A Teacher's Guide to Distance Learning
Audio or voice technologies offer cost-effective ways to enhance distance learning courses. The audio component of a distance learning course can be as simple as a telephone with voicemail, or it can be as complex as an audioconference with microphones, telephone bridges, and speakers. (Audioconferences via a computer will be discussed in Chapter 8: Computer Technologies.)
VoicemailVoicemail is becoming extremely common -- we are all accustomed to listening to menus of options as we try desperately to reach a real human. There is a great deal that voicemail can offer to distance learning initiatives, however. For example, voicemail:
Voicemail is generally used as a supplement to other technologies in a course. Two main advantages of voicemail are that nearly everyone has easy access to a telephone and voicemail messages can be picked up at any time of the day or night. There are disadvantages of voicemail also. For example, the length of the messages is generally limited, and a toll-free number must be provided for students who may be calling from out of the local area.
- Allows students to leave messages for instructors regardless of the time
- Allows instructors to leave messages for individuals or groups
- Can be used to administer quizzes (this option requires some programming)
- Serves as an alternative to e-mail for those students who do not have a computer
Audio Files and CDsAudio files and CDs are inexpensive, easily duplicated, and very versatile. They can be used to deliver lectures, panel discussions, or instructions for the distant learner. Audio is especially useful in courses that require the nuances of inflection, such as foreign languages, or those that are designed for non-readers.
Audio files have several advantages for the delivery of distance learning courses. Audio files are also easy to create, easy to duplicate, and easy to use. Disadvantages of audio files include the fact that they are not interactive, and they do not provide the visual elements that many students desire.
When using audio files for instruction, be sure to record them using the best equipment possible. A low hiss during the recording process may result in a major distraction when the duplicate is played. Also, include print materials to enhance the audio and encourage interactions via voicemail, e-mail, fax, or other means.
AudioconferencesTelephones are one of the simplest, most accessible technologies used for distance learning. Telephone conversations can be used to mentor individual students or to reach numerous students simultaneously via a conference call (audioconference). If more than one person is at each location, audioconferences can be set up using speakerphones and telephone bridges (see Figure 6). Speakerphones have been improved in the past few years, but they still have some limitations. Common speakerphones are called simplex message devices -- that means that people at both ends of the connection cannot talk at the same time.
Figure 6. Audioconference using a telephone bridge.
When one of the parties pauses, or when someone in a classroom talks loudly, the standard speakerphone switches off its speaker and activates its microphone. At this point, the voice of the distant person is cut off, and the flow reverses so that the distant person can hear what is being said in the classroom. Modern speakerphones are capable of making these simplex changes in direction so quickly that is it usually only a minor distraction. As both guest speakers and students become familiar with the limitations, they learn a pattern of brief pauses during interactive discussion to prevent interruptions.
Many telephone lines have simple conference-calling features that make it easy to connect three locations. When more than three locations must be connected, the best solution is to use a telephone bridge. The bridge is an electronic system that links multiple telephone lines and automatically balances all audio levels. The bridge can be provided through the telephone company, or it might be owned and operated by the school system.
A bridge can be either call in or call out. With a call-in bridge, participants in the telephone conference are given the bridge telephone number ahead of time. The participants then call the number to connect to the call. For example, South Carolina conducted teacher training with hundreds of teachers by providing a toll-free telephone number and specific times for teachers to call into the conference. A call-out bridge arrangement requires a person, usually an operator, to dial the telephone numbers of all the locations that will participate in the conference. As each number is reached, it becomes connected to the call.
Audioconferences are relatively easy to set up and conduct; however, it may be difficult to maintain students' interest for long periods of time without visual elements. Therefore, audioconferences used for distance learning should be short, well-planned, and supplemented with visual materials that are distributed in advance.
PodcastsPodcasting is a method for making digital audio and video files available on the internet in such a way that others can set their computers to automatically download new episodes in a series as they are posted online. Once you tell your software to subscribe to the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) "feed", you do not need to do anything else to receive the latest episodes of your favorite podcast shows. The software will check for new episodes on a regular basis and automatically download them to your computer as soon as they become available. Even though the term podcasting originates from the words iPod and broadcasting, you do not need to own an iPod (or other type of portable player) to enjoy podcasts. All you need to do is install software on your computer that can understand the "feed" files used with podcasting. The information in the feed file tells the software where to go to find and download the files for the individual episodes that make up your subscribed podcasts.
One of the most popular programs for subscribing to podcasts is Apple's iTunes. In addition, iTunes allows you to access a Podcast Directory hosted by Apple where you can browse through hundreds of podcasts, including video podcasts intended for viewing on the newest video capable iPods, iPhones, and similar devices.
Advantages of Audio Technologies
- Inexpensive. All of the audio/voice technologies are relatively inexpensive.
- Easily accessible. Almost every home in the United States has a telephone. In addition, most students have access to an audiotape player in their home or in a car.
- Easy to use. Almost everyone is comfortable using a telephone and an audio cassette. With voice technologies, there is no software to install and no hardware to configure!
Disadvantages of Audio Technologies
- May require scheduling. Some of the voice technologies (such as audioconferences) are synchronous, meaning that they must be scheduled at a convenient time for the students and teacher.
- Not conducive to visual information. Many students find it hard to focus and learn strictly through audio input. In addition, audio-only format restricts the content that can be conveyed (abstract concepts are very difficult to convey through audio).
- May be impersonal. With audio-only interactions, there is no eye contact and no body language. Students may be "turned off" by a talking box.
Guidelines for Incorporating Audio Technologies
- Distribute visual materials in advance. If an audioconference is scheduled, handouts or other visual materials that might be of value during the presentation should be distributed well in advance.
- Set communication protocols. Since the participants will not be able to see each other, it is important to agree on protocols to help identify the speaker in an audioconference. In most cases, it is advisable to instruct all speakers to state their name before making comments. For example, "This is Mary, and I would like to comment about..."
- Encourage interaction. In an audioconference, interactions should be built into the format. For example, instructors should call on specific students, instruct students to take turns asking questions, and make sure that one student is not allowed to monopolize the conversation. With both audioconferences and audiotape delivery, students should be required to use e-mail, fax, or voicemail to engage in further interactions with each other and the instructor.
- Record audioconferences on audiotapes. It is very easy to record an audioconference. That way, you can distribute the tapes for students who were unable to participate in the conference and for those who would like to review the content.
- Get to know the students. If possible, seek ways to get to know the students, such as visiting the remote sites, gathering the students together in one place, or exchanging photographs or videotapes.
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College of Education, University of South Florida © 1999, 2009.