Saturday, May 3, 2014

Audio - the personal touch in online courses

Microphone by M. Keefe, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by M. Keefe on Flickr

Despite the presence of many easy-to-use and often free programs for audio and video recording it's surprising how so much online learning is still centred on written communication between students and teacher. Written feedback often takes valuable teacher time to compose and even if the comments are highly valuable the opportunity to create a more personal contact between teacher and student is lost. A major success factor in online education is creating a dynamic, interactive learning arena where the factor of distance is reduced or even made irrelevant. A good mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication using a variety of media (text, audio, video, multimedia) gives everyone the chance to be read, heard and seen, including most importantly the teacher. So why are we generally still stuck in text mode?

Terry Andersson's blogpost, Another research article on audio feedback, raises the issue of audio feedback as a quick and efficient method of commenting on students' work and which also adds to the feeling of teacher presence. He provides the example of a new study by Andrew J. Cavanaugh and Liyan SongAudio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors’ and Students’ Perspectives (Journal of Online Learning and Teaching), that has compared student responses to receiving either audio or written feedback to their written papers. The findings show that students are clearly more positive to receiving audio feedback on the grounds that it felt more personal and more inspiring than the dry matter-of-fact text commentaries. Teachers were in general also more positive though a few had problems with the technology involved and were simply not used to audio recording at all.

An interesting aspect of the study was that text feedback differed to audio feedback; written comments focused mostly on details such as edits and grammar corrections whereas spoken comments discussed themes, structure and overall impression. Written feedback was dealt with by students on a correct-and-move-on basis whereas the audio feedback asked for more reflection from the student rather than simply correcting.

However, it must be asked whether a systematic "correct-and-move-on" approach to revising a paper is what is desired in students. It is possible that, if students see comments as purely editing suggestions or corrections, they will prefer written comments to audio comments. This is not to say that written commentary cannot be preferred for other reasons.

Once again this should not be seen as yet another either/or discussion: there will always be times when written feedback is more appropriate just as there are times when audio is best. Many LMS have functions for audio comments and there are many screencasting tools available to let you record comments while showing the student's text and highlighting. Given the fact that students appreciate being able to hear the teacher commenting on their work in a pleasant and professional manner there should be much wider use of this medium than today. Traditional e-learning was rightly criticized as being impersonal self-study but the tools available today add so many more dimensions and enable us to almost eliminate the element of distance.

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