Lending your voice

When I’m training instructors to teach online, I often recommend using a variety of tools to expand the ways that students participate in classes.  Too often, I fear, online students encounter text-based content where they participate through text-based discussions and are assessed with text-based quizzes and exams.  That’s a lot of text.  I’ve typically based my recommendations on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) which recommends offering multiple means of representing content, allowing students multiple means of expressing what they know and motivating students through multiple means of engagement.  In practice, this means providing content in many different ways and allowing students different ways of demonstrating what they’ve learned.  For example, besides assigning a reading, an instructor could record short videos where they explain content to students.  Besides writing a paper to show what they’ve learned, students could record short presentations using sites like MyBrainShark or Powtoon.  There are a multitude of possibilities of expanding beyond text-centric online learning environments.  While UDL provides a strong rationale for doing this, I wonder whether additional evidence may strengthen my case.   Here goes.

Take a recent article in the New York Times.  Titled “The Mouth is Mightier than the Pen,” the article examined research on sales pitches conducted at a graduate business school.  In the study, the researchers examined whether hearing a person’s voice impacted how a sales pitch was received.  In numerous trials, researchers found that people who heard pitches, whether through recorded audio or video, rated the “candidates’ intellect more highly” than the pitches they read via text.  Voice, one of the researchers contends, is “the closest you ever get to the mind of another person.”  Text-based systems, like email, “is really good at sending a spreadsheet but it strips some of the humanity” out of the communication.

In asynchronous environments, online instructors rely heavily on text-based communications.  We ask students to participate in discussions by contributing written posts and comments to their peers.  Hrastinksi examined asynchronous and synchronous environments and found that they support different types of learning.  While asynchronous activities support higher order reflection, synchronous ones increase personal participation and motivation.  Asynchronous activities, however, are often misconstrued as being solely text-based.  I wonder whether the inclusion of recorded voice in asynchronous spaces would foster more personal connections in online classes.  By having instructors and students sharing their voices instead of text, could it bring some “humanity” to online classes?  While I’ve been focusing on pedagogical reasons for expanding the tools we use online, there could be sociological ones as well.   Sharing your voice might make online students rate your “intellect more highly” but it also may make them feel more connected to the class.

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