VLC for the Language Classroom

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Last week, I did a technology workshop for a group of language teachers and one of the things we covered was the free open source software, VLC. For those who are not familiar with this program, it is a multimedia player for most computers that recognizes almost every type of audio and video file you throw at it. It has saved me a number of times in the language classroom and has become my go-to application for media files. Here are some of the things it can do:

Installing:


Question: I have my computer and speakers set at the loudest setting, but it is still too quiet. How can I make it louder?

Answer: Open the file in VLC and then adjust the volume in the bottom-right corner of the window. You can only increase the volume by an additional 25% this way, but you can increase it even more by using the hotkeys.

  • Windows and Linux: Ctrl key and the up or down arrow keys
  • Mac: Command key and the up or down arrow keys

VLC Increase Audio

Question: The speaking in the video/audio file I am using is a little too fast for my lower level students. How do I slow down the audio without changing pitch?

Answer: VLC has this feature built into the player. The speed adjustment only affects the playback and will not change the original file.

  • Windows or Linux: Open the file in VLC and turn on the Status Bar (click on View -> Status Bar). Click on the ‘1.00x’ at the bottom of the screen and then move the slider back and forth to increase or decrease the speed.

VLC Status Bar

VLC Slow Down Audio

  • Mac: Open the file in VLC and click on Playback in the menu bar and then use the slider under Playback Speed.

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Question: The video is too long and I only want a section of it. How can I create a small clip from a section of my video?

Answer: This is only available for the Windows and Linux versions of VLC. There is a work around for Mac, but it isn’t very easy.

  • Windows and Linux: Open VLC and then make sure the Advanced Controls are on (click on View -> Advanced Controls). Start the video and when you get to the section you want to record, simply click on the record button once to start and again to stop recording. The new video file will appear in the Videos Library folder.

VLC Advanced Menu

VLC Recorder

Question: I want to keep repeating a section of my audio/video file so my students can hear/watch it over and over again. How can I do that?

Answer: This is only available for the Windows and Linux versions of VLC.

  • Windows and Linux: Open VLC and then make sure the Advanced Controls are on (click on View -> Advanced Controls). Start the video and when you get to the section you want to repeat, simply click on the A-B Loop button once to set the start point and when you get to the end, simply press it again. This will keep repeating this section until you press the A-B Loop button one more time. You can set this up ahead of time and simply pause the video or audio file until you are ready to play it.

VLC Loop Button

Question: I want to skip to different sections of my media file. How can I set this up?

Answer: VLC makes use of bookmarks which can be saved for later use.

  • Windows and Linux: Open VLC then make sure the Edit Bookmark window is open (click on Playback -> Custom Bookmarks -> Manage). Start your video or audio file and then click on the Create button in the Edit Bookmark window whenever you want to mark a spot to remember. You can continue to do this with your file until you are done bookmarking everything you would like. You can then double-click on any of the bookmarks in the Edit Bookmark window to skip to that section. You can then save the bookmark for later by clicking on Media -> Save Playlist to File

VLC Using bookmarks

  • Mac: Open VLC then make sure the Edit Bookmark window is open (click on Windows -> Bookmarks). Start your video or audio file and then click on the Add button in the Edit Bookmark window whenever you want to mark a spot to remember. You can continue to do this with your file until you are done bookmarking everything you would like. You can then double-click on any of the bookmarks in the Edit Bookmark window to skip to that section. You can then save the bookmark for later by clicking on File -> Save Playlist

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Let me know if there are any other tips you would like to add to this list.

Creating Digital Stories using Foxit Reader Portable

USB Drive

Image courtesy of Phil Gradwell

The other day during #LINCchat, the topic of digital storytelling came up and a few options were shared amongst the chat participants. I thought it would be good to share another option that works really well with students who have limited access to the internet. This option makes use of a free, offline portable application that can be installed on a USB drive that the student can take home with them and use on any Windows computer.

This idea uses Foxit Reader Portable, a free PDF reader that allows users to create blank PDF documents on which you can then add photos, text, audio, and video files. In the end, users can create a multimedia document that can be played by almost all PDF readers.

Students can take their own photos or locate photos online, put them together on a page, and audio record themselves telling the story. They can then save and share that story with others who can see the photos and listen to the story being read by the student. You can even have students record replies and add them to the story. Here are some of the steps:

Installing Foxit Reader Portable on a USB Drive:

  • Insert a USB drive into your computer.
  • Go to Portable Apps and click on ‘Apps’ along the top.

portable apps main menu

  • Under the ‘Office’ category heading, click on ‘Foxit Reader Portable’

office category

  • Click on the big green ‘Download’ button.

