Editor’s Note: As the web develops new interactive capabilities, and students come armed with social media with audio, graphic and video capabilities, there is renewed opportunity for educational experiences using these familiar media devices. This extension of learning opportunities is challenging teachers to involve themselves with communication cultures well established among students.
Using Asynchronous and Synchronous Audio Communication Platforms to Enhance Online Learning and Student Connectedness
M. Wallen, S. Burke, and J. Oomen-Early
In the asynchronous online learning environment, integrating innovative teaching strategies that connect, engage, and motivate learners is imperative to create a quality learning experience for both instructors and learners. Asynchronous and synchronous audio feedback and dialogue are emerging tools that can help increase social interaction, foster a sense of community, and create a positive social climate for learners. The introduction of audio and video may enhance communication between instructor and student and lead to better teaching and learning outcomes. The ability to provide more emotive messages within an online course-room may also enliven and enhance student and instructor engagement with the content, increase student participation, and reduce student attrition. YackPack, Centra, and the use of MP3 audio feedback files allow for social networking within the online classroom, and appeal to both visual and auditory learners. This article will provide a general description and overview of YackPack Voice Groups, Centra, and explain how MP3 audio files can be utilized for feedback and communication. Examples of how these learning tools and platforms can be effectively applied and integrated into online courses and pilot data with limitations and challenges of this new technology are also provided.
Keywords: YackPack, Centra, MP3 files, technology, online instruction, social connectedness
Asynchronous and Synchronous Audio Communication social networking tools such as YackPack Voice Groups, Centra, and MP3 file sharing provide students with an opportunity to discuss course-related content, debate a topic, discuss research or final course projects, listen to guest speakers (from as far away as another country), ask questions regarding the course or content, collaborate with other classrooms (near or far) or share current issues. In addition, instructor feedback that may be more time intensive to type can be easily accomplished by providing learners with an audio feedback message. Through the use of YackPack Voice Groups, the instructor can provide online students who have differing schedules with the ability to interact with their classmates, instructor, and guests at different times of the day (asynchronously). By implementing Centra, an engaging learning environment can be established despite limitations of location. Instructors can also utilize free or inexpensive software to create MP3 audio files to help provide meaningful context and rich detail for students when offering assessment feedback. Learners seem to perceive audio feedback in a more relevant and meaningful way and value the more personal feedback provided (Merry & Orsmond, 2007; Oomen-Early, Wiginton, Bold, Gallien & Anderson, 2008).
What are Centra, YackPack, and MP3 Audio Files?
YackPack access has been free in the past; however, small fees may now apply. It can be accessed anywhere with an Internet connection and does not require any software or server installation.
Several free or low-cost software packages are available, which allow instructors to use an internal or external computer microphone to record or convert previously recorded files into MP3 audio files for students. These files may be emailed to students or posted on a student’s assignment site within online course platforms such as WebCT or Blackboard. The tone and inflection used when providing audio feedback removes the barriers associated with understanding the intent of the instructor’s written notes and clarifies suggestions for improvement vs. explicit feedback for required change. More detail is often provided when speaking than writing and examples are more easily relayed to students verbally as opposed to written text notes. In addition, further emphasis can be made to highlight important content and introduce brief supplemental material.
At time of press, YackPack was free of charge for users. However, a small charge of $5 per user per month may be implemented in the near future. The researchers contacted the owner of YackPack, Dr. B.J. Fogg. at
Because Centra is synchronous, schedule conflicts may occur. However, Centra is equipped with a playback feature for later viewing. Students may have to purchase a headset with a microphone for both platforms if their PC system is not equipped with a microphone. The charge for a headset is quite reasonable and should be considered with the cost of course materials. Some believe innovative audio social networking tools are just a “fad” and have no real value in the academic learning environment (Lackie & Terrio, 2007). As an educator, you may be in the role of advocating for the benefits of using a supplemental teaching strategy such as YackPack or Centra. Intellectual property and FERPA are areas of concern for higher education, so it is important for instructors and staff to consider any ethical and legal issues that may hinder the use of these platforms at their institution (Educause, 2006). There are fewer limitations associated with using MP3 audio files. Depending on the length of the recording, the files may be quite large and require lengthy downloading depending on the user’s browser and Internet connection. Some students prefer visual and auditory feedback, so finding a solution to incorporate both is worth investigating in the future.
A pilot study was conducted to explore the perceptions and use of YackPack, Centra, and MP3 audio feedback files among students enrolled in online health education courses. An online survey was utilized by the researchers during Fall of 2007 and Spring of 2008 using a non-randomized convenience sample of students at a large university in the southeastern
In the Fall of 2007 and Spring of 2008, the survey instrument was posted on a survey data collection website (SurveyMonkey), and an email was sent to 54 learners enrolled in three online graduate health education courses. Anonymity and confidentiality of survey participants were maintained on the survey website through the use of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption of the data and by not collecting any unique personal identifiers in the survey. Students received minimal extra credit as an incentive for completing the questionnaires.
