When I started this journey, I got comments from wide and far, ranging from: “Are you crazy?” to “”Really out there!” Some people just looked at me and shook their head (like when you look at someone on their way to a mental institution.) Luckily I was too busy running around trying to get things organized to take much notice!
Podcasting as an educational tool, something that could be used to support and scaffold students with special learning and developmental…that was the dream. We wanted to trial various kinds of podcasts with students with Autism, to see if the students could become more independent, and more engaged in the world around them. This would free up the teachers because they did not have to be there to tell the student what was happening or about to happen, the whole time. Students would also be able to use technology instead of paper copies of “photo stories”, which would be a significant improvement as the paper versions could get ruined and then had to be made again, while the templates of the podcasts could be kept online and used over and again with only small adaptations. Students and teachers would also learn a new skill that could be transferred and used in other situations in the real, out-of-school world.
During the trial, we used several approaches to see what would work and what should be tweaked:
- Podcasts consisting only of music to relax the students, and lower their levels of anxiety. This worked remarkably well:
- In one instance, a student got news that one of his friends was taken to hospital unexpectedly. He immediately asked his aide if he could listen to his MP3 player. Before listening to the music, the student spoke in short bursts and sounded breathless. He was standing up and looked visibly anxious. He could not verbalize his sentences properly, and so was allowed to get the MP3 player and listen for about five minutes. After the time spent listening to the music, he was much more relaxed. He was able to smile, said he felt “good”, was able to speak more coherently and sat down quietly.
- Another student was allowed to listen to the music when he became anxious in class. (Autistic students struggle with changes in routine and activity. This student struggles to stay on task for long, and struggles to engage in new activities when the previous activity finishes.) Before listening to the music, the student was extremely energetic. He could not make eye contact, could not speak coherently, did not smile, made noises, was moving around with his feel off the ground and his arms flailing. During the podcast, he sat quietly, and was able to look at the teacher. After listening for about five minutes, he was sitting with his feet on the ground, arms folded. He made eye contact when speaking, smiled, made a few jokes, spoke in sentences, did not make any noises, and was willing to go back into the class.
- Music was also used to “buffer” students from noises in the environment. One example where it helped the student to become more independent and more engaged in the world around him, was when the students went on a school camp. The autistic student was able to sit in a very noisy take-away outlet, with the rest of the school group, while listening to the music. This is rare for this student, as loud noise and public places usually present this student with situations where he is unable to interact or stay with his peers.
- School rules and expectations: One student participating in the trial, has problems with his conduct and behaviour in the school yard during recess and lunch. The teacher made a podcast containing information about the school expectations and rule, and socially acceptable behaviour and conduct when out in the yard. As this student also struggles with low self esteem, the teacher included a few pointers in the podcast about the student having to believe in himself, and being someone’s friend. It ends with some cool music. This student went from about four incidents in the yard per week, to none. The only day when an incident occurred after the introduction of the podcasts, was when the teacher forgot to play the podcast to the student before he went outside.
- Another kind of podcast trialled, was one where the students were presented with information:
- Information about regular events like the daily timetable. The timetable was presented in electronic format, so the students did not have to deal with the traditional paper version. (These paper stories were usually at a high risk of being torn up by the students, and so the electronic version was much better in the sense that the teachers could use it over and again.) It is also very easy to make small changes to the “template” of the podcast, so the teachers could whip up a changed timetable podcast with little effort and time spent. Students quickly learnt to listen to the podcasts instead of using the paper stories, which made it easy to take the information with them when they went on the school camp.
- Information about major new events like the school camp. Students all used the same podcast. They were able to take it home with them to listen to during the afternoon and evening before the camp. The podcast contained information about what kinds of activities the students would participate in, where they would stay, etc. The students then went on the camp. One specific student was able to stay on the camp without ever asking where they were or what was happening, the first time this has happened during school camps. Other students asked to listen to the podcast again during the camp, instead of asking the teachers where they were going. This clearly indicated a more independent and pro-active approach to the activities, by the students.
- Information about unexpected events: As the students struggle to cope with changes in their routine, it presents a problem when a member of staff is sick. The students does not like this, and they continually ask where that member of staff is. Now the teachers make a quick podcast to say that they are going to be absent (if they know before the time), or other teachers make a quick podcast saying the teacher (with a photo of the absent teacher on the screen) will be sick for the whole day. Kids listen to it before the day begins. The students then don’t ask for the absent teacher during the day.
