Using Audio As a Teaching Tool

We often ask students to listen. We might be lecturing, playing a music recording, or teaching about heart arrhythmia. Each situation requires students to pay attention, and to develop a specific type of listening skill.

Today, we can reproduce a wide range of aural experiences and distribute them easily over the Internet to provide students with "anytime, anywhere" exposure to content, along with increased opportunities to practice the skills we'd like them to learn.

"I learn to see things from different perspectives and listen with different ears. The most important thing that you need to do is really listen." - Itzhak Perlman

In this article we'll discuss "digital audio," which here refers broadly to the digital reproduction of sound, using a computer or portable device, attached to speakers or headphones.

Columbia offers numerous sources of audio recordings. We offer an Online Music Reserves custom-tailored to the Music Humanities curriculum that includes more than 200 complete works. The Columbia University Libraries subscribe to numerous sound recording databases that similarly include complete works in various genres, although not tied to any specific course. In all instances, the audio is "streamed" to users' computers, which allows them to listen while connected to the network but not keep a copy of the material. (Note: The sources referenced above are restricted to Columbia users.)

Our Columbia on iTunes U portal delivers Columbia-produced educational content to students, faculty, and the public through Apple's popular iTunes desktop media player. Some of this content is public, and some is restricted to members of specific courses. And of course the iTunes Store and the Web in general offer a vast amount of free audio content, including podcasts from sources ranging from the well known to the obscure.

CCNMTL can help you record new or convert existing audio content and figure out the optimal way to distribute it to your students. Please read on for more information about creating and using digital audio content in your course.

Why use audio?

Audio can be used in numerous academic contexts, from music and language instruction to archival recordings of lectures (we'll take a look at a "field recording" example below). Making audio content available online can be an excellent way to reach students, who can listen from any location and at any time via the Internet. Students increasingly expect this content to be available to them, and, fortunately, the means of distribution are increasingly becoming easier to use.

Some reasons you might consider offering audio recordings to your students:

  • To provide students with a study aid they can review after lecture;
  • To enable students to review the lecture in preparation for discussion and debate;
  • To demonstrate a task, procedure, or complex concept that would benefit from multimedia presentation and/or the ability to watch repeatedly;
  • To use on an ongoing basis as a reference for students;
  • To free up class time for discussion. Making recorded lectures available before class meetings makes more time available for discussion and hands-on activities. In the classroom context, multimedia can be a powerful tool for helping students learn and retain complex ideas and phenomena.

There are a few potential pitfalls to keep in mind. First, because students are listening at their convenience, their ability to ask questions or participate in discussion is limited; faculty may want to offer an online space or designate a portion of class time for this purpose. Second, the visual cues that may accompany in-person delivery are generally lost, unless special efforts are made to capture and synchronize them with the audio track. Third, many faculty fear that providing content online may limit students' attendance in class, but we have found that this is generally not the case, as have others (Copley, 2007).

See our articles Teaching & Learning with Podcasting and Podcasting Basics for more information about podcasting.

Technical details

This section is for those who are more technically inclined or want to know what's going on behind the curtain.

Once digitized, audio tracks are saved as sound files, e.g., MP3, AAC, or WMA. These files can then be played back using various software applications, and if downloadable, stored on a portable device such as an iPod or other MP3 player. You have probably heard of or used QuickTime, iTunes, RealPlayer, or Windows Media Player, to name a few. These software programs use "codecs" (which stands for "code-decode") to translate the digital file into an audible experience. Some players can play multiple file types because they accommodate an array of codecs, while others play only one type of file.

At Columbia, we tend to store media files on a "streaming server" that delivers audio content in real-time and prevents students from downloading the files to their computers. Using streamed media (as opposed to downloaded media) helps Columbia remain more squarely inside fair use and copyright guidelines.

An example: using audio in fieldwork

With the growth of the iPods and other portable digital audio technologies, the quality and ease-of-use of sound capture equipment has improved greatly, allowing teachers to begin to experiment with new ways to use audio in field projects.

As an example, a sociology professor at SUNY Potsdam created a two-week project that was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, the Jack Kerouac road novel. The class explored Kerouac's role as a social documentarian. Thirty-five students were required to interview strangers as they traveled across the country from San Francisco to Massachusetts, exploring themes in the novel. The project resulted in a website of "soundscapes"--recordings that were geotagged on a map that showcased the experiences of the students.

To assist the class, an independent radio producer accompanied the students, who were given headphones, a microphone, a recorder, and instructions. At first, students asked their subjects basic questions about their travels and adventures. But as they became more comfortable with the technology and its use, they began to relate the text to what they were experiencing in the environments they visited. One student asked people questions about maintaining relationships while chasing passions in life--a main theme of the book.

When using audio equipment for projects, some students may need technical help. But the producer believes that most will be able to figure it out with basic instructions and information that is widely available on the web. He encourages "academic short-sheeting" so student challenges lead to a discovery process. Short turnaround times can force students to jump into assignments and he advises not to make the assignments too complicated, as editing and production can be time consuming. You can hear more about this by listening to Learning with Sound, a podcast on the SUNY Potsdam project from the Chronicle of Higher Education.