Programming Historian in the Classroom: Audio Editing and Audacity

This week I worked with Chris Elias’s American Studies class (AMST 115) on how to approach creating a podcast. They’ve been assigned a 7-10 minute podcast on the historical social context of a song of their choice as their term project. The assignment is scaffolded over the last half of term (at Carleton we’re on 10 week terms), so that students build toward being able to compose a solid podcast.

This is Week 2 of term, and Chris wanted the class to get an early start on learning the technical workflow side of podcasting to better alleviate some of that end-of-term panic and crush. I turned to one of my favorite resources (disclaimer: I helped edit this lesson): Brandon Walsh’s Programming Historian tutorial on Editing Audio with Audacity. I appreciate how the tutorial breaks down a workflow into manageable sections (working with audacity, recording audio, editing audio, and exporting), and Audacity appealed for the class since it is free, open source, and cross-platform. Here’s how I adapted it for in-class instruction and some of the things I learned along the way:

LOGISTICS

I had 1 class session (60 mins) and I set out 2 main goals:

  1. students would be able to find an existing audio file, record themselves for 10-20 seconds, and edit the two files together AND
  2. students would have a deeper sense of what the resources are (via the library, Internet Archive, Audacity’s wiki, Google) that can help them for their eventual podcast by using them in class.

I sent out a technology survey before the class met to gauge what kinds of experience and equipment students were comfortable with. For the class, we met in a lab that has dual boot computers so students could use the operating system they’re familiar with. We also provided headphones and audio recorders for students, as needed.

IN CLASS

  • Since students would have to select what audio to include in the podcasts, I wanted to give them an early opportunity to practice searching instead of using the audio file provided by the ProgHist tutorial. We started off with ~15 minutes in Internet Archive finding songs available for download and reuse–I made sure to stress that they should pick something they like because they’d be listening to it for the next hour! We also talked about file formats.
  • Because we were in a computer lab, and because many students did not/were not able to bring laptops, we couldn’t do the section of the tutorial where you record directly into Audacity. For the next ~15 minutes, students used the digital audio recorders and/or their phones to record. Since the lab is in a basement next door to my office, I offered my office as a quiet space for recording and let the students know there were lots of quiet nooks down the hallway as well.
  • The next ~25 minutes went to importing all relevant files into Audacity and starting to edit the audio. Here, I pointed students directly to the “editing audio” and “exporting” sections of the ProgHist tutorial and students were able to start digging into the editing process. Students got a lot out of the tutorial, and started to help each other navigate the interface and find things like the “time-shift” tool and the Effects menu. There was also a growing undercurrent of “here’s how to Google to find…” and students starting to share with those around them their accomplishments like a particularly clever fade or smooth transition.
  • The last 5 minutes of class was for any last questions and the opportunity to share the edits they made in class (no one shared).

KEY TAKEAWAYS

60 minutes was a good amount of time for this exercise. Around the recording/importing part of class (~30 minutes in), both Chris and I noticed that students were starting to get a bit confused but the students were able to work through their discomfort by looking to one another for support. The students who were quicker/more comfortable with the activities provided some inspiration to the others that they could get there soon.

I mistakenly assumed that students would prefer working on their own laptops with admin access for downloading/installing software in class, and that assumption extends to many tutorials as well. However, that assumption highlights a potential barrier for those who want to learn on a range of devices, and especially public lab computers. Also, we hit a few file format issues needed to download the FFmpeg library, which we couldn’t do on the spot because the lab computer images are overseen centrally by ITS. Next time when I approach this kind of instruction I’ll make sure all libraries for Audacity are installed in the lab computers prior to class and better account for the range of devices used by students.  

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