Download button

  • Once it has finished downloading, double-click on the installer, and follow the instructions in the installer. Make sure your choose the USB Drive as the place you would like to install it.

Create a new document: 

  • You can create a new blank page by clicking on the ‘Create a Blank PDF’ button in the top-left corner of the page, or you can click on File -> Create -> Blank -> Create a PDF from a blank page.

Create a blank document button

Create a blank document menu

Adding a picture: 

  • Under the ‘Home’ tab, click on the ‘Image Annotation’ button on the far right.

Image Annotation button

  • Click and drag a box on the blank page where you would like the photo to be. The larger you make the box, the bigger the picture will be on the page.

Insert an image box

  • A box will appear. Click on the ‘Browse’ button, find your file using the file manager, and click on ‘Open’ and then ‘OK’.

Add an image

  • If you would like to resize the photo, click on the ‘Select Annotation’ button located under the ‘Home’ tab, then click on the photo. Move the red dots surrounding the photo to resize the photo. Click and drag the photo to move it around the page.

Select Annotation Button

resize photo

Adding an audio file: 

  • Under the ‘Home’ tab, click on the ‘Audio & Video’ button on the far right.

Add an audio file

  • Click and drag a box on the blank page where you would like the audio file to be.
  • A box will appear. Click on the ‘Browse’ button, find your file using the file manager, and click on ‘Open’ and then ‘OK’.

load an audio file

Playing the audio file: 

  • Under the ‘Home’ tab, click on the ‘Hand’ button on the far left and then click in the box where the audio file is.

hand button

  • A box will appear asking for your permission to play the file. Check the box ‘Remember choice until I close the document’ and then click on ‘Play’.

audio consent

  • The audio will continue to play until it the file is completed. If you would like to stop it earlier, simply click on the ‘Select Annotation’ button under the ‘Home’ tab.

Finding free photos: 

  • A great place to find free public domain images is Pixabay. All of these photos are free to download and use without having to give attribution. You also do not need to have an account.

Creating photos: 

  • There are so many ways that students can create images that can be added to the document. Here are some ideas:
    • Phones: Use the camera on your phone to take photos and then transfer to your computer using a USB cable.
    • Online: Use Pixlr Express to take photos using your webcam and then add effects, borders, text, and more before downloading to your computer.
    • Windows 8 and above: Use the Camera app to take photos using your webcam.
    • Mac: Use Photo Booth to take photos using your webcam.
    • Screenshots: Using Snipping Tool on Windows or keyboard shortcuts on a Mac.

Recording audio: 

  • There are a number of options for recording audio files. Here are some online and offline options:
    • Online: Use SpeakPipe Voice Recorder.
    • Portable App: You can download and use Audacity Portable or WaveShop Portable.
    • Windows (built-in): Locate Sound Recorder or Voice Recorder on your computer.
    • Phone: Use the voice recorder function on your phone and then download to your computer.
    • Voice recorder: There are a number of cheap music players that you can buy that record audio and then download to the computer through USB.
    • Mac: Use QuickTime Player on your computer.

Some ideas for using it in the classroom: 

  • Students create a personal story with narration such as about where they are from, their daily life, or an event in their life.
  • One student puts together a series of images and another student narrates a fictional story using the images.
  • Students can create a dialog using one image. Each students posts audio comments on the shared document and listens to what others had to say.
  • Pictures and photos are put on a document in the wrong order and students need to match the proper image and text combinations.
  • Students in groups have a discussion on a topic and audio record that discussion. All of the groups then post their audio file on one class page which gets shared with everyone.
  • For students who can’t make it to a class due to other obligations, teachers add audio files to PDF handouts so students can work on their own before the next class.
  • Students create dual-language stories with their first language. Students write and record  the story in English and their first language.

Audacity vs. Ocenaudio – Comparing Free Audio Editor Programs

Image courtesy of Kris S.

Image courtesy of Kris S.

If you have been involved in language teaching for any length of time, you have probably had some experience in using the free, open-source audio program, Audacity. In fact, for some schools, this is installed on all of the lab computers and is the primary audio recorder for both students and teachers. It comes in various versions, such as a portable version you can take with you on your USB drive, and for multiple platforms, such as Mac and Windows.

