Thursday, October 05, 2006

More than a jukebox

This is my first blog post ever - yes Lucy, I’m "jumping in." One of my favorite topics is how simple innovations in digital formats for information give students new options. In this post, I'll look at how digital audio can help students who struggle with traditional print, and can give all students new ways to tell their stories.

Like music, one can download spoken books, poetry and other text from the Internet. When teachers and students use tools and collaborate to play and produce spoken material, they can create a powerful learning environment.

Inclusive classrooms use text in audio form. Books on tape and CD have been popular for many years. Listening to the beginning chapters of a book can motivate readers or help them choose a book they'd want to read. Having the spoken text available can scaffold readers as they progress through the book. Narrated stories and picture books can be found on web sites like Bookhive. Librarians are using audio titles to support English learners in projects like the Earphone English project at Berkeley High in California. Also, in some places like the Grandview Library, podcasts provide digital versions of their texts.

Students can participate and share their love of literature with others by reading aloud to different audiences. There are many class projects where students work with students in another class, preferably at a younger grade level, to select books, poems, or stories to record for audio CDs and/or as a podcast.

A large-scale collaboration based on these ideas can be found at Librivox is a new source of audio books, built one chapter a time by volunteers, who read public domain books out loud to make mp3 files that are cataloged on the site. Based on a wiki, it is an open facility with a voluntary quality review process, rather like wikipedia, with hopes to accumulate a good fraction of the vast public domain bookshelf.

The Librivox approach fills an important niche. While there are text-to-speech conversion programs available today, a natural voice can be a real help for long passages like book chapters. Whole chapters are ready for download, so they can be distributed to students on CDs or in mp3 players for use away from the computer. And while there are fee-based audio books, free sources are often helpful when funds are tight, or when a teacher wants to experiment with a new approach.

Librivox might have been possible earlier, but new technology (wikis, mp3 recording, etc.) has made it more practical. Best of all, it's embedded in a web site that offers a service, so busy teachers don't have to understand a lot of new technology to put it to use.