Hear me out!

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can make best use of audio materials for teaching and learning. We are often too focused on using images and video materials that we tend to forget that voice is a very powerful tool and also a natural way to articulate one’s thoughts and consume information. I’ve put together some thoughts on the advantages of using audio as a medium for teaching and learning, alongside some practical suggestions on how to design and embed audio in our courses. Last but not least, you’ll find some practical tips and, as always, a curated list of useful and inspiring resources on this topic. I hope you enjoy reading this and I look forward to hearing your stories about using audio in your teaching!

Why audio?

In our rush to move to online teaching we’ve been focusing a lot on producing video materials as the core part of our courses, as a way of replacing the lecture. But haven’t we forgotten a possibly more basic but also more natural way of expression? Our voice, which, incidentally, is also at the core of our face-to-face lectures. Perhaps now, one year into the pandemic, is a good moment to step back and evaluate the media we have been using in our teaching. Using each medium to its strengths can help us limit the cognitive load for our students and can also make the course design and production process more effective for us.

What are the main advantages of using audio as a medium for teaching and learning?

  • Audio formats offer flexibility, both for producers and for consumers. You can use various formats (monologue, dialogue, reflection prompts, etc) and different voices (from formal to informal, colloquial). Students can choose when and where they listen, allowing them to break free from their screens, and they can even control the speed they are listening at;

  • Audio can be a great way to build teacher presence in your course (be it fully online or blended). You could use your voice to guide students through the course, especially in a mainly asynchronous environment. Audio input can help you shape and sustain the overall narrative of the course and initiate a conversation with your students;

  • Using audio materials in various parts of your course can help students train their focused listening skills, but also encourages reflection and autonomy- skills that are extremely useful way beyond their studies. Listening, instead of watching, allows us to focus on the message being transmitted without being distracted by flashy elements that are often used in videos;

  • Adding audio formats to the usually video-heavy online courses can help ensure a variety of formats and modalities, which is known to facilitate a more effective, and pleasant learning journey; it keeps students curious, motivated and more likely to engage;

  • At a more practical level, audio materials are easier to adapt and update, offering us an opportunity to be more spontaneous and also more responsive to students’ needs.

Like with any medium, we need to think which part(s) of the learning process and which activities work best with audio. Not all types of content lend themselves well to this medium, there are instances when visual input is crucial for understanding a concept or a process. This is a decision we need to make at course design stage, after a critical evaluation of the learning objectives and course content.

Some design ideas

Being a versatile medium, audio can be used in a variety of contexts and at different moments of the learning process. Moreover, teachers and students can swap the roles of producers and consumers, which gives an interesting dynamic to the teaching and learning experience.

Here are some ideas on ways to use audio in your course (of course not an exhaustive list):

  • Providing instructions and guidance for specific learning activities- while writing down precise instructions can sometimes feel like writing a home appliance manual, why not use our voice to provide students with all the information they need in a more personal and natural way? We can attach templates or working documents as “companions” to the audio material, thus offering students flexibility to learn outside the confines of the VLE;

  • Offering feedback on assignments- audio feedback can be a time-effective way to support students in their learning; it can feel more personal and it often helps us make our message clearer than in written form;

  • Introducing and wrapping up an activity/ learning unit- short audio recordings, often in a conversational style, can be a great way to introduce a new topic and to sum up/ debrief an activity, by briefly summarising the main points and making the link to the next topic. This is a “light” way to reinforce the course narrative and prompt students to make connections between different sections of the course but also with other courses and their own experience;

  • A podcast or a podcast series can be a great way to introduce guest speakers to your course; these can be practitioners from your field, or colleagues who might bring a different angle; students can time listening to the podcasts so that it suits their schedules better and, why not, listen to them while walking or exercising;

  • Having students be the producers- this is for many a more accessible way to be creative in their assignments (some students prefer it to video, so it’s a good idea to leave the medium up to them); student reflections can also take an audio format, either more spontaneous (as part of a precise task) or in a more sustained manner, in the form of a journal or ePortfolio.

For inspiration, you can go through this Twitter thread with stories of how teachers use audio in various contexts and for various learning activities.

Practical aspects

Now, down to the nitty-gritty. Even though audio content can be easier to produce than its video counterpart, there are a few things that we need to consider from the start:

  • Timing: think about how often and when in your course it’s best to use audio formats. This can be weekly or bi-weekly (thus creating a routine) or one-off- in which case it’s worth considering them as “events” and communicating them as such to students;

  • Length: this depends a lot on the objectives and content of a specific audio piece; for feedback and intro/ wrap-up purposes, it’s best to keep it short and to the point; for activity instructions clarity is the most important, and they also usually make rather brief pieces; students reflections can vary in length, depending on their objective; podcasts with guest speakers can usually be around 30 minutes, as that allows the speaker(s) to go in-depth on a specific topic;

  • Audio quality: now, this is actually a deal-breaker; consider getting a good microphone before you start creating audio materials intensively; it really makes a great difference and students will listen longer if the quality is good.

  • Accessibility: this is an important aspect with any media, and is not least relevant for audio; adding transcripts makes your content accessible to more students and they can also be used as supplemental materials that students can annotate and build their learning on.