A total of 14 out of the 20 students who received the study invitation emails completed the survey, for a 70% response rate. Of the total respondents, 7 were male and 7 were female. One student was a sophomore, two were juniors, four were seniors and seven were graduate students. Seventy percent (n = 10) moderately agreed that they enjoyed using YackPack as a discussion tool. Two felt that they strongly agreed they enjoyed using YackPack and only two moderately disagreed they enjoyed using YackPack. Ten respondents strongly or moderately felt it was easy to use (69.6%). Close to 80% (n = 11) of learners listened to their audio messages from their fellow learners and half (n = 7) felt comfortable creating audio messages.
All learners agreed that YackPack could be a very helpful communication tool for students and the instructor in online courses. Interestingly, only 36% of students agreed that they would prefer using audio discussion boards rather than written discussion boards with their peers. The findings were similar with respect to audio messages saving time. Eighty percent of respondents felt that using YackPack could help them understand course content better than without having it as part of the class. And lastly, 100% of learners felt that YackPack helped improve student peer and instructor interaction in the virtual classroom.
Twelve out of eighteen students enrolled in a graduate health education course completed an initial questionnaire regarding their perceptions of Centra as an additional tool in their online course, for a 66% response rate. Seventy three percent of the students (n = 8) were female with 33% (n=4) male. Fifty percent of students always used the playback recording feature when not able to attend a Centra session, while 42% used it occasionally. Ninety-two percent of respondents (n = 11) moderately to strongly agreed Centra was user friendly and easy to use. The majority of students (n = 11) felt that users at least needed a small level to a moderate level of technical experience to use Centra. Most students (n = 11) felt that they enjoyed the Centra sessions hosted by the instructor and 100% (n = 12) agreed that the session enhances their understanding of the course content.
All moderately or strongly agreed that Centra could be a very helpful communication tool for instructors in online courses and can improve connectedness in the virtual classroom. Seventy-four percent of the respondents would prefer Centra sessions rather than written discussion questions with peers, if given the choice. All agreed Centra should be used the next time the course is taught. Some of the qualitative comments shared were,
I enjoyed the personal contact, the ability to ask questions and hear other students ask questions and receive immediate feedback. The use of documents and presentations were very helpful. The one session I missed was due to my own failure of not reading an email. I will go back and review the recording.
I was very impressed the first time I used Centra. I thought it was a great way to connect with the professor and classmates. I think it is a great tool for distance learning because it allows interaction that is typically unavailable.
At first, I was a little nervous of Centra…but after the initial class, I can’t imagine the class without it. I appreciate the ability to playback the session, it was quite helpful. I believe that without the Centra sessions, I would not have been as successful as I have been. I hope my classes in the future will access this capability.
Sixteen out of the 16 students enrolled in a graduate health education course completed the survey resulting in a 100 % response rate. Of the total respondents, two were male (12.5%) and 14 were female (87.5%). All survey respondents believed the audio messages were easy to access and play and enjoyed the audio feedback posted by the instructor. A majority of the students (n=15) agreed that the audio messages used in the course enhanced their understanding of the course content and all students recommended using audio messaging the next time the course was offered. All students also believed that audio messages help to improve the connectedness felt by the student to the instructor in a virtual classroom. When asked to share personal thoughts about audio messaging as a teaching and learning tool for the online classroom, students’ responses included the following:
The audio messages are very informative and creative. It creates a feeling of person to person contact with the instructor on a weekly basis. I enjoyed having the resource of the audio messages. I think they (the audio messages) are helpful to connect with the instructor but they should not be the only method of communication for information… they should be another option to learn what’s necessary. They (the audio messages) helped me understand the material. The audio messages made this course feel just like a traditional classroom course. I would recommend audio messages for all online courses.
It should be noted that these instruments were created by the researchers and reliability was not established. The purpose of the surveys was to gain insight into students’ perceptions of these integrated online platforms. Because of the small sample size, inferential statistics were not applied. The results are not generalizable beyond the current population sampled.
The research literature related to developing and evaluating the effectiveness of communities, particularly online communities consistently support the need for classroom components such as support, cooperation, commitment, and interaction. Researchers report evidence of a significant relationship between classroom community and perceived cognitive learning (Rovai, 2002; Rovai & Lucking, 2000). Full time distance education students report that the interaction links between students in an online course help to overcome feelings of isolation and provide affective support (
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Michele Wallen Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Education and Promotion at
Sloane C. Burke Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Education and Promotion at
Jody Early-Oomen Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor and former director of online programs in the Department of Health Studies at Texas Woman's University. Dr. Oomen-Early's research has focused on strategies to increase student engagement and social presence in the online classroom as well as factors that promote and hinder effective online instruction. Dr. Early is currently exploring the impact of technology on underdeveloped countries, such as