Broadcast Composition :  Using Audio Files and Podcasts in an Online Writing Course

Steven D. Krause, Eastern Michigan University

Home | Defining | Situation | Audio | Results | Podcasting | Future

The Situation: About "Writing, Style, and Technology"

The course and the students

"Writing, Style, and Technology" (aka "English 328") is a junior/senior-level writing course that is either required or an option for most students at Eastern Michigan University majoring in a program in the Department of English Language and Literature. This is a diverse group of students. Our English department has about 800 undergraduate majors; about half of them are enrolled in our English education program, hoping to be secondary school teachers. (Eastern Michigan University, which was founded in 1849 as a normal school, is one of the largest producers of professionals in education in the United States.) Besides English education majors, "Writing, Style, and Technology" attracts students from our programs in professional writing, technical writing, creative writing, journalism, and public relations, along with students minoring in writing.

Different faculty teaching the course emphasize different components of it; this is the description I include on my syllabus:

In this course, we will explore the ways in which the concepts of "style" and "technology" interact with each other and affect our writing. We'll begin the course by reading and writing about the ways that both writing and reading have always been facilitated by technology. Then we will closely study two different style guides to try to get a better understanding of that abstract term "style." Next, we'll explore the connections between images and words. We'll conclude by thinking and writing about how writing, style, and technology come together on the World Wide Web. Along the way, you will keep a blog and I will show you how to make a simple web site.

Since I came to EMU in 1998, I've taught this course over 20 times. From this experience, I've come to see "Writing, Style, and Technology" as a course that presents some unique challenges to students. First, while the prerequisites mean that students have had experience writing in other courses, few have had experience reading and discussing texts that focus on writing in overt and theoretical ways. Outside of an unusual experience, students in "Writing, Style, and Technology" have typically not discussed "style" and other elements of the rhetorical canon directly, they have not read the work of scholars like Dennis Baron or Walter Ong, and they are not familiar with texts like the writing style books I assign, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's The Elements of Style and Joseph William's Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

Second, the technical elements in my version of the course--such as setting up a blog and learning basic HTML in order to make a web site--put an additional strain on students who have no previous experience with these tasks and who, in some cases, seem to have decided to major in English to explicitly avoid such direct contact with computer technology. Further complicating matters is the fact that many students attending EMU are first generation or otherwise non-traditional college students, often from working-class backgrounds--in other words, the types of students who have been identified as those that have the fewest opportunities at developing strong computer literacy skills.

Now, the typical level of "technology literacy" of students in this class has certainly changed in recent years, as it has at the institution as a whole. For example, in 1998, less than a third of the students had regular access to a personal computer and very few of them had ever heard of HTML. In 2006, almost all of the students have basic computer access where they live (most with high speed Internet access), and about a fourth of my students now come to the class with a working knowledge of HTML and web publishing. Nonetheless, it is still clear that many of my students have either willfully resisted developing technological literacy skills or have not had easy access to technology to develop these skills.

The course online and my reasons for including audio files

As is the case with most universities and colleges in the U.S. today, there is a sharply increasing demand for online course offerings at EMU. Online course are especially attractive to our large body of non-traditional students, folks who tend to have work and family commitments that make attending a full load of traditional courses on campus difficult. Given the demand and the fact that "Writing, Style, and Technology" explores the ways in which "writing" and "style" are always connected with "technology," it seemed that the course was a good candidate for online teaching. While I have employed various online technologies in my teaching for several years, this was the first course I taught that was entirely online--that is, there were no scheduled "face-to-face" meetings.

As I was developing the online version of the course (which I taught first in Fall 2005), I faced a challenge that I suspect is familiar to most instructors who have moved a face-to-face course to an online format for the first time: how would I manage to present important materials--particularly non-print materials--in an online setting? Specifically, how would I be able to provide the kind of lecture-based instruction and guidance through some of the difficult readings in the course in an online format?

One possible solution was to simply transcribe a version of the lectures I give in face-to-face classes for my online students to read. But I thought this solution was problematic for a number of reasons. First, I thought it would be too time-consuming to translate my typical classroom lecturers--which really existed as a combination of incomplete notes and information recalled from memory in the teaching moment--into a text format that students would find useful. Besides, I didn't see the point in creating a complex and detailed text that students might find challenging to read simply to explain other texts that students already found complex and challenging to read.

So, my initial reasons for including audio versions of lectures to supplement difficult readings were what I thought of as common sense:

The extent to which either of these assumptions has proven true remains somewhat unclear to me, as I discuss in other sections of this site.

I also thought, more vaguely perhaps, that including recordings of myself discussing reading assignments and other class issues might bring a certain humanity to the online interface. One of the common critiques of online teaching is that its format dehumanizes the educational process, stripping from the learning environment the human to human contact that characterizes traditional instruction.  Some, like David F. Noble in his book Digital Diploma Mills, argue that this personal interaction is at the heart of any education experience.  He writes:

Education is a process that necessarily entails an interpersonal (not merely interactive) relationship between people--student and teacher (and student and student) that aims at individual and collective self-knowledge.... Education is a process of becoming for all parties, based upon mutual recognition and validation and centering upon the formation and evolution of identity.  The actual content of the educational experience is defined by this relationship between people and the chief determinant of quality education is the establishment and enrichment of this relationship. (2)

Now, I disagree with Noble on virtually everything else he has to say about the potential of online teaching, and even at his definition of "education," which he seems to unfairly define as the opposite of "training." But I do think he has a point regarding the relationships built in educational settings. As fond as I am of teaching online and interacting in all sorts of ways electronically, it is not the same as interacting with real live people.  This is why we take our laptops to coffee shops, why we go to the theater, why traditional classes are going to always be a popular option, and certainly why online classes are not appealing to everyone. 

Online students, like their traditional counterparts, seek connections with their classmates and their instructors.  In The Virtual Student: A Profile and Guide to Working With Online Learners, Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt argue that "Community... and the student's roles and responsibilities in creating it are critical to the online learning process" (26).  Online instructors need work at facilitating student community, including using different technologies (like audio) to facilitate different kinds of learning styles. 

It is probably true that the best way to develop community between students would be to have them post audio files or publish podcasts of their own. But initially, I decided against this. For one thing, I felt I needed to familiarize myself with the best ways of recording and posting audio to the Internet before instructing my students how to do this. For another, it was not (and still is not) clear to me that students in my online class would have access to the necessary hardware and software for recording audio or publishing podcasts. Had I been teaching this class in a computer lab--especially if it were a lab of newer Macintosh computers with the iLife software suite installed--I probably would have taken a different approach.

Still, getting students to publish their own audio file or even a full-fledged podcast is an option for my online students I am interested in pursuing, as I discuss in the "What I've learned" section of this site.

I don't believe that advances in instructional technology can erase the differences between online and face to face courses, and I am not sure we want to erase those differences in the first place.  But I do think that technology is allowing us to bridge and question the gap between "the electronic"  and "the real," to reach beyond something that is only interaction to a relationship that is interpersonal.  So, for me, the use of simple audio in these classes is a useful albeit baby step.

See also: