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

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

First impressions

It's a few weeks now since we did the "first run" of audio feedback with our first years - a few weeks to allow us to catch our breath, look back and reflect on what we did. So what can I say? Initial responses to audio feedback, from both staff and students, have been overwhelmingly positive. Students particularly liked the informal nature of the feedback (particularly pertinent when bearing in mind that they are first years and the importance of retention rates these days), with comments like "It felt like the tutor was in the room there with you" being not uncommon. Interestingly, the (very) few negative comments from students were regarding the quality of the feedback itself, and not the medium - definitely something to bear in mind.

Staff were also generally positive, and comments tended to follow the patterns predicted by Bob in his helpful advice. Virtually all staff felt that the process saved them time, and, obviously, those who were more familiar with the technology felt much more comfortable with the process. Staff training sessions on the equipment generally went very well, and I think we'll keep these ongoing, so that familiarity breeds ease of use. Our turnaround time for marking (something that our Exams and Assessments Office keeps close tabs on) was markedly reduced.

It would be interesting to see if the move to audio has led to any change in the levels of engagement that students have with feedback. A common perception here at Newman is that students are only interested in their marks, and often don't read or only skim the feedback given to them for assignments. A first reading of their comments would suggest so, and as our students are now clamouring for more audio feedback in other modules, this may be something to take further...

Monday, 8 December 2008

Simon Sweeney's first post

Greetings from York....
Finally making a contribution to the Blog. I saw the Guardian piece last week and was pleased to see good publicity for this innovative project!
We have had some interesting discussions at York St John on various kinds of electronic feedback - including electronic marking - something I have experimented with in the last year or so. But audio feedback is much more exciting. Bob came to YSJ a month or so ago and clearly articulated the benefits observable so far from the SoundsGood project and it sounded uncomplicated and student friendly.
I have a number of modules lined up to provide electronic feedback on - first of all an M-Level module that I have already marked and am about to record the feedback and distribute to students. I am planning to ask students for an instant response to see what they make of it. Most of these are NNS (non-native speakers) which I think adds an extra dimension to the benefits of audio feedback.
Later this term (hopefully before Christmas) I will have added another larger cohort on an undergraduate module. A colleague is also planning audio feedback for another M-level module.
I have used the recorder already - and have so far found it OK to use, if a bit complicated to rename files (it's vital to name the files in an instantly recognisable way).
That's enough for an initial contribution.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Power of the spoken word

Sounds Good is featured on p.5 of the 'Digital Student' supplement in today's Guardian, published in association with JISC. You can see the online version at:

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

About to start stage one feedback.

At the end of this week over 100 students (I hope) will be submitting their work for me to assess. I used audio feedback last year on about 25 students from this very module. This year I plan to do about 80. The students upload the assignments via our virtual learning environment (VLE). I then send the audio feedback files back to the students via the VLE.

For this assignment due Friday I will be giving audio to about 50% of the students from this cohort. I will be interested to see how much time that saves me and of course the feedback I get from the students.

I will then be giving audio feedback to a different group of students next semester, on a different level just to get an idea how the feedback is received at different levels of learning.

I have always enjoyed giving audio feedback and now the process is second nature so I do not have the task of learning the technologies. For those of you who want to try audio feedback but are worried about the technicalities of undertaking it I would just give it a go.

Bob and I have given an introductory workshop on audio feedback to staff at Leeds Met and many of those were first time users. By the end of a 1 hour session the technology was not the barrier but hearing your own voice played back for the first time was the hardest thing to overcome.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Here Goes....

Hi, this is my first post to the Sounds Good blog, and I only have 10 minutes or so. I'm Steve Dixon, Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at Newman University College, and we're just about to start audio feedback.


As in about nine and a half minutes time.

We're trialling with our first year cohort, so we have about 80 students or so. All the students have submitted an essay via Moodle (our VLE), and we're adding in-text comments then providing a link to the audio feedback, again via Moodle. The setting up and administration of this has been fairly straightforward, although as we have a marking team for this (6 staff), I've also had to deliver training sessions and write guidelines (Bob's original documentation was incredibly useful in this respect). We're using Handy H4s for recording, although one or two of the marking team have hinted at a preference for digital microphones.

