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Edtech Moodle online course Tertiary teaching

Should you talk to your online students?

Alice Bartlett: speech bubble (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This came up in my Twitter feed the other day. 

Substitute “researchers” with “teachers” and it seemed such an obvious question. But it wouldn’t have been just two months ago. You might remember that I recently wrote about a tweak I was planning to introduce to my online course this semester – that’s tweak three in this post – and I was pretty excited about it. I was finding it hard to believe that prior to this semester I’d never even considered talking to my students on a regular basis (because we were doing a writing skills course, so why would I??) and I was itching to start making up for this. 

My initial vague idea was to add an audio file to each unit of the course (that’s 8 in total) and to use this way of communicating to address what the students were doing well and give them a couple of tips on what to focus on in the unit with a view to the final exam. What I’ve found happens with some learners is that they don’t have the motivation to revise material online as they would have to in class. In a traditional classroom environment I’d work in some kind of vocab revision activity every time we met. It’s different online: they’re responsible for revising and even if I made them do revision exercises (in the sense of making this a prerequisite to qualifying for the final) I couldn’t be sure if everything was clear – I’d have to rely on them asking questions. Which they don’t always – or even often – do. But I digress.

As I was saying, so that’s one audio file per unit. I started with unit one and because we’re now halfway through the course, I wanted to do jot down a couple of observations. They’re going to be completely random; basically these are just things I mull over as I walk to work (another thing I’ve recently started doing). 

The recordings are getting longer every time.

The first one was a little over 5 minutes, while the last one was just over 16. This is definitely due to the fact that I don’t use SpeakPipe, which cuts you off after 5 minutes (possibly this wouldn’t happen if you were logged in; I haven’t checked). I’ve written about using SpeakPipe for audio comments when students request feedback on specific areas of their writing and I actually like the time limitation because it forces me to be succinct. I guess I could be less focused and then go back and edit bits out but being succinct seems like less work. I figured, however, that these recordings were going to be a bit different and I’d probably have more ground to cover, so having to stay under 5 minutes might be too challenging and not worth the effort. So I use 123 Apps’ voice recorder, which doesn’t require me to log in, plus I can talk as long as I like. Apparently.

I still have to plan what I’m going to say.

This is “still” as in expressing contrast to being able to talk as long as I like, not as in I’m likely to stop planning what I’m going to say at some point. I’m a pretty recent convert to podcasts and listening to them is generally an excellent way of passing the time, unless someone is very obviously thinking through what they’re saying on the spot. I don’t like hearing the same message delivered three different ways; I mean, I understand that this is what happens in natural speech (digressing, rephrasing, making sure the other person gets what we’re saying) but if I’m listening (and not taking part) I don’t necessarily need or want the conversation to be quite so natural.  

So what I do is make a note of what I want to address in the recording. For the last two recordings these notes have taken up about half an A4 page and I think this makes what I say sound more structured (if not exactly succinct) and thus hopefully easier for the students to process. 

I really should get some decent equipment.

In spite of having been planning to get a decent microphone for the last couple of years, I still haven’t gotten around to it, so I use the built in one, trying to convince myself that the sound quality doesn’t have to be great: the students are only likely to listen to the recording once. However, as I’m usually aware of the change in sound quality when podcast hosts happily announce they have new mikes, I’m pretty sure students would appreciate this too. If you have any recommendations for something that is both affordable and good quality, please let me know in the comments.

Maybe I should keep track of how many people actually listen anyway. 

I first got the idea of adding these recordings to the course when I saw audio files in other people’s courses – if you’re interested in more detail on this, check the post on tweaks linked to in the first paragraph – and they seemed to be very prominently displayed as in this image. 

Screenshot from mobile app

I liked this as I had the impression it stood out and drew course participants’ attention, so I thought I’d add mine the same way. In my course the units are unhidden one by one, so when they see a new unit, the students immediately see the audio is there. I also recommend that they listen when I post the announcement of each new unit. 

However, the disadvantage of adding audio content to a Moodle topic this way means I have no way of telling if anyone has actually played it. I could add it as a resource instead, so I’d have some indication of whether someone clicked on it, though, of course, this doesn’t mean they listened to it all the way through. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of turning it into another resource the students feel they have to click on; I want it to be optional. I’ve added a question on the recordings to the reflection prompts at the end of the current unit, so maybe some will address this in their learning journals.


I’d written most of this post up a couple of days ago but on adding that last sentence, I thought I’d wait until we were done with unit so as to have the opportunity to look at the learning journals and round the post off with student reactions, if any.

It turns out quite a few people commented on the recordings, which was reassuring as they’d clearly listened to them. The overall impression seems to be that they are helpful in terms of clarifying what to focus on and compensating somewhat for lack of F2F contact. At least one person liked the fact that they cover what was done well in the unit before, which I was pleased with. I sometimes worry I don’t adequately acknowledge all the effort the students put in.

On the other hand, some people felt the recordings were too long and found it difficult to focus for a longer stretch of time. As someone who is exposed to audio content in my L2 every single day, be this a podcast or an audiobook, I think I may have underestimated the level of difficulty for students, given the absence of a transcript or visual cues. A couple of problems were noted: an inability to focus for so long, difficulty remembering the main points and the lack of visual support (at least one person said they found it easier to be able to go back over a sentence in order to process it, as they would when reading).

I think this’ll be very useful in planning subsequent recordings. Which changes would you make? Apart from watching out for the length. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

By ven_vve

ELT, elearning, higher ed, teacher training, translation. Partial to the island of Vis since the pre-tourist era.

3 replies on “Should you talk to your online students?”

Interesting as ever! One thing I like about the H5P plugin is that in Course Presentation you can add audio file comments to visual materials. So maybe you have a text then next to certain lines you can insert a file which appears as a small play button. Btw H5P also had an audio recorder so maybe this can be used for students to leave voicemail messages for you?

On audio quality, I’m no expert but I’ve found that using the earphones with built in mic (that came with my cheap smartphone) cuts out noise and sounds quite clear …

Liked by 1 person

Hi Neil, thanks for the comment! I haven’t looked at Course Presentation yet. I guess I could add the main points to slides and then add audio where I’d normally go into more detail; I suppose that’s what you meant? I really like this idea & I’m sure some students would find this much easier to follow. Incidentally, I had a look at some more student journals today and noticed that some people had said they found it helpful to take notes of the main points in the recordings. So now I’m torn between giving them the opportunity to practice identifying main ideas, summarizing & all that note taking implies and making their lives easier. 🙂
I’m actually trying out Audio Recorder this week and am hoping for some student messages; we’ll see how it goes. Thanks for the earphones idea too!

Liked by 1 person

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