(paper presented at ED-MEDIA, 2003)

The majority of Internet communications between student and teacher in online educational interactions is still based predominantly on asynchronous written text, with email absorbing the lion’s share of that communication. While there are technical difficulties facing those who might wish to explore more dynamic forms of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), there are also significant pedagogical barriers preventing teaching staff adopting these tools as part of their core teaching repertoire or practice. Many teaching staff are still very unsure how to make best use of the Internet in general, let alone how to exploit the technically and pedagogically more challenging synchronous tools available. Recent research into the use of the Internet at the Douglas Mawson Institute of Technology revealed that despite widespread use of the Internet by teaching staff, most of them are still using it in a fairly conservative manner. Few lecturers are exploiting the potential of the Net to facilitate collaborative approaches. Use of communication tools like chat and discussion forums, while frequently used for communication with colleagues across multi-campus departments, were rarely used for teaching purposes. The use of email in teaching is quite widespread, but it is mainly used as one to one communication between student and lecturer, and typically around the sending and marking of assignments. This paper and accompanying presentation will outline how the use of online voice technologies can improve the delivery of both campus based and distance learning programs, and pose some suggestions as to what methodological approaches can maximise their effectiveness.

The Internet is not just a passive resource. As someone commented after one of my voice online workshops, "I thought the Internet was just something for getting information." There is now a wide range of tools on the Internet that enable the transmission of voice. To date, the power of synchronous voice interaction has been little used in online educational delivery, and given that speech is the main mode of human communication, this can be considered somewhat surprising. Even with increasing bandwidth for many users, and the increase in computer processing power, the use of voice online is still largely confined to groups of dedicated home users who are in many cases communicating with lecturers and peers in an informal capacity via home dial-up connections. This is often due to a reluctance of Information Technology departments within educational institutions to allow such traffic through their firewalls. It has been assumed too that ICTs, and the use of voice in particular, are tools suitable for use only in truly online teaching situations where teacher and students are remote from each other. There is great potential for voice over the Internet to add texture and richness to campus based programs. It is possible, and technically not very difficult, to have remote experts virtually visit your classroom (off or on campus) via audio input for, for example, a ten minute guest spot.

A literature search reveals that there has been little research into the use of voice online. Further exploration is needed into the various configurations of using voice online. Online voice interactions can

  • be synchronous or asynchronous
  • take the form of live conversations (using the voice chat feature of the predominant instant messenger programs like Yahoo, MSN, AOL, etc)
  • be shared via voice email (eg Pure Voice) or asynchronous discussion forums (eg Wimba)
  • be full duplex (where participants engage in a flowing two way conversation much as we do in a telephone call)
  • be semi-duplex (where a participant has to wait for the previous speaker to finish before responding)
  • be in the form of voice input only from a single source (typically used for listening to lectures in asynchronous mode)
  • be in the form of voice input and text chat output (synchronous events where a remote speaker addresses a class group who can reply only via written text)
  • include both voice and text in synchronous interactions
  • include voice and graphic material (synchronous or asynchronous; using programs like Powerpoint or HorizonLive)
  • include video or graphic representation of 3D worlds using avatars. (Though video is often used in tandem with voice chat via personal webcams, the scope of the current paper will not address the use of video due to the fact that most of the world does not surf the Net on broadband, and Internet video for dial-up users is still of questionable quality.)

English as a Second or Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) teachers were perhaps the pioneers of exploiting the use of voice in online teaching. No one disputes the value of the aural input component in language teaching. In other disciplines there are many instances of lectures having been converted to audio as asynchronous listening exercises, but the value of synchronous communications in online courses draws far less favour. Some see it as detracting from the flexibility of online learning – not being confined to a time and a place is after all one the attractions of this mode of study – but live, synchronous communications with remote students can be a valuable motivator for some who like more regular contact with a lecturer, and there is no doubt that the experience of communicating with voice online brings one’s interlocutors closer  (it can bring a sense of humanity to an otherwise disembodied online experience),  and is more suitable for those who are not as comfortable relying on written text for all course communications. Voice online can cater for learning styles that prefer a more immediate sense of contact with the teacher (see Chickering and Ganson’s seventh principle of effective teaching - Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning.) In addition, “the advent of voice-chat technology has brought a unique opportunity to educators who wish to have a positive effect on the lives of blind and low-vision students. “(Preparing Students for Higher Education; Cathy Anne Murtha - http://www.accesstechnologyinstitute.com/articles/gld.html)

Though available tools for using voice online can certainly be used for whole class instruction, this need not be the only method employed. Voice online is an excellent vehicle for one on one support, personalised peer-to-peer communications (see especially Groove at http://www.groove.net/), or teacher to small group interaction. It is not too far fetched to contemplate a future where the ability to manipulate one’s voice online will be included as a measure of information literacy, and with the advances in speech recognition technology that allow voice commands to drive your computer the day will come when we’ll have computers without keyboards. Not to mention how personal computers may interface with mobile devices.

This presentation will demonstrate some of the tools available for using Internet voice communications, and discuss the methodological implications for each one in both on and off campus settings.  It will feature contributions from remote presenters who will speak of their experiences in using voice online in their teaching.

Conference delegates will then be invited to participate in a short discussion of the suitability of the products and approaches modelled, and have opportunity to experiment with them. A primary goal of the session would be for delegates to review the methodological approaches associated with using voice online, rather than focus on the technical aspects of specific softwares. It is also hoped that an outcome of the session may be the creation of an ongoing electronic discussion group for interested delegates. (This group now exists within the LearningTimes network.)