Monday, July 2, 2012

Audio feedback - some thoughts on 'A Personal Voice'

Image from Kenn Delbridge, available under a
CC BY-ND 2.0 license
Last Friday, the 29th of June, I attended an HEA symposium at the University of Leicester called 'A Personal Voice? The whys and hows of effective audio feedback'.  It took the form of a couple of workshops and then some presentations and discussions.

Which sounds simple enough, but when the workshops involve a group of people from a range of Higher Education Institutions coming up with Olympic themed-limericks and drawing pictures to illustrate... then you can see that it wasn't your ordinary event!  In fact, it was a whole lot of fun as well as being really engaging and thought-provoking.  Oh, and if you're wondering, the limerick exercise was a route into getting us to provide written feedback, reflect on that feedback and then have a go with audio feedback.  It also got everyone talking - and if in the future I run a staff development session and there are limericks involved, then the organisers of this event are to blame!  :o)

Our Olympic themed limerick illustration
In terms of the experience of providing audio feedback, each of the four groups used different technologies - from Jing to an mp3 recorder, Adobe Acrobat and - I think - the iPad app 'Explain Everything' (though I'm not 100% sure on this one, sorry!).  The experience of recording feedback in this way was fascinating.  Many people really struggled with getting started - there's a real anxiety about recording your own voice which is hard to overcome.

Our group were given Adobe Acrobat to insert voice comments on the 'script'.  The advantage was that this is a free tool and that it's relatively straightforward.  The issue for me, at least, was that it's seriously difficult to spot your comments once you've put them on a script.  And the interface isn't intuitive in the slightest especially when it comes to reviewing or even editing your comment (the edit function is non-existent).  Putting specific comments within the script also sounds like a good idea, but because of the lack of structure to this - where do students start when it comes to retrieving their feedback? - and the artificial fragmentation of breaking your comments into lots of short recordings was just a strange experience.  You lose the flow of your thoughts.  The temptation to be too curt is there.  And from a student's perspective, the ability to quickly scan through comments is removed entirely - without indexing of comments, using them as an ongoing reflective tool is extremely difficult.

When we reviewed the feedback given by the group using Jing, this seemed far better.  It felt like you were being talked through the feedback rather than just having it drop on you in individual chunks.  It also felt as if it were a slightly more natural experience for the person giving feedback too - though obviously since this wasn't me, I'm only guessing!

Things that came out of this workshop?  Don't script your feedback - it sounds dull and is dull to receive.  However, do structure your feedback - help the learner to find their way through it, 'I'm going to be covering three things, a, b and c in this feedback' etc are helpful.  It's useful to signpost which bits of the script you're talking about - with the mp3-only option this was particularly important since the script was not on-screen at the same time as the audio.  Additionally, talk like a human being and personalise where possible!

It was interesting to hear about the 'A Personal Voice' project and 'AUDIBLE' as well from Jennifer Beard, University of Leicester.  They looked at various aspects - Contiguity (in context vs out of context comments); Working memory (chunking feedback vs a single overall feedback file - presenting more material results in less understanding!); Personal vs. community experience (do you provide individual or group feedback?); Nuance (is it the way we say things or do we choose to say things differently via audio?).  It will be good to see the results of their work - some of the initial findings were shared and a couple of things particularly stood out.  Firstly, the fact that distance learning students didn't prefer audio feedback to written, especially compared to on-campus students who liked it far more.  Secondly, students didn't just want icing on their feedback cake - they want sprinkles too... audio feedback is one thing but they like audio and written feedback.  The fears of workload overload loom large, I fear.

After Jennifer came Warren Kidd who presented on his experience of using audio to deliver feedback to trainee teachers at the University of East London with 'Why haven't you written on my work?'.  He's an engaging speaker and it was interesting to hear him say that he goes for a structured rather than scripted approach (confirming the earlier thoughts during the morning's sessions).  Things to consider when thinking about structure:
  • What is the purpose of recording?
  • How long should the recording be? (theirs were around 3 - 4 mins)
  • How should the recording start? ('Hello this is x giving you feedback on y, you may wish to have your assignment with you during this podcast etc..')
  • When should the grade be disclosed? (they elected to do this towards the start of the feedback with the normal caveat about the grade needing to be confirmed by exam boards - randomly placing the grade was artificial and unhelpful)
  • What is the relationship between what you do or don't write on students' work?
He said his workflow involved jotting down a few key points as a skeleton and using those to guide his feedback.  Helpful and practical advice!

Warren also spoke about getting over the scariness of the mic through his work with producing podcasts prior to giving audio feedback (you can get a flavour of his podcasts on his blog) - how to get people through that particular issue is something to reflect on, I think.  He emphasised the importance of giving feedback rather than feed forward and viewing the audio feedback as a form of personal tutorial.  Although they have an anonymous marking policy, they were able to adapt this to reveal the students' identities after marking - so, scripts were marked anonymously, but feedback given slightly later with identities known.  This really helped them give that personal feedback and the feeling that students were being talked to as individuals.  Warren played an example of his audio feedback and it really was great to have the opportunity to hear this.  He recalled having seen - through chance - his student receiving their feedback and seeing them nodding along in agreement, then later mailing him to thank him for helping them understand points they'd previously just not grasped.  It clearly is an engaging format for learners.

More drawing and limericks in workshops from
now on, I think!
Questions I came away with, however... is it the fact that this is forcing practitioners to think about what is the purpose of feedback and how it fits into the curriculum which makes the difference?  Or can we honestly say that it is the audio format which is the key?  As someone who's used to providing a very conversational and personalised form of written feedback I didn't really recognise some of the issues which were presented about written feedback. It was interesting to note that no staff development work on feedback was done prior to the research from the University of Leicester.  If you haven't controlled for that variable in some way, then how can you know that it was providing feedback in either audio or written form which made a difference?  There are always better ways to do things - and feedback in audio form doesn't automatically transform into being 'better' simply because of technology... just as feedback in written form doesn't instantly become 'worse'. The elephant in the room about the ability to provide meaningful, useful feedback / feedforward in whatever format just didn't get addressed. 

Also, viewing feedback as being 'conversational' simply because you could hear the conversation doesn't mean it is a conversation if the participant is given no voice.  In other words, it's still mono-directional in a way that a personal tutorial isn't.  

Finally, if you're looking to audio as a way to make the marking and feedback process more efficient / easier, then I don't think you'll find that it is - especially if there's still a need to provide written feedback too.  If anything, the workload seems to be expanding!  This is definitely a point to ponder further!

A really interesting and valuable day - many thanks to the organisers at the University of Leicester!

Sarah

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