Asynchronous Online Audio Discussions
By Wesley A. Fryer
The word “podcasting” has entered the educational technology lexicon relatively recently. Usually understood as web-posted audio files linked within a “feed” to which people can “subscribe” and automatically receive updated content, podcasting continues to attract the attention of innovative teachers and school administrators seeking to find effective ways to engage students and improve teaching and learning experiences. Some traditional media sources like National Public Radio (www.npr.com/podcasts) have embraced podcasting, and the term (along with “blogging”) is recognized by an increasing number of teachers, students, and parents. While some observers think of podcasting as “no big deal” since people have been posting audio content (as well as other types of media files) to the Internet for many years, the ability for people to “time and place shift” as they listen to audio podcasts or view video podcasts can be a transformative experience. With podcasting, listeners are no longer chained to their computer, but can take a mobile digital audio device (like an iPod) anywhere they want to listen and “consume” downloaded podcast content. The authentic, global audience available to podcasters can be an extremely positive, transformative motivator for students learning skills of literate communication, but it can also pose new challenges for educators accustomed to tightly controlling curriculum and classroom activities.
Podcasting, along with blogging, is playing a pivotal role in ushering in a new era of decentralized content publishing and idea sharing across the globe. Like any other tool, podcasting can be utilized in various ways to serve diverse purposes. This article examines two emerging read/write web technology services, YackPack and Vaestro, which are extending the interactive possiblities of web-based audio conversations (here liberally defined as “podcasts”) and the exciting, creative possiblities these free tools offer for educators, students, parents, administrators and community members.
What is meant by the subtitle of this article, “Asynchronous Online Audio Discussions?” Interactions that take place via the Internet can be broadly categorized into two groups: those which happen synchronously (when all parties are online at the same time, like instant messaging or videoconferencing) and those which happen asychronously (when parties may or may not be online at the same time.) Since the world is a big place with many different time zones, asychronous interactions have important advantages. Some universities making wide use of online courses, like the University of Phoenix (www.phoenix.edu), extensively utilize text-based online discussions. This environment provides a great deal of flexibility as well as accessibility for students living in different areas, with different schedules, utilizing different types of computer systems.
Until recently, asynchronous online discussions have been largely limited to text-based interactions. The continued development of “web 2.0” technologies, or “read/write web” tools, is changing the online interactive landscape, however. Free web services like YackPack (www.yackpack.net) and Vaestro (www.vaestro.com) permit users to engage in audio-based discussions with others using only a computer microphone and a web browser. The audio recordings are immediately stored to a server on the Internet, rather than being saved on local hard drives and then subsequently uploaded to a server. The process is amazingly easy and straightforward, providing multiple benefits for users as well as instructional possiblities for educators.
Although technically not yet “podcasting” because the saved audio files created through YackPack and Vaestro are not yet available and “subscribeable” via an RSS feed or ATOM feed, I predict that functionality will be forthcoming in these tools or others similar to them. An era of powerful, interactive podcasting is dawning, and educators should take notice to understand the possiblities as well as limitations and pitfalls of these new educational technology developments.
BENEFITS OF INTERACTIVE PODCASTING
The respective slogans of both YackPack and Vaestro succinctly communicate their similar goals of empowering users to engage in web-based discussions via audio recordings. YackPack Learning (www.yacklearning.net) has the slogan “Better Learning via Interpersonal Podcasting.” Vaestro’s website (www.vaestro.com) subtitle is, “The Dialogue Driven Network.” Both are free webservices enabling users to record short audio messages online in ongoing discussion forums. The following are potential benefits shared by both YackPack and Vaestro:
- MAGIC OF THE HUMAN VOICE: There is something unique and special about the human voice which text generally cannot communiate. These tools both permit people of all ages and backgrounds to record their voices and share perspectives without substantial keyboarding skills.
