Friday, 4 September 2009

Sounds Good presentation

If you can spare 56 minutes, you might be interested to watch a video of my presentation on Sounds Good at a Lancaster University staff development event on 15 May 2009. Here's the link: Thanks to Lancaster University for recording the session and agreeing to a link from here.

I think most of the session is coherent but it includes a passage where I take people through a simulation of a book review exercise and receiving audio feedback. This bit is likely to be more understandable if you also study the book review exercise and then listen to the audio feedback. The materials for this are in the Downloads section of the Sounds Good website, at:

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Still breathing

There’s life in the old dog yet. The trigger for this posting is the publication of JISC’s ‘Effective Practice in a Digital Age’, which includes two versions of a case study on Sounds Good. Both are entitled ‘Making assessment a learning experience’. The shorter version is on pages 26-7 of the PDF file available here. The longer version, in Word format, is here.

Whilst I’m online, it’s worth saying that Sounds Good continues to arouse interest. Since the end of March I’ve given a further six presentations, making a total of 30 so far. Several more are lined up in the next few months. If you’d like me to run a staff development event on audio feedback, or speak at a conference, please get in touch and let’s see if we can arrange something.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Thanks, team!

Now that the formal part of the project is over and the final report is pretty much ready to go, it's time to acknowledge that it's been a team effort and thank everyone.

Sounds Good has involved many people, staff and students, all of whom helped the project to succeed in one way or another. Thanks are particularly due to JISC, for the funding and also for consistent encouragement and support, most obviously from Lawrie Phipps, Programme Manager for the Users and Innovation Programme. My line manager, Prof Sally Brown, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Assessment, Learning and Teaching at Leeds Met, deserves an accolade for allowing me to run the project as I wished and to give it more time than budgeted for. Simon Thomson, Sounds Good’s Deputy Project Manager, has been a valuable ally, sounding board and source of advice. I am also grateful to my main contacts at the three partner institutions for Sounds Good 2: Bob Ridge-Stearn at Newman University College, Caroline Stainton and Katie Jackson at the University of Northampton and Simon Sweeney at York St John University. Peter Chatterton, the project’s ‘critical friend’, provided reassurance and an extra forum for discussion as well as provoking productive thought. Isobel Falconer, our external evaluator, negotiated sensitively on how to review the project and then worked with colleagues before producing her helpful insights and perspectives. It has also been fun to get to know Will Stewart, leader of the ASEL project at the University of Bradford, and to share experiences with him. To all these people, and to others too numerous to mention, I much appreciate your contributions.

What a team!

Monday, 23 March 2009

So where are we?

At the end of February I called ‘time’ on Sounds Good: audio feedback after that date would not be taken into account when writing up the project. Since then, I’ve been gathering and analysing information and drafting the reports for JISC. Several months ago I asked on the blog ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ Only now, after a journey of a year, can we answer ‘yes’.

So where are we? Regular readers will know the main aim of Sounds Good was to test the hypothesis that using digital audio for feedback can benefit staff and students by:
  • saving assessors’ time (speaking the feedback rather than writing it)
  • providing richer feedback to students (speech is a richer medium than written text).
Initially the project was funded for the period January to July 2008. During this time a team of 16 Leeds Met lecturers experimented with digital audio to give formative and summative feedback on students’ coursework. Later, funding was provided under JISC’s ‘benefits realisation’ initiative for a second stage, ‘Sounds Good 2’, which ran until February 2009. In this phase the design called for six Leeds Met staff from the first stage to mentor 12 colleagues joining the project and for audio feedback to be introduced to three other higher education institutions: Newman University College, Birmingham; University of Northampton; York St John University.

Overlapping with the second phase, two HE Academy subject centres – Engineering and Geography, Environmental and Earth Sciences (GEES) – were funded to introduce audio feedback to their constituencies as part of JISC’s ‘Widening Stakeholder Engagement’ initiative. I’ve been helping the subject centres with this work.