Recently, I have come across the free, but not open-source, audio editor Ocenaudio that is also cross-platform, but for myself is a much more user-friendly offering for those wishing to record and edit audio on their computer. Because of this, I have decided to do my first head-to-head software comparison by looking at the installation, features, and usability of these two apps.

Audacity

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Cost: Completely free. Audacity is open source which means that it can be adapted by anyone who wants to tweak or change the source code. In other words, it has been created over time by a whole lot of people working apart, yet together on the same project. The advantage to this is that if anything goes wrong, anyone can fix it. Also, since there is no company involved, there is no fear that the support will dry up.

Installation:

  • Windows (Option 1): Download the main installer (23MB) and run the installer. You will need administration rights to do this.
  • Windows (Option 2): Download the ZIP file of the installer (9MB) and uncompress the file and then run the installer. You will need administration rights to run the installer.
  • Windows (Option 3): Download the portable version from PortableApps (21MB) and run the installer to uncompress and copy to a portable drive such as a USB thumb drive. You can get around the administration rights problem doing it this way, but it takes longer to boot up each time (minimal) and you can’t associate file types with it (ie. you can’t make Windows always open certain file types with it simply by double-clicking on the file. You will need to start Audacity and then open the file that way).
  • Mac (Option 1): Download the DMG file (33MB) and open the DMG file (click or double-click depending on where you do this) and copy (ie. drag-and-drop) the Audacity folder to the Applications folder (actually, you can copy this anywhere you would like on your computer, but the Applications folder makes the most sense).
  • Mac (Option 2): Download the ZIP file (15MB) and open the file (click or double-click depending on where you do this) and then move the folder to the Applications folder (actually, you can copy this anywhere you would like on your computer, but the Applications folder makes the most sense). Note that this option does not have the help files with it.
  • Additional installation: For either the Mac or Windows version, you will need to install the LAME plug in if you want to export (ie. save) your work as an MP3 file. Since most devices (computers, portable audio players, phones, and so on) can play MP3 files, this is highly recommended. In order to do that, you will need to download the LAME plugin and run the installer (Mac or Windows). Once that is done, you will be able to export any file as an MP3 file.
Basic Features:
  • Recording: Once you open Audacity, you will be presented with the main window with buttons, drop-down menus, and the main audio channels. It can be very overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to audio editing or the options that you are presented with. To do a simple audio recording, you need to choose the audio host, the output and input devices, and the input channels. Once that is okay, you can simply press the Record button to start and the Stop button to stop.
  • Cutting: If you have just recorded something, you will see the waveform of the file in the central window. To edit, simply click-and-drag over the area you would like to delete and press play to hear if that is okay. If you need to adjust, simply move either end of the selection and play to check again. Once you are satisfied that you would like to remove that section, simply hit the delete key and that section will be discarded and the remaining two sections will merge. If you are editing an imported file (ex. MP3) file, Audacity has to encode it as a lossless file before editing and then re-encodes the file, losing quality along the way.
  • Adding: Select the area you would like to copy from by clicking-and-dragging over the area. Copy or cut that section (I use hotkeys, but you can also use the Edit menu or right-click on the mouse and select copy or cut) and then click in the area you would like to insert the new section and paste your selection.
  • Adjusting the audio for a section: Select the area you would like to adjust the volume by clicking-and-dragging over the area. Along the top menu, choose Effect and then Amplify. Adjust the slider up or down and click on OK to apply the changes. If the OK button greys out (ie. you can’t click on it), either adjust your slider since you have put it up too much and part of the audio wave will be cut off (ie. clipped), or select the ‘Allow Clipping’ option and then OK.
  • Saving: You can save an recording or editing project as an Audacity file, allowing you to continue working on it at a later time. Once you are finished, you can export the product in various formats including MP3 if you have the LAME plugin installed (see above).

Usability / Design: Audacity is an older program (started in 1999) and the design has basically remained unchanged over that time. It was designed to be a full-featured audio editor for those who were familiar with all of the terms and features of a full blown audio editor. As a result, the design is a bit overwhelming for the average user and also a bit clunky to operate. To be perfectly honest, it is ugly. I don’t expect it to be super stylish, but the design often works against the usage and makes it more difficult to use than necessary. After saying that, at least it is consistent. Once a person learns how to use it, future updates should remain familiar if the past is any indication. There is something to be said about not having to re-learn everything with a new update (I’m looking at you Microsoft!).

