 Drama Ensemble) and commented on student blogs from the other school.

Traditionally, I loathe asking students to keep Drama journal entries after each lesson, so I haven’t requested this for some years now. But when the Drama journal takes place in the form of a blog for a project perhaps lasting only six weeks, I now request blog posts to be made by my students after each class. Here comes the fun bit! No more taking up Drama journals and hoping every student has successfully maintained one. With student blogs, I can check to see if my cherubs have done their homework from my own computer in the evenings. I can even add comments to their blogs myself, and write kind words or friendly reminders if the blog entries are not up to standard.

But how hard is the software?

Blogging software has today become a sinch for the average user. WordPress is one of the more popular software packages for blogging. If you want to start your own blog hosted on WordPress’ Interent server, then visiting www.wordpress.com is the place to go.

However, a different, multi-user version of WordPress can also be configured by your school’s IT technician to be made available for use by your students on the school Intranet, for example. If this tickles your fancy, then www.wordpress.org is where you want to send the IT people and let them do the work behind the scenes for you. In either case, WordPress blogging software is completely free.

Blogger (www.blogger.com) is one of the largest free blog hosting companies on the web. The company began in 1999 and was so successful it was acquired by Google in early 2003. It has a wide range of features and will have you up and blogging within five minutes.

If you’re after more features, but at a price, then Moveable Type (www.movabletype.org) or TypePad (www.typepad.com) can be configured on your school’s server for a monthly or annual fee.

Vineblog it!

But best of all, Drama Australia and Drama Victoria have joined forces this year to bring you a Drama teacher and student blogging community, free of charge. You can find dozens of drama-based blogs from all levels of education at Vineblogs (vineblogs.net). We encourage you to visit the site and get your students to start up their own blogs for their next Drama project. It’s much more personal for your Drama students than just going to Blogger and being one of five thousand blogs started that day. At Vineblogs, everyone is blogging about Drama and nothing else!

But before you start…

A word of warning, though, if you want to join the blogging revolution with your students in Drama class. There are three areas of concern with blogs today: privacy, appropriate content and copyright.

Especially in a school setting, it might prove worthwhile to run your blogging ideas past your school principal first (well, I did). Checking privacy permissions and perhaps even receiving parental permission is a good idea before you start. Blogs are great for posting accompanying images of Drama class rehearsals etc., but these images of course must be appropriate and those individuals in the photos should have their permission sought before posting. After all, once posted, they will be on the web for anyone in the world to see.

Before blogging, I always remind my students of the rules. Some of these include no swearing (not negotiable) and no sledging of fellow students (or the teacher, for that matter!) because anyone in the class c
an read blog posts. As their teacher, I perform random checks from time to time, acting as a moderator of their blog content, to see only suitable material is being posted. You can always ask for each student’s login name and password, so you can edit material on their blogs. My experience, however, is that if the rules are understood by all in advance, few students choose to break them because they are having way too much fun blogging their Drama homework to even think about ruining the process!

Copyright is another issue for bloggers. Technically, it is not acceptable to simply post images grabbed from other websites without their permission, because this is an infringement of copyright. But there is one thing I neither encourage nor discourage, but rather see if it emerges, and that is SMS or chat room speak. Abbreviated words etc. are a part of our students’ culture and while we may initially cringe at this anti-academic form of language, it is important we respect it on blogs. If our students want to enjoy the process, we should allow them this minor freedom.

If you want an indication of how your students may react to blogging in Drama, one of my Year 10 students this year wrote on her blog ‘The Internet and blogging. Homework just doesn’t get any better than this!’

What the hell’s a podcast?

The notion of podcasting dates back to the year 2000 and the term was officially coined in early 2004. As it is a hybrid of the words iPod and broadcast, unfortunately, today this means many people think you need an Apple iPod to podcast. This in fact is not the case. Technically, a podcast will play on your home or work computer, but if you want the file to be mobile, any MP3 player will suffice.

A podcast involves a multimedia file. In the vast majority of cases, these are audio files and mostly in the MP3 format. There are, however, video and image podcasts as well.

The true spirit of podcasting includes something known as syndication, mostly in the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) format, where someone hosts the file and users from all over the world freely subscribe to current and future editions of the program via a feed. For instance, I subscribe to The Law Report on ABC Radio because my friend Damien Carrick runs the show. Each week, the program is automatically downloaded to my home computer once I launch iTunes (the software program, not the website of the same name).