- SAFE WAY FOR INTERNATIONAL EXCHANGES: Websites like ePals (www.epals.com) offer great ways for classroom teachers to connect for collaborative projects, but interactive videoconferencing (which is sychronous) and other types of multimedia-intensive student interactions (like sharing created movies) can be both time and technology challenging. Interactive podcasting solutions like these offer ways for students to exchange perceptions and discuss topics of mutual interest in controlled, moderated environments teachers can supervise.
- INEXPENSIVE AND STRAIGHTFORWARD: Interactive podcasting via YackPack and Vaestro utilizes low-tech resources that are affordable and accessible in any classroom. All that is required is a computer connected to the Internet, a web browser, and a microphone. Most Macintosh computers ship with a built-in microphone, Windows-users can borrow a microphone from the campus computer lab or teachers can purchase one at Wal-Mart for around $7.
- PROMOTES LEARNING OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM: Authentic learning for students as well as teachers is not limited to the 8 am to 3 pm bell schedule. In the 21st Century, educators at all levels need to investigate ways to extend learning beyond the traditional walls of the classroom, and interactive podcasting can provide an excellent forum supporting this goal.
- AVENUE FOR PARENT CONNECTIONS: Educators are frequently looking for more ways to communicate with and engage with parents. Either YackPack or Vaestro can be used to create forums to not only communicate messages TO parents, but also solicit and receive feedback FROM parents about classroom activities and even student performance. Parents as well as teachers need to understand how messages can be either public or private. In the case of YackPack, private messages can be sent from the parent to the teacher if desired.
- INVITING METACOGNITION: Metacognition is the process of thinking about thinking. Students need to be regularly challenged to explain their understandings of concepts and ideas discussed in class and included in the formal curriculum. Authentic learning is likely to take place if teachers provide opportunities, both in class and outside of class through tools like these interactive podcasting sites, where students are challenged to think and reflect metacognatively.
- EASE OF EXPRESSION: Young students can be stymied by their inability to fluently keyboard their ideas onto a computer screen. When allowed to record their thoughts using a computer microphone, however, even young students can readily share ideas and swap perceptions with others. Whatever the age or ability level of the student, interactive podcasting permits differentiated instructional approaches that can better meet the learning styles and expressive abilities of students than strictly “traditional” interaction methods.
- MULTIMEDIA COMMUNICATION: We live in mediacentric society where we are regularly bombarded by different modes of expression. In our classrooms, we should strive to find ways to help students as well as parents move beyond textual communication. Text-based communication is important: reading and writing are essential. But these expressive modalities are only part of the literacy lexicon of the 21st Century. Students need to become savvy consumers of media content, and the best way to help them develop those skills of media literacy is help them become effective media producers themselves.
- MOTIVATING AUTHENTIC AUDIENCE: Many students are not motivated to write and “perform” in class when the teacher is the only member of the audience. Given an opportunity to interact with other students across town or across the world, however, those same students can become remarkably engaged and intrinsically motivated to communicate appropriately.
- FUN: In our increasingly test-driven classrooms, some teachers and administrators seem to have forgotten (or never learned) that people learn best when they are having fun. Interactive podcasting can be engaging, valuable, and impactful for students for many reasons, but one of the most important is that it can be fun! If students are having fun, and if they are having conversations about their classroom activities which extend outside regular classtime, the instructional strategy is likely an effective one. If students beg to engage others through the classroom interactive podcast, chances are they are going to learn things they will remember for a long time. The challenge for the teacher, therefore, is to structure those learning opportunities so they can be enriching and valuable as well as fun.
The features of YackPack (www.yackpack.net) can be alternatively considered strengths or weaknesses, depending on the purpose for which it is used and the audience of students (and others) involved. YackPack interactive podcasts can be:
- OPEN OR CLOSED: YackPack forums (called “packs”) can be private, closed interactions not accessible by people from the web (who have not been sent an invitation via email) or can be open for anyone to join. For classroom exchanges, the closed option is probably preferable.
