How Can Digital Audio Enhance Teaching and Learning?

Opinion | Higher Education

How Can Digital Audio Enhance Teaching and Learning?

By Bryan Alexander     Mar 28, 2019

How Can Digital Audio Enhance Teaching and Learning?

This semester I’m teaching a graduate seminar on education and technology for Georgetown University. Over the next two months, I’ll share the experience and highlights in a series of columns for EdSurge with highlights from the course. This is part 2. Read part 1 here.

Before there were podcasts, there was pirate radio, rogue broadcasters flinging unusual sounds over borders and adding new music to cultures. And before that there was the “theater of the mind,” harnessing radio’s deep power to inspire listeners’ imaginations.

Audio has a long history that is important for edtech folks to understand. Which is why I devoted a recent session of my course to it, starting with a discussion on Gardner Campbell’s classic essay “There's Something in the Air: Podcasting in Education,” which imagines a college campus infused with class podcast making and listening.

In our online discussion, students were moved by Campbell’s passionate call for attention to audio’s powerful affordances: the deep sense of an individual human being conveyed by their voice; the intimacy of sound; the power of creating a mental image evoked by audio. To my delight one student turned in their response through audio, recording a monologue and publishing it through SoundCloud. He even tracked down a recording of Campbell reading his essay aloud, sampled it, then excerpted it in his finished work—all on their own, without my prompting it

We started class with a dive into audio history. I began with oral storytelling, then moved onto early radio, identifying its powerful creative ferment, followed by noting the advent of strict federal regulation. I brought up radio theater, then spun through the rest of the 20th century, as American radio declined in competition with film and TV, reformed into homogenization through conglomerate ownership and programming. In contrast, pirate radio and college freeform programs offered creative alternatives.

This set the stage for the 21st century and podcasting. I described the form’s birth circa 2004, with creators quickly inventing ways of telling stories by digital audio, which echoes of radio theater. Then we advanced to podcasting’s second wave—the one we’re enjoying now—the one sparked by Serial’s massive success in 2014. When you consider audiobooks in the mix, it’s clear how varied and mainstream portable digital audio is today.

But our main concern was the pedagogical uses. First, learners can listen to podcasts and audiobooks as a way to fit assignments into their busy days, since they can multitask while doing housework, traveling, walking a dog, etc. And they can also listen at higher speeds, or replay key bits if they didn’t understand something.

Second, students can produce their own digital audio, which I and my class saw as part of a constructivist pedagogy: making meaning through practice. We connected this to a creative, rather than passive, sense of digital literacy. Of course, doing this requires institutional support, like providing hardware and software or making available recording spaces, establishing storage, setting up publication forms, and helping with copyright issues. Though tools to do that are getting more accessible than ever. (I pointed the class to the excellent Freesound archive.)

We didn’t conclude that digital audio was a universal tool for all learning, but found it one powerful strategy in the edtech ecosystem.


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