Ocenaudio

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 12.19.33 PM

Cost: Completely free. Ocenaudio is not open source, but did start off with a research group in a Brazilian university needed an app for a specific project. Therefore, it can not be adapted or changed by anyone outside of that group. If the group wants to kill the project or start charging for it or any part of it, they can. The likelihood of this is remote, but something to consider.

Installation:

  • Windows: Download the installer (16-18MB) and run it. You will need administration rights to run the installer.
  • Mac: Download the DMG file (22MB) and copy the app to your Applications folder (actually, you can copy this anywhere you would like on your computer, but the Applications folder makes the most sense).
Basic Features:
  • Recording: Upon opening Ocenaudio, you are presented with a very clean, minimalistic main window with a few buttons, a file window on the left, and a audio window in the centre. It looks very easy to use, even for those who are not accustomed to audio editing. To do a simple audio recording, simply press the Record button to start and a menu for the sample rate, channels, and resolution options drops down. Click on ‘OK’ to start recording, and then click on the Record button to stop recording.
  • Cutting: If you have just recorded something, you will see the waveform of the file in the central window. To edit, simply click-and-drag over the area you would like to delete and press play to hear if that is okay. If you need to adjust, simply move either end of the selection and play to check again. Once you are satisfied that you would like to remove that section, simply hit the delete key and that section will be discarded and the remaining two sections will merge. If you are editing an imported file (ex. MP3) file, Ocenaudio doesn’t require re-encoding, making it faster and simpler as well as cleaner since the audio is compressed multiple times.
  • Adding: Select the area you would like to copy from by clicking-and-dragging over the area. Copy or cut that section (I use hotkeys, but you can also use the Edit menu or right-click on the mouse and select copy or cut) and then click in the area you would like to insert the new section and paste your selection.
  • Adjusting the audio for a section: Select the area you would like to adjust the volume by clicking-and-dragging over the area. Along the top menu, choose Effects and then Amplitude and Gain. Adjust the slider left or right and click on OK to apply the changes.
  • Saving: You can save an recording or editing project in various formats including MP3 (no plug in required).

Usability / Design: Ocenaudio is a new program and the design certainly shows that. The interface is welcoming, clean, and easy to use. It feels familiar for those who are used to using similar programs. Instead of opening multiple windows, each file is listed along the left-hand side, making it easier to toggle between them. Also, the lack of buttons makes it simpler for those who just want to record, edit, and save.

Conclusion

After using Audacity for many years, I am aware of the quirks and benefits of this fairly well known program. Ocenaudio is a newcomer to this market, but a welcome one. From what I can see, Ocenaudio is more than capable of handling what language learners and instructors need in an audio recorder / editor, making it more user friendly to install and use. Where Audacity still has an edge is in the area of portability. If you have to switch computers all of the time and don’t have the recorder installed on all of those machines, the portable version of Audacity is a handy friend to have in your bag. After saying that, it isn’t very often that I have this problem and I suspect that is the same for most instructors. If that is the case, I would lean towards Ocenaudio as my main audio editor.

Portable Apps: A tech toolkit in your pocket


Image courtesy of AmsterdamPrinting

Image courtesy of AmsterdamPrinting


Note: This is for people who want or need to use shared Windows-based computers at work like I do. I personally use a Mac, but I am forced in some situations to work on Windows in my classroom. I will do a post some time on tips for Mac users.

If any of you work in various rooms and offices like I do, you find it frustrating when you move from computer to computer only to find that certain things are not available on one machine or blocked on another. Also, adding programs to computers that are locked-down is a pain. In many of the places I have worked at, it takes days, possibly weeks, to get anything installed on your computer only to have to do it again on a different machine once you move rooms.

My solution has been to make use of online tools, but that isn’t always ideal and if the network is slow or goes down, you are stuck. Many years ago, I came across the website PortableApps.com where legal, open-source / free software has been adapted to run off of a portable drive such as a USB thumb drive. I have made good use of this site over the years and I thought it might be helpful to some of you if I was to give you a rundown of what portable apps are, why they are helpful, and what apps I have found to be especially useful.

