Better Learning With Sites and Sound

December 3, 2008

Even as many instructors embrace digital tools in the classroom, some are pushing the technology envelope with more complex tools for teaching or interacting with students. New research suggests the promise of such approaches.

One qualitative study, which surely won't be welcomed by manufacturers of basic word processing software, found that students who create and edit documents using Web-based collaboration tools include more complex visual media in their assignments -- and come away with a better understanding in the process. Another ongoing experiment finds, with statistical significance, that instructors can be more effective in grading students' work if they record their comments directly into documents as audio.

Innovations like these are often criticized as bells and whistles being promoted for their own sake. But if they can actually produce observable differences in outcomes, educators might take a second look, especially in the case of Web-based tools, which are free and increasingly being used by students (whether or not it's encouraged by their professors).

Google Docs, for example, has gained popularity as both a note-taking tool and a collaborative editor that lets multiple users modify documents at the same time. It works with text files, spreadsheets and presentations and can function both on and offline. For the study, Phil Ice, director of course design, research and development at the American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va., used Buzzword, a similar Flash-based suite from Adobe.

Students in four graduate courses at West Virginia University worked on and submitted group projects in two different ways, alternating for each assignment: using Microsoft Word to save, track changes, add comments and send files back and forth as e-mail attachments; and sharing files and editing them online using Buzzword. According to the study, the students "were more likely to use graphics, charts, links, etc. in Buzzword because of the ease of inclusion" than in Word, possibly as a function of the interface's comparative ease of use.

Perhaps more significantly, the study found that they were "more likely to explain more complex concepts using a combination of text and non-text based materials. The majority of participants ... expressed the view that it was easier to express themselves at a higher cognitive level when they could present material using multiple media sources." They also had higher levels of satisfaction.

Although the study had a small sample size, Ice suggested in an interview that the "multiple forms of sensory input" such as charts, links and graphics not only make the information more understandable to the reader "but apparently ... students are learning more from that process as well"; a process that's not too different from the wiki editing experience. He is preparing a larger follow-up study with at least six different institutions around the world.

In theory, then, collaborations using Web-based editing tools can potentially boost understanding, at least visually.

But learning doesn't just occur in the visual realm. Ice co-authored a study, currently under review, that examines how listening to spoken words while also reading at the same time can improve students' learning experiences. In particular, he and his colleagues attempted a method in which professors record comments on students' written assignments, which students can then listen to as they read along at corresponding points in the text. They can also record their own responses and continue back and forth in a sort of audio conversation.

While the Web-based collaboration tools are free, Ice's method makes use of embedded audio features in Adobe Acrobat Pro. If institutions own the software, however, students can listen to the audio (and record their own additions) on the free and commonly used Acrobat Reader. (Adobe provided 60 copies of Acrobat Pro for the study but no additional funding or support.)

The forthcoming paper found that students in the audio study were at least three times more likely to take professors' comments into account in their final assignments if they were in audio form as opposed to written. What they found, Ice said, was that "students are actually listening to the instructor and reading what they wrote so they have two sensory modes working at the same time," which could actually improve cognition.

Since the paper was produced, Ice added, additional research has confirmed that the findings are generalizable over many different contexts, such as types of learners and types of institutions.

But a central component of the effect is what the authors call the "asynchronous audio feedback" aspect of the comments: that students can listen to previously recorded audio while they're reading what it is referring to.

"I've tried other methods, too, where you send the students a document and then also send them a [separate] sound file, and the effect is not nearly as strong; as a matter of fact, it's barely significant when you do that," Ice said.

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