Should Your Online Course Sound Like 'Serial'?

column | Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Should Your Online Course Sound Like 'Serial'?

By Amy Ahearn (Columnist)     Jun 9, 2016

Should Your Online Course Sound Like 'Serial'?

Krista Tippett knows how to connect with audiences. She hosts a radio show that airs on more than 400 stations across the country. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2014. And her show “ On Being” consistently lands in the Top 100 on the iTunes podcast charts. So when +Acumen recently worked with Tippett to produce an online course, I was not surprised that she spoke eloquently about each instructional topic while conveying a deep and authentic presence.

However, when I sat down to package the raw footage into course videos, I worried that the project might be harder than anticipated. Tippett’s sentences were long, complex and contemplative. Her tone was one of inquiry rather than authority. She sounded different than typical instructors on platforms like Udemy, Udacity, Skillshare or Coursera who lecture in tones of confident authority. But as I kept listening, I realized that her voice might be exactly what online learning needs.

Radio and podcast hosts like Tippett have much to teach the education community about how to build engaging digital content. If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2016 is the year of the podcast. According to Pew Research Center studies, a third of American adults have listened to a podcast while only 18 percent arefamiliar with MOOCs. This is partly because the voices on podcasts have started to sound different. Women—including women of color—have taken the medium by storm.

The online course space, on the other hand, has remained dominated by the voices of white men. Online learning has a mansplaining problem. Take the homepages of five of the most popular online learning providers: Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn, Lynda and Udemy. Collectively their lists of “Popular Courses,” “Popular Courses Starting Soon,” “Online Courses,” “Top Courses” and “Courses” feature 83 classes taught by a total of 163 listed instructors. As of June 2016, 72 percent of these instructors were men.

The platforms themselves are not exclusively responsible for this gender imbalance. A 2014 study from researchers at North Carolina State University found that students consistently rated instructors they thought were male higher on evaluations. This leads male instructors to top the “most popular” course lists more frequently, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.

So why are women having a hard time finding their voices in online classrooms even as they dominate podcast airwaves?

Keeping It Real

The secret to why podcast audiences are growing and attracting new voices might be authenticity. In addition to being more diverse, podcast hosts are better at sounding like themselves. Even tightly edited podcasts like “Serial” and Gimlet Media’s “Startup” allow people to speak spontaneously and conversationally. Some voices aired are slow and others accented. Not only do audiences listen in spite of this authenticity, they appear to listen because of it. Online courses, on the other hand, sometimes sound like infomercials promoting expert knowledge rather than inquiries tempered by humility or curiosity. If we want to build engaging content, this is a mistake.

“Listeners want you to be real, a real person…I think the more human you are, the more people can then relate to you. The whole point is…people will want to take my hand and come along. It's so they feel like they trust me enough to come down the road with me,” observes Kelly McEvers, host of the NPR podcast “Embedded.”

Similarly, the producers of WNYC’s podcast “Note To Self” recently blogged, “It's painfully obvious that it took a while to figure out how our show should sound. But a huge part of that process—that transformation—stemmed from [the host] Manoush realizing that it's O.K. to sound like herself. In fact, the show is better for it. She realized that she can be vulnerable and uncertain, and not always find answers. Because that's how the world works, and that's how people work.”

In the digital age, when education is increasingly conducted at scale and at a distance, building trust between instructors and students is critical. Online teachers need to figure out how to keep students engaged and comfortable enough to stick with them even when the learning gets tough. This means discovering instructors who can speak to a range of experiences.

Rethinking the variety of voices and formats will not only be better for engagement, but also for learning. Rather than presenting information in scripted bullet points like an old-fashioned e-learning module, we should experiment with formats like debates, conversations, open-ended inquiry and stories in online courses. This will require students to extrapolate key points, synthesize what they’ve heard, and sometimes leave with more questions than clear take-aways. As Charles Duhigg points out in his most recent book “Smarter, Better, Faster,” we need a little bit of disfluency to help us learn.

“To learn more, sometimes we have to make data harder to absorb,” Duhigg says.

Supporting New Voices

Ultimately we need to look critically at the voices we amplify to build a rich, varied experience. Here are four specific ways to get started:

  • If you are an underrepresented voice in online learning, consider building a course. It’s easier than ever to build one on any subject on platforms like Udemy, Teachable or Skillshare. Feel confident that you have something to teach. As Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, has found: “There are...many people (often female) who massively underestimate the value of their work and their learning, and their insights.” Start believing that your ideas might deserve a wider audience.
  • If you are an online course taker, select and review courses more thoughtfully.Look at the instructor bios. Try to find courses taught by people whose voices you might ordinarily not encounter. Before writing reviews, critically consider the type of course you were expecting and whether those assumptions hold any implicit biases. Be comfortable learning from content that might leave you with more questions than answers.
  • If you are an online learning company, consider the types of instructors and voices you are amplifying and actively recruit new perspectives. Change the quality review standards so that you accept videos that sound different than traditional talk-to-camera formats.
  • If you are an instructional designer, find more diverse voices to put behind the camera. Leverage formats like dialogues and questions.

Amy Ahearn (@amyahearn11) is a Senior Innovation Associate at Acumen, where she builds online courses.

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