Thursday, 5 March 2009
Easi-speak - a road test
I related my first impressions of the Easi-Speak back in mid-February. Well last week we took a bunch of year 3 children (aged 7 and 8) to Norwich market where, armed with the little USB recording microphones, they interviewed some of the stallholders. We had split into seven groups, each with a microphone. I know for a fact that in some groups the adult took charge of the microphone and in others the children took turns holding it. At the end of the day I took all the microphones home and downloaded the resulting files onto my computer.
Of the seven groups, three had recorded WAV files and three had recorded mp3 files and one group hadn't recorded anything at all. One of the mp3 groups managed to record five files, one of which was eight seconds long, the others all four seconds or less and none of them containing anything of any worth. Another group presented me with 21 files, only eight of which was over ten seconds in length. One of those eight was eight minutes long. Another group gave me one file only that was nearly ten minutes long.
Looking at the files themselves there was no appreciable difference in quality between the WAVs and the mp3s. No great surprise there: these were hardly laboratory conditions. As far as content was concerned this varied considerably. The children understood speaking into a microphone (although not the fact that putting it right up to your mouth will cause distortion). But they hadn't got the hang of pointing it at the interviewee when s/he is answering a question. Getting a usable result from this kind of file involves a large amount of time with a wave form editor to reduce the disparity between levels and remove sudden bangs and pops. What was very pleasing, though, was the way in which the microphones responded to being hand-held: there was no undue hand-generated noise.
Perhaps what was most frustrating was the tendency for many budding sound recordists to press the record button repeatedly in an absent minded fashion, thus switching the recording on and off. This led to the many unusable fragments of just a few seconds in length alluded to above.
Why didn't I provide proper training for both staff and pupils in the use of these gadgets before embarking on the trip? Before you castigate me for this please hear my feeble excuses. Firstly, had I not managed to borrow one previously from another school I would have had no idea at all how the Easi-Speak worked. Secondly, my first contact with these children was a short, 'get-to-know-you' session the afternoon before the trip. In the firm belief that one learns fastest from one's mistakes I offer the following advice based on my experience:
1. Give the children, and staff, adequate training in the use of the Easi-Speak itself. This should include switching on and off, recording and playback. It should also include switching between mp3 and WAV file formats. The display is limited to one LED and it is important to know what its various signals are trying to convey. Allow plenty of time for this familiarisation process.
2. Make sure the staff know how to charge the microphones and how to download and manage files.
3. Familiarise the children, and adults, in microphone technique. This can be done in the classroom and the results of 'interviews' quickly listened to and discussed
4. Make sure the memory of the Easi-Speak has been wiped clean before embarking on your project, be it in school or in the field. The first thing I had to do on encountering the files at the end of the day was determine which were from the trip and which from previous use of the gadget.
5. Number each microphone prior to issue with masking tape. Alternatively hide a small slip of paper in the cap covering the USB plug at the base. That will allow you to address any shortcomings in technique with the relevant people after the session.
In spite of all its shortcomings, along with my own, I found the whole exercise immensely satisfying for the following reasons:
1. The Easi-Speak, at the very least, was a great confidence booster. It enabled kids with issues around vocabulary and self-expression to ask questions of complete strangers.
2. In spite of all I've said above we did come away with some usable (after a little work) material of great value. If I can square it with the school I'll try and post some of it in the future.
3. When I take out some nine and ten year olds from another school with Easi-Speaks next week I will know what I'm doing.
4. The response of the market traders to the children was a joy to witness. They were very generous of themselves and of their time. The kids even came away with sweets and bunches of flowers. A heart-warming day all round.
5. And finally, it really is a very handy piece of kit.