Sounds Good has mainly been a qualitative study. Even so, it has produced a few statistics. Taking the two phases of Sounds Good together, 38 teachers in four institutions have supplied audio feedback to at least 1,201 students at all educational levels from foundation degree and first-year undergraduate to doctoral. The staff were located as follows: Leeds Met 23, Newman University College 8, University of Northampton 4, York St John University 3. In the first phase the numbers on the various modules ranged from six to 151, with at least 463 students receiving one or more items of audio or video feedback. In Sounds Good 2 the numbers on modules ranged from three to 150 and at least 738 students received one or more items of audio feedback.

The project has operated in widely differing circumstances, which has been a mixed blessing. The main advantage of this diversity is that has enabled a worthwhile preliminary exploration of the potential of digital audio for assessment feedback. On the other hand, the differing circumstances have led to a suite of case studies rather than one large, standardised experiment.

Sounds Good has worked very well overall. In the first phase it ran almost entirely to plan. In the second phase it generally went well in all four institutions, but there were a few minor problems, including:
  • Only four of the six Leeds Met mentors managed to engage with mentees.
  • Only seven, rather than the planned 12, mentees were recruited at Leeds Met.
  • The extended communication channels between me and some team members led, occasionally, to staff not being entirely clear what was expected and me being less well-informed than previously as to what was happening.
  • The data returned were somewhat less complete and even more varied in nature than in the first phase.
  • I found it difficult to give the project sufficient time in January-February 2009.
The Sounds Good staff team is, on balance, strongly in favour of audio feedback. Even if they didn’t manage to save time, a high proportion of the team have commented that they were able to give more, and higher-quality, feedback using audio, which they felt was worthwhile. Their reservations about audio feedback were mainly about the practical difficulties they encountered. Most of these could be regarded as ‘teething problems’ which might reduce or disappear with further practice and the use of the practice tips which we’ve published. The majority of the team have clearly said they intend to continue using audio feedback, and almost all will probably do so.

No doubt some staff are encouraged by the fact that the great majority of students were positive about receiving audio feedback on their coursework. Students particularly appreciate the personal nature of individual audio feedback, as well as the detail they often received.

As for the central question tackled by Sounds Good:
  • Can digital audio be used to give students quicker, better feedback on their work?
the answer is ‘yes’, in some circumstances. The most favourable conditions seem to be:
  • The assessor is comfortable with the technology.
  • The assessor writes or types slowly but records his/her speech quickly.
  • A substantial amount of feedback is given.
  • A quick and easy method of delivering the audio file to the student is available.
At this stage it is fair to say that most UK academic staff assessing student coursework would probably find it worth giving audio feedback an extended trial with at least with some of their assessment work. For many it would be sensible to begin where the conditions are most favourable. For example, this might be with a small cohort or where the detail or personal quality of audio feedback are particularly important. In contrast, it would probably be inadvisable to start by attempting to give individual audio feedback to a big cohort, because of the problem of accurately providing large numbers of audio files to students. However, with a big cohort an early, efficient step might be a ‘one-to-many’ communication: group audio feedback.

There is much yet to explore in the field of audio feedback. There is plenty of scope for larger trials, attempting to tease out the variables and studying the effectiveness of audio feedback (i.e. whether it enables students to learn more). However, a particularly pressing problem – one which might be solved quickly by a programmer – is to automate the process of sending feedback to students. Audio feedback is already an attractive proposition, yet if assessors could be confident that – regardless of cohort size – it would take them little or no time to let students have their audio feedback, even more would probably find audio feedback worth adopting.

Sounds Good has broadly achieved what it set out to achieve. It has done some valuable exploration and produced useful practice guidelines. All in all, it has delivered an excellent return on JISC’s modest investment and, most of the time, it’s been fun.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Too little too late?

A thousand apologies for being so tardy with this: I've been running around trying to get to grips with my new job, but I'm now in a position to start if it is not too late.

