Case study - Providing audio comments

 

Providing audio comments

Introduction

I am a communications lecturer teaching generic communications courses across a range of subjects. My students come from wide variety of backgrounds, some being technically oriented whilst others being artistic. I also have a number of students for whom English is a second language. This variety of styles and cultures gives me many challenges when I’m providing constructive feedback.

The need to change

I started using audio feedback for students years ago, using a simple cassette tape recorder. I was motivated to use audio because I felt so limited by the lack of space for adding comment to assignments and also the time it took to provide written feedback. In communications it’s common for each assignment to go through a number of iterations, drafts I guess you could call them, with each reviewed and commented on. Trying to explain the real issues using text based feedback often took a lot of effort because I had to make sure the emphasis of the comment was unambiguous and constructive. I find using audio feedback much faster and more flexible as it allows me to provide the sort of dynamic feedback that helps my students.

Marking using audio feedback

My colleagues and I use audio formative feedback for all our students regardless of discipline. So the technical trade students get it as do the business students. Typically I give 10 minutes audio feedback per assignment and this lets me give much richer feedback than I could when I was limited to text only. I’m able to offer them alternate ways of expressing a point and demonstrate how a particular statement could be ambiguous and how small changes can make a big difference. I also find, and the students tell me they do too, that audio feedback feels a lot less formal, a more conversational way of communicating feedback. Although I haven’t done any formal evaluation, anecdotally I do think I get fewer complaints or queries over the feedback I give and I am convinced that I spend much less time marking.

The process

When I mark an assignment I start by saying the student name and description of the assignment. Depending on the tool I’m using, I either pre-save the audio file named with the student id and date or name it when I’m finished. That’s because some stand alone recorders don’t allow you to name the file at the outset. I then read through the assignment and when I get to a place that I want to comment on I start the recorder and add the comment. To help the student know what part of their work I am commenting on, I use one of the following aids. If the section is easily identifiable (e.g. close to a paragraph heading) I just quote the part of the text I’m going to comment on and then add my comments. More frequently I mark the script with a number or a letter and then refer to that in my commentary. Once the audio is complete I save it and then either email it to the student with a marked up version of their work or burn it onto CD and mail it to them. Mostly I use the mp3 format. I have heard that you can add audio comments to Word documents but I haven’t tried that myself. Worth a look though.

The technology

I’ve tried quite a few technologies for recording feedback and most work just fine. Even the cassette tape worked but the tapes were quite expensive. Thanks to the popularity of the mp3 format you can get all sorts of tools, many for free. I’ve used Garage Band on my Apple laptop and one of my colleagues uses Audacity on his PC. Audacity is a free recording application that is also really easy to use. You need a microphone of course and I find a headset really useful, especially in a shared office. I have also used stand-alone audio recorders, modern dictation machines like the Olympus DS. There seems to be a solution for most budgets.

Challenges with using audio feedback

Because the audio feedback I use is separate from the original document I do need to be careful about the labeling of the audio files. When I first started I did find that I needed to practice getting an appropriate narrative style but that doesn’t take long to master. I use two methods depending on which one suits the situation. Sometimes I read the assignment right through first and make hand written notes but that method has its drawbacks. Not only does it take more time, there is a tendency to read your notes and this removes a lot of the richness you get from doing it live! I think it helps if you are a confident and clear speaker, not too many ‘you know’ or ‘ummms’ but I think that’s something that develops as you get more practice. In fact it can actually help you improve your own communication skills!

One technical challenge of using audio feedback is the size of the file that is generated. Using the mp3 file format the file size is often about 1 MB per minute of recording although this can be reduced by changing the export files settings. In Garage band, exporting an audio file as a mono podcast will give about 250 KB/minute. If you want to know more I suggest you do a web search on ‘reducing audio file size’ or similar key words because there is a lot of advice available.

Evaluation

When we work with a class for the first time we do have an evaluation questionnaire we ask the students to fill in. Audio feedback doesn’t suit everyone but in the 2 or 3 cases where students have really objected, we provide them with written feedback. In the end of course evaluation, our department has added a section that deals with just the audio feedback and how it can be improved. That way we can keep track of the shifts in the way our students use technology and we can adapt what we do.

Summary

By using audio feedback I believe I can provide much richer and more useful comments and suggestions for my students. I am certain that if you were to compare like with like, audio feedback takes much less time than written feedback. It is important that you adopt a style that works for both you and your students and I do modify my style for each student group. The cost is minimal for both consumables and the equipment itself so that hasn’t been a barrier for us. With the number of iPods and phone mp3 players around now, students have told me that audio feedback is making their learning experience much more flexible too.

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