But one of the main problems with podcasting is that the technology is not as simplified as, for example, the blogging software today. There are still too many steps in the process of making a podcast, publishing the file and getting it syndicated across the Internet to make it fully accessible to the masses.

So, in this article, I intend to show you how to create the easiest of podcasts and the syndication step will be ignored. To begin with, think of your podcast as a radio program. Then think of your Drama students’ digital accessories and the faithful MP3 player is still one of their coolest. Now think of delivering Drama class theory content in the form of an MP3 file and all of a sudden Drama is their coolest subject at school, because their teacher is podcasting!

What program do I use?

If you’re a Windows user, the easiest program to use to create your first podcast is Audacity. This free software package can be downloaded by searching for it at www.download.com. Although there is also a Mac version of Audcaity, Mac users swear by GarageBand, a program that used to be pay-for, but these days is bundled for free with recent versions of the Mac operating system. GarageBand also has dozens of free sound loops you can drag into the interface and use as filler breaks in between segments of your spoken audio program.

The trick with podcasting is not to make it a 50-minute program. 15 minutes or less is more like it. With both Audacity and GarageBand, you’ll either need to use your computer’s built-in microphone or go purchase a $30 microphone and headset from somewhere like Dick Smith Electronics (there’ll be a socket to plug in the jack on your computer). Sometimes, built-in mikes can make you sound like you’re in a tin can though, so test it out first. Both these programs are relatively easy to use, but you may need to look up the odd help file and do a web search for some assistance. Basically, you are recording your own voice for playback.

Without sounding like Captain Obvious, the subject matter of your podcast will need to be written in advance of recording, so first write that script!

Both Audacity and GarageBand will save your file in different formats and from here you can mostly export them as WAV files. But follow the steps below to change your audio file to MP3 format, making your podcast accessible to the most users and the most audio players.

Let’s say your finished audio file is in WAV format. Download from www.apple.com the iTunes program, if you don’t already have it. Drag your file into the iTunes window. Highlight the file. Once highlighted, go to the ‘Advanced’ menu at the top and scroll down to ‘convert selection to…’. Select it and in the drop down menu change the conversion to MP3. Now convert your WAV audio recording to MP3 and iTunes does the work for you in a very quick amount of time. It has now created a duplicate version of the file in MP3 format, which you’ll need to find in iTunes. To ensure you have the correct version, right click on the file in iTunes and select ‘Get Info’ to see you have the MP3 version. From here, work out exactly which folder it is where iTunes saves the files on your computer’s hard drive, find the file in question and transfer it to a USB or burn it to CD.

There’s no need for your students to subscribe to your podcast or for you to syndicate it across the Internet. You simply want to give the file to your IT technicians at school and ask them to upload it to the school’s server. Whatever you named the file (eg. dramanotes.mp3) is what you create a hyperlink for on a page on the school Intranet, once the file has been uploaded to the school’s server.

Of course, at this point it is anticipated that your students will be able to access the page in question, preferably via password login at home (I created a link on the e-learning program Moodle, already placed on our school server). Once your students can access the audio file, left-clicking it will launch the file in the computer’s default audio program. But by right-clicking the link, a student can ‘save file as’ to their computer desktop. From here, they plug in their MP3 player’s USB link and sync the file, transferring it from the computer to the portable MP3 player. Now all they do is go for a walk and listen to your Drama podcast on their iPod (or similar)!

After my first (rudimentary) podcast on how to create a solo performance in Drama, my students offered me formal feedback. Many of them commented on how they enjoyed the variety offered in delivery of class content, as they were so ‘over’ getting handouts in class from other teachers. Others enjoyed the fact that they could do something else while listening to it (even exercise biking!), some commented on the replay value of a podcast to digest the information better, including the fast forward and back functions. Others said they took notes on it, but weren’t too fussed by this and most said they found it informative and worthwhile for their learning.

Most importantly, even the simplest of podcasts is embracing a new technology many of our students are already to some extent familiar with. It is another method of delivering Drama class content and in my experience, a method your students will thoroughly enjoy. As for blogging, it is more than ju
st another method of delivering content. Blogs can be both an academic and social tool in Drama, helping create an environment that fosters healthy communication and collegiality among your students.

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