Below are a few points that have occurred to me. They relate to my context of teaching 'English as a Foreign Language' to international students on a Foundation programme.

First of all, because one of our aims is to improve the level of language knowledge and skills, with written assignments we usually show some of the main erros we find as well as comment on the content. This is not correction, but an indication of the types of error, so that the students have to think for themselves in order to correct their own work. This would be far too tedious to attempt in a spoken format, as it would be so difficult indicating which line of which paragraph the problem was in and so on. So we will continue to need to give a form of written annotation as well as audio. On the face of it, this might suggest duplication, although in reality adio feedback will be additional feedback such that we don't normally give - perhaps a sentence or two only is the norm. However, the potential benefits are great, so I'm keen to give it a go.

The second issue is that our students are doing a wide range of assignments, from group presentations, webquests, online listening to the more traditional grammar tests and written essays (the latter mostly not very long). Typically, they have two or three short assignments each week, as well as longer pieces for the end of semester. Feedback is therefore regular and quite varied. I did a trial run with MP3 files after a recent speaking test, and needed help to sort out the technical issues. Once I'd got the hang of it though, it was relatively straightforward. We'll see if I remember what to do next time. But with so many pieces of work coming in all the time, I'm concerned about the implications for time of doing additional recordings.

Finally, for now, there is the question of how much some of the students understand spoken rather than written feedback. I can imagine certain students thinking 'what did she say?' With no written word there is not the same option to check in the dictionary, especially when you have no idea how to spell a spoken word. This suggests the need for regular dialogue with the students as to how they are finding oral feedback, with further impications for time ... aaaaggghhh!

Anyway, as I said, I'm still keen to give it a go, so let me know if I'm too late or not.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Simon (York)

Finally managed to get back in to the Blog. The trouble is if you use three computers, three email addresses and forty seven and three quarters passwords you make mistakes. However, with the help of my pet whippet I now have an ENTIRELY MEMORABLE blog password!!!!!!!!
OK, Sounds Good!!!???
This has been - as Bob said it would be - an exciting journey (although frustrating at times). I will be putting a full report together...but talk about a learning curve!!! I found that wherever there was a choice to make I made the wrong choice, so everything took hugely longer than I anticipated. The worst thing has been getting the feedback to the students and getting an acknowledgement from them and getting the questionnaires back. This has been marked by a truly gargantuan level of difficulty.
A friend who runs an educational support organisation for creative writing told me last year his network (NAWE) had 1000 members and usually about 100 manage to attend the annual conference. 1 in 10 struck me as very good. Likewise with a survey, 1 in 10 response isn't too bad (though that means to get a response from 50 needs 500 surveys posting out which is a lot of work. Anyway, on Sounds Good I am indeed running at about 1 in 10. Actually I think this is low, and feel sure Bob will be disappointed. The worst thing though is I cannot be sure that the students have even got the Audio feedback at all because I am not receiving acknowledgements!!

So what went wrong? It seems to me that unless you set up the Assignment delivery electronically inside the VLE you are pretty well unable to post out the feedback through the VLE - and in any case once the module is to all intents and purposes over, the students never go near the VLE for that module again anyway!!!

Mark and I set about sending files through the VLE but it was HUGELY timeconsuming for Mark (and he's a VLE expert). So instead I sent the files out using my private email and the students' private emails if I had them, if not University email accounts. Here there's always the problem of file size and not knowing whether they have opened their email account - even once in recent times!!! Or ever!!!?? IN ADDITION - and Mark will be surprised by this - it took hours to do this and therefore probably didn't save (me) time over the 'attaching to the VLE approach'....
So... and that....has been ONLY SOME of the problems....
So do I have anything positive to say??? YES. Both my colleague Bev Geesin and I have been delighted with the Audio Feedback in terms of what it can bring to the process and the students who HAVE responded have all been very positive (except one who wanted written feedback AS WELL!) yes, I think Audio Feedback is the future. I would always want to use it (even though I think with all the technical problems resolved it WILL NOT SAVE TIME. It is though a much more sophisticated, detailed and personal feedback service. OK...full report at the end.