- Information to guide students during everyday events: Podcasts to support students with appropriate behaviour when shopping, e.g. when walking to the Milkbar and back to school, and shopping at Coles. The podcasts contain information about what the students will do on their trips, and how they should act and behave.
- One teacher made a podcast containing information (photos and images) of the whole school. This will be used to introduce new students and parents to the school. It will also be on the school website.
What else did we learn?
We made some significant discoveries relating to student engagement, student independence, student pro-active behaviour, lowering stress levels and promoting more acceptable behaviours. Students can become more relaxed, more engaged in class, and focus better, when presented with the choice to use podcasts. They can also become more engaged in their environment and world outside of school, and interact better with their peers and other members of society.
Teachers found the podcasting easy to do, and were surprised at how quickly they learnt how to use the equipment. Likewise, they reported that the students adapted to the use of the equipment really quickly, and some students were able to work with the MP3 players independently.
Most of the students were able to tolerate the headsets, and enjoyed listening to the sounds and looking at the photos. Some students did not adapt to using the small earpieces, so these were replaced by normal, big, cushiony headsets. (This was also a more hygienic option, as students had to share the headsets.) We would also recommend that all MP3 players be covered by a skin, and if possible, attached to a string that can be hung around the neck. We also ensured that all the players and the little bits and pieces going with them, were numbered and put into pencil cases. A system of “signing out” and “signing in” the players was introduces in the classrooms, to ensure the students kept all the pieces together in the pencil cases.
Advice to others
- Allow for more time (more than one term) if you want to get a trial like this under way, with a view of embedding the use of podcasting throughout the school. I involved a few members of staff, and all of them had basic computer skills, but not enough to get going with vodcasting from week one. I had to train the staff first (which involved preparing a PD and handouts, as well as negotiating time release for all the staff and organizing CRT’s to cover their time), and it also took some time to get all the necessary equipment to our rural setting. As all of these things took time, we only started the trials around week 4, which then left us with only six weeks, (of which one was a camp and the kids were out of school.)
- Ensure that you have protocols around the use of the equipment, and how teachers and students will access it. Set these protocols before starting the trials, and ensure all the parties involved are aware of the protocols and how to apply them.
- Ensure you get the necessary permission from parents, students (older than 18) and staff, e.g. to video them.
- Ensure you have benchmark data before you start.
- Ensure you collect and keep evidence of progress along the way. I found video a very useful tool, as it could capture a moment, and could be used during teacher interviews, and edited later.
- Celebrate small successes along the way.
- Don’t start with podcasts bigger than Ben Hur. Start small, but get going as soon as you can. The more you practice podcasting, the easier it becomes. It does not have to be perfect, it just has to be there to be used.
- If you want to use music in the podcasts, make sure about the copyright surrounding these musical interludes. Websites like Incompetech.com provides Royalty Free music provided that you give the creator of the music recognition in the podcast, and that you use the podcast for educational purposes. When in doubt, contact the Knowledge Bank New Generation experts, or create your own music instead.
- It is easy to create vodcasts with programs like PhotoStory and MovieMaker. View the videos I uploaded to TeacherTube to see how to go about doing this (http://www.teachertube.com/view_video.php?viewkey=8e5cb99138c2dec5786f, the title of this video is: A Slideshow on Converting videos from wmv or avi to mp4, my TeacherTube name is Maryna.)
- You can see an example of the first trial with podcasting and Autistic students, on TeacherTube: Name of Video: Autism and Podcasting: http://www.teachertube.com/view_video.php?viewkey=3cb9182204c6d92d0b37)
- Let the community know, e.g. tell the staff what’s happening during staff meetings, tell the principal regularly how the trials are progressing, contact the local newspaper, put an article in the school newsletter, post something on the school website, invite parents to come and see what the kids are doing with the podcasts, tell your colleagues outside of the school, tell the coaches working in other schools, start a blog page, tell your Twitter friends, post evidence on TeacherTube, etc. The more you let others in on the event, the more support you will get, and hopefully, the easier it will be to ensure you get continued support and even funding in the future!
- Value the efforts of other members of staff. If they have done something to support your trial, give them recognition in the form of a thank you note or some cake during morning tea. For those members of staff participating in the trial, make sure you give them something they can connect to their performance review, or a certificate to put in their resume.
Please visit my blog page marynabadenhorst.globalteacher.org/podcasting-my-journey, for regular updates on the trials, examples of podcasts and videos of teachers and students.