OK, I now have less than 5 minutes before we have a last meeting before we start marking and giving feedback, and coffee is important. Wish us luck...

Friday, 31 October 2008

Are we nearly there yet?

As a dad and veteran of many car journeys from the midlands to the north, I’m used to people trying to get a handle on how much further there is to go. I recently had another experience of this when someone asked me about Sounds Good. They were under the impression that we were ‘nearly there’.

We’ve certainly come a long way. After setting off in January, we followed the map quite closely. By July we’d given about 15 Leeds Met staff and 460 students experience of audio feedback on coursework. Pleasingly, whichever side of the microphone they were on, the great majority liked it. We shouted out of the windows and encouraged passers-by to get started. We showered them with leaflets, to try to help.

Amid the din, there were messages from JISC. They wanted us to extend the journey, to do ‘Sounds Good 2’ and work with two Higher Education Academy subject centres. But before we embarked on that, we had a summer break.

Come September, we were back on the road. ‘Sounds Good 2’ is about introducing more Leeds Met staff and students to audio feedback, as well as helping three other places to begin using it. Hence the flurry of meetings on home territory and gigs at Newman University College, Birmingham, the University of Northampton and York St John University.

The engineering and GEES subject centres have also got going. They’ve been funded under JISC’s ‘Widening stakeholder engagement’ initiative to help engineers and geographers start using audio for assessment feedback. Their plans include input from several folks who work with audio and, for my part, I’ve already visited Cardiff and Loughborough universities.

So are we nearly there yet? No. The road map now stretches to next March and quite a few new colleagues will be following us in their vehicles. There’s plenty of noise, most of which sounds good. However, some are only just getting into first gear and – as ever – I worry they may stall. Dropping the metaphor for a moment, there’s much to do if several new groups of people are to be successfully introduced to audio feedback and if the knowledge base is to be expanded.

In terms my kids would understand, when we set off I said we were going to Blackpool to see Grandma. We’ve been there, done that, and it was great. However, there’s been a change of plan. When we get to the M6 we’ll turn left for the Lake District rather than right to go home directly. And all the while I’ve got to watch the rear-view mirror to be sure our friends are still with us. It’s become a longer, more complicated journey but there’s lots to see and do, and it could be more fun. Let’s enjoy the ride.

Now then, I spy with my little eye…

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Mean time for Greenwich

Last Thursday, 23 October, was a great night out in London for 10 from Leeds Met (and about 1,300 others). We were at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane for the Times Higher Awards. I’ve previously mentioned that Sounds Good was shortlisted for an award in the category for ‘outstanding contribution to innovation and technology’. I also wrote that my reaction to this news was “Wow, I’m amazed!” It’s not false modesty when I say that, although I’m very pleased with the way Sounds Good is going, I didn’t think for a moment it would win an award.

And so it proved. In the ‘innovation and technology’ category, the worthy winner was the University of Greenwich with a method of combining the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide with toxic waste to produce material which can be used in concrete blocks. That’s much more likely to ‘make a difference’ than Sounds Good. I didn’t meet any of the Greenwich folks, but I bet they had a mean time celebrating!

The Leeds Met contingent – which included several members of the Sounds Good team – enjoyed itself too. My greatest achievement on the night was to stay upright whilst ‘dancing’ to the Stones. Thanks to all who made the evening possible: JISC who fund the project; the team for their great work; my manager, Sally Brown, for nominating us; Leeds Met for paying for the trip.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Sounds Good Piped.

I’ve been playing around recently with Yahoo Pipes, so when I decided to trawl the web for info about Sounds Good, it seemed an ideal opportunity to try it out for real. So, here’s a pipe that pipes in info about Sounds Good and audio feedback from various news and blog sites I like on the web. It’s not particularly sophisticated, so feel free to adapt it if you like. .

Newman joins Sounds Good 2.

I first came across the Sounds Good project when I attended a session that Will Stewart, Bob Rotheram and Martina Doolan ran at the Next Generation Environments Conference at Aston back in April. Newman is a small college which prides itself in the personal attention we are able to give to our students so, if Sounds Good was showing that students valued audio feedback, I was sure our staff would be interested. We are also, like all universities, concerned with providing timely feedback and often there is a tension between constructive and comprehensive feedback and the speed at which it can be delivered. Although the first phase of Sounds Good did not suggest that providing audio feedback would reduce the time involved in providing it, it did suggest that with practice and by observing certain ways of working, it could be provided quite quickly. I returned to Newman and spread the word and soon had several keen tutors who wanted to get involved. Bob Rotheram visited us at the end of September and we are now officially on board and I hope bring to the project a diverse range of subjects and students. Joining in the second phase of the project allows us to benefit from the experience gained in the first phase and we can’t wait to start!