- CONDUSIVE TO COMMUNITY BUILDING: YackPack permits users to upload images for themselves and share a few sentences about themselves in their YackPack “profile.” There definitely is unique power within the human voice, but there is also important power in visual images that can help establish connections with others. This feature is optional, but if desired it can help students build a sense of community as well as individual connections to each other.
- UN-THREADED: In its current iteration, YackPack “packs” of users and exchanged audio messages are not available in a threaded format. This permits private messages to be sent among Pack members, but does not currently permit members to listen in a linear, sequential format, to all messages posted by others.
Vaestro (www.vaestro.com) offers similar functionality to YackPack, but with some important differences that may be beneficial depending on the method of use and audience. Vaestro interactive podcasts can be:
- OPEN: In its present iteration, Vaestro discussions are accessible to anyone accessing the website address of the forum. It is not currently possible to have a closed Vaestro forum, as is possible with YackPack.
- MODERATED: Posted topics and audio posts can be moderated, if desired, by a forum administrator. This person can serve as a gatekeeper of content, to insure posted messages are appropriate. Once topics and voice posts are approved, they appear on in the forum for others to listen and enjoy.
- THREADED: Discussion group members as well as guest visitors can view a “threaded” version of posted audio comments. By default, when selecting a topic, users will sequentially hear all posted audio messages in a given topic. If desired, however, users can stop or pause recordings, and select a specific post for listening. This threaded post feature can make Vaestro a preferable tool for professional development or whole-class discussions about different topics, compared to YackPack. Users with free Vaestro accounts can “subscribe” to particular topics within forums, and even choose to view only “unheard” audio posts.
- ANOYMOUS POSTS PERMITTED: Depending on the forum moderation settings, anoymous posts can be permitted with Vaestro. Depending on the purpose and audience, this can be either a good or bad thing. If soliciting parent feedback, for example, it can be good to not require the creation of a Vaestro account. Parents can simply visit the website, listen to a posted audio comment by the teacher, and then immediately post feedback. On the other hand, permitting anonymous audio posts also invites potential abuses, most likely from students.
These interactive podcasting tools are admittedly examples of potentially “disruptive technologies” which may strike fear into the hearts of some school administrators and classroom teachers. The basic reason for this boils down to issues of control. Could students make poor choices and choose to record offensive or inappropriate comments using these tools? Of course. But as educators, shouldn’t we strive to provide environments where students can make REAL decisions of import and value, so they can learn how to behave appropriately in different contexts? The virtual world is here to stay, and educators at all levels need to get more serious about helping student learn to safely and effectively navigate that environment. An analogy to swimming may be appropriate here. If students are living on the coast, and are exposed daily to the dangers as well as opportunities of the ocean, shouldn’t any responsible caretaker strive to help those students learn to swim? Our answer must be “yes.” Interactive podcasting is one read/write web technology that can be used to help achieve this goal in the virtual enviornment.
AudioBlogger (www.audioblogger.com) is a free service which permits users to create audio podcasts using their cell phone, which are directly saved to the Internet and “subscribable” via an automatically generated RSS feed. Just as AudioBlogger permits anyone with a cell phone and access to the Internet to create a free online account to become an international podcaster, services like YackPack and Vaestro are likely to continue maturing and offer increasingly powerful ways for people to interactively podcast. These tools are powerful and rich in their educational potential. If you utilize one of these tools, please let me know about your experiences so I can share it with others! Contact me on www.wesfryer.com/contact, or directly join an ongoing conversation about these tools on http://www.yackpack.net/yackpack//index.jsp?ppid=4857&join=9215 or www.vaestro.com/viewforum-198. Find a podcast version of this article (including all referenced links in the podcast shownotes) on www.speedofcreativity.org/?p=1043.
----- About the Author
Wesley Fryer is an educator, author, digital storyteller, and change agent. Catch up with his latest ideas on his blog and podcast, Moving at the Speed of Creativity (www.speedofcreativity.org).
This article was written on 31 May 2006 for the TechEdge, for print publication in summer 2006.