How to install an app from PortableApps.com

  1. Go to PortableApps.com and click on ‘Apps’ at the top of the page.
  2. Look through the apps list to find something that you think would be helpful to you. Click on the link on the name.
  3. Read through the description and/or view the screenshot to see if this might be something you would like to install. If you are happy with it, click on the big, green ‘Download Now’ button near the top of the page.
  4. You will be taken to a Sourceforge page and your download should start in about 5 seconds. If it doesn’t start after five seconds, click on the small ‘direct link’ near the top of the page. If you are using a browser that prompts you about a place to download, select a place to download and start the download.
  5. The file you have downloaded is an installer you need to run. Find where the installer was downloaded to and then double-click on the file.
  6. Once the installer starts up, follow these steps:
    1. Click on ‘Next >’
    2. Choose your destination folder (best to select your USB drive or any other external drive) and click on ‘Install
    3. Once it has finished the installation process, click on ‘Finish’
  7. If you have installed it to your portable drive, find the drive on your computer and you will see a new folder labelled by the name of the app. Inside that folder will be the program you can run. Just double-click on it to start it up!

Tips:

  • You can also install to a shared network folder if you have one at your workplace. This makes it easy to access without having to take a portable drive around with you.
  • Save any files you make to the drive as well so you have them with you.
  • Browser plugins such as Adobe Flash can also be installed as per usual.
  • Make sure you eject your drive before removing it.

My favourite portable apps

  • VLC: If there was one program that I think should be installed on every computer, it is this one. VLC is the Swiss Army Knife of media players. It plays basically any type of audio and video files and can even create files as well. You can rip an audio CD to MP3 files to carry with you for class, you can play podcast audio and video files, you can create playlists and bookmarks for your files, you can adjust the volume much higher than most players, and so on. Once day I will do a post on how I use VLC in the classroom. For now, just know that if there is a video or audio file to play, use VLC since it is virtually guaranteed to work.
  • Audacity: This is an audio player, editor, and recorder. This is great for the language classroom. You will need to install a few plugins to make certain files such as MP3 play or record, but that is pretty simple to do.
  • CamStudio: While I tend to use Screencast-O-Matic for screencasting, some schools don’t allow access to Java and with slower internet speeds, it can be a pain. This is a simple tool to make a video of your screen as you work on your computer. It is great for creating video tutorials or mini lessons.
  • Lightscreen: While the Snipping Tool included with Windows 7 and 8 works fairly well, Lightscreen works with older versions and also is a slight step faster than the Snipping Tool. Basically, it allows you to take a screenshot of a section of your screen and automatically saves it as an image.
  • Foxit Reader: While most computers have Adobe Acrobat Reader to read PDF files, Foxit is an alternative. It looks and feels like an Office application and I like the annotation tools better than Reader.
  • PDFTK Builder: This is the PDF Toolkit and it is great for removing pages from a pdf and combine pages as well. If I have a really long PDF and I only want to have a version with a few pages, I use this to pull out the pages I want and then combine them into one document.
  • Gimp: This is a fantastic photo editor along the lines of Adobe Photoshop. I use it to edit photos instead of the standard programs in Windows.
  • Peazip: I have no idea why some computers do not have a file decompressor installed. Windows can handle some files like Zip, but if I come across something else, such as a RAR file, this works wonders.
  • NVU / KompoZer: This is WYSIWYG HTML and CSS editor. I use to to create tables and so forth for blog posts. Works fairly well, but I am not sure how many people would make use of it other than me.
  • VirtualDub: This is a video capture/processing program. It isn’t very user friendly, but if the computer I am using does not have even a basic video editor, this does the trick.
  • Open Office: This is a Microsoft Office compatible office suite to create and view documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. I am not in love with the program since it isn’t the most intuitive, but it does the job.
  • Jarte: This is tabbed word processor that works well for me as a notetaker. It is smaller to open than Open Office and I can keep it running in the background whenever I need to jot something down.
  • Artha: This is portable thesaurus. It works well and doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. I use it lots in my writing classes.
  • Mnemosyne: This is a flashcard creator and player. I have a mixed relationship with flashcards, but it is handy sometimes. I still prefer online versions such as Quizlet, but this works well for something simple.
  • Google Chrome / Firefox: I actually have both on my USB drive since some sites play differently with different browsers. They are portable versions of the popular browsers. Why? Privacy. Everything stays on my drive. I don’t need it as often with cloud-synching, but some computers don’t have anything but Internet Explorer installed (gasp!), so this is my backup plan.
  • Skype: The popular audio and video chat program in a portable app when the computer I am using is without it. Nothing more to say here. Works well.
  • Tweetdeck: Portable version of the popular Twitter client that I use at home. Much better than using the browser based options.
  • Cook Timer: The most simplistic program on this list. Nothing more than a countdown timer. Great for keeping students on task. I often use online versions, but this works well.

I know some of you have other preferences, so feel free to share them in the comment sections below. Feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer them for you.