Bob Ridge-Stearn
Head of e-Learning, Newman University College, Birmingham.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Burglars, teachers and windows

Question: What’s the connection between burglars due in court and university teachers launching modules? Answer: Windows. If the link isn’t immediately obvious, it’s probably because your career has been different from mine. I used to be a probation officer and now I’m a university staff developer.

When they hear the word ‘windows’, many people involved with technology think first of the computer operating system. I’m very involved with technology: the core of my job is about its uses in assessment. What’s more, I’m producing this piece with the help of Windows. But my PC is behaving itself today and Microsoft’s money-spinner isn’t what’s on my mind. Instead, I’m reflecting on the last couple of weeks of Sounds Good activity and am keenly aware that I’m using windows as much as I can.

Burglars, teachers and windows? Mmm.

In my previous blog post, ‘Let’s not get carried away’, I noted that I’d spent September racing around leading sessions about Sounds Good. Since then I’ve done several more, including two last Friday. Some of the ‘gigs’ have been by invitation, others because I’ve taken the initiative. More than once, it has been difficult to fit the session in but I’ve made the effort. Why push myself? Windows.

Burglars, teachers and windows? Need clues? Anxiety. Dissatisfaction.

Right now, the beginning of the academic year in UK higher education, can be a pretty anxious time, and not just for new students. It’s when teaching staff make key decisions and establish patterns for the next chunk of time – the term, semester or year. Some will be worried or uneasy about how they are going to run their modules and assess the students. At times like these they may be more than usually receptive to snake-oil salesmen who offer the prospect of both making their lives easier and pleasing students. But soon, for better or worse, the teachers will have made their major decisions on assessment, learning and teaching. Anxiety levels will have fallen, along with the chances of them buying snake oil – until the cycle begins again.

The windows I have in mind are, of course, windows of opportunity. I used to try to exploit them with burglars up for sentence and anxious to show they were turning their lives around. Nowadays my target group is very different but the strategy is the same: get the timing right; use temporarily-raised anxiety and dissatisfaction to produce a public declaration of changed ways; hope for a better course of events. A gentle nudge may be all it takes.

Gotta go. Snake oil – sorry, audio feedback – to sell and I can hear the sound of windows closing.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Let's not get carried away

August was relaxing but September is hectic. This is often true for those of us who work in UK higher education, but Sounds Good is making September 2008 even more of a whirl than usual for me. Not that I’m complaining.

This month I’ve led sessions about using audio for assessment feedback at:
  • Leeds Met’s Assessment, Learning and Teaching Conference;
  • the Association for Learning Technology conference (ALT-C) in Leeds;
  • a research seminar at the ExPERT Centre (the Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning – CETL), Portsmouth University;
  • an Engineering Subject Centre event at Cardiff University.
Everywhere, the reaction has been very positive; people are taken with the idea of audio feedback. At ALT-C, having given my presentation to an audience of perhaps 150, I was surprised and delighted by the number of folks who came up to me in the next 24 hours, wanting to chat about Sounds Good, asking for my contact details and saying they or their colleagues would like to try using audio feedback. Several have been in touch since. This doesn’t usually happen to me! Right now, Sounds Good feels good.

Let’s not get carried away though. All the project has done so far is to confirm that students like receiving audio feedback and that the Leeds Met staff team think it’s worth the effort of learning how to do it. Most colleagues aren’t yet saving time by speaking rather than writing their feedback, but they know they’re providing a better service. The most favourable circumstances for giving audio feedback seem to be where the assessor:
  • usually gives plenty of feedback;
  • writes slowly but speaks fluently;
  • is used to the technology.
So it’s probably not a case of ‘one size fits all’. Also, as with most new skills, practice is likely to help. Audio feedback is worth a try but, like anything else, it’s unlikely to be the magic bullet for all our assessment woes.