For the moment I am still stuck in a quandary. What should I do for those students who have not responded at all? I may have to go through the laborious process of attaching the files into the VLE...but even then, will they visit Blackboard weeks after they handed in their work???

OK...that's it. More detail will be provided later....Happy Blogging!
Simon signing off (and taking the whippet for a walk).

Friday, 19 December 2008

The indirector

Three years ago, beginning my exploration of audio feedback, I was a one-man band. I did the literature search, decided on the technology, taught myself how to use it, recorded the feedback on my students’ work, sent it to them, gathered their comments on the experience, analysed the data and published the results. In a very straightforward way, my actions (or lack of them) determined how things went. It was hard work, but I was in control and it felt comfortable. If I had been lusting after a title, I might accurately – but absurdly – have called myself ‘director’ of the one-man band.

Then came Sounds Good, a 17-person audio-feedback ensemble at Leeds Met. Again it was my baby: people looked to me as the person ‘in charge’ and I readily accepted the responsibility of shaping the project and moving it along. So, amongst other things, I decided on the technology, issued briefings to team members, gathered completed questionnaires, analysed the data and, as before, published the results. But it wasn’t as before. The important difference was that I was at one remove from the action: I had almost no contact with students and produced none of the audio feedback. I did deal directly with the producers of the audio feedback – teachers at Leeds Met – but I don’t think I ever ‘directed’ operations, in the sense of ordering people what to do. Instead I largely made requests, offered recommendations and suggestions. We’re not in the army and the informal style seemed appropriate. I called myself ‘project manager’ rather than ‘director’. Being at one remove, and being lousy at delegation, I was often anxious as to what would happen. See here and here, for example. I wasn’t as comfortable as when I was running my one-man band but, as it turned out, the team did a great job and Sounds Good worked well. Thanks, colleagues!

Now it’s Sounds Good 2, an even bigger audio feedback enterprise where, in many instances, I’m yet further removed from the action. Most of the original Leeds Met team are continuing to use audio feedback with their students, but new teachers have joined us and some of the ‘old lags’ act as their mentors. So in some instances the communication chain between me and students now has an extra link: me – mentor – mentee – student (and back again). There are indications that it doesn’t always work perfectly and I occasionally detect a bit of ‘Chinese whispers’. At this moment, I’m not confident that I have the full roster of Leeds Met student groups who are, or will be, receiving audio feedback this semester as part of Sounds Good 2.

And then there’s what’s happening elsewhere. As part of Sounds Good 2, audio feedback work is getting under way at three partner institutions: Newman University College, the University of Northampton and York St John University. What’s going on there? I’ve visited all three places, know my institutional contacts and have met quite a few of the staff intending to give audio feedback. Some of them have started to blog about their experience and information flows back and forth. Even so, I worry that I don’t have the full picture and I do feel far removed from their students.

Considering the project as a whole, it’s bigger than I could have imagined back in 2005-6. I believe it’s going well but, as of today, I don’t really know. What I’m sure of is that other people now have far more influence over the outcomes than I do. Emphatically, I’m not the director, in the sense of being in full control, able to pull levers and make the intended actions happen immediately.

So I’ve dubbed myself the ‘indirector’ of Sounds Good 2. ‘Indirector’ is, I think, a neat label for someone who is, sort of, in charge of something, but not with the expectation of control that a director may have. An indirector operates indirectly, through other people, along sometimes lengthy and rickety communication channels. An indirector can’t or won’t order people to do things and instead resorts to other strategies, including encouragement, facilitation and finger-crossing. Some indirectors seem to find this easy. Given my instincts for simplicity and do-it-yourself, I don’t. But the new badge helps, a bit.

Bob Rotheram
Indirector, Sounds Good 2