Providing audio feedback to students: Review of a review

I’ve always been interested in studies that help us differentiate both pedagogies and educational technology use, based upon time requirements. These studies of course should include all the actors – too often student time is taken as a free given.

Thus, a recent publication by Gusman Edouard tweaked my interest.

Edouard, G. (2015). Effectiveness of audio feedback in distance education. INSTRUCTIONAL TECHNOLOGY, 45 http://itdl.org/Journal/Apr_15/Apr15.pdf#page=49

I should note, right away, that I am a big fan of audio feedback and have been more or less exclusively using audio to mark graduate students essays for the past 5 years. I get very positive feedback from students and I am sure the feedback I give is much more extensive than that produced when I use using text comments or summary assessment of their work. Finally, I am convinced that it also saves me time, as I not a very fast typist.

The article asserts thatthe proponents of audio feedback claim that it is superior to written comments in many ways.” They then take a critical look at this claim. The key questions in this paper are:

  1. Is there enough research to support the claim?
  2. Does audio feedback improve learning?
  3. Can it help to save time?

The article provides no original data but does cover some of the research that I am familiar with on this type of technology use. Also note that the aim seems to have a critical edge, asking if there really is evidence to support claims about audio feedback in distance education. As you will see, I think this attempt to be critical underlies quite sloppy research.

You’ll note the first question is really a non-question in that there are many claims not “the claim” and that the two most important (to me at least) are the later two questions. I’ll skip over comments on improvement of learning as Edouard’s conclusions are widely supported however, in education, students and teacher perceptions are often used and mostly cited as evidence in this study.

However the time questions really peeked my interest.

I’ll quote the full section below and then comment on the quality of the research evidence presented:

Edourd writes”
The time factor in preparing audio feedback:

Audio feedback can simplify or complicate online teaching, depending on how the process is carried out. Its benefits rely greatly on the capacity of the practitioners who want to use it and the technologies used to prepare and deliver it. Gibbs (1992) argued that audio feedback can significantly reduce the workload because, in his context, a sixty second audio equates to about six minutes of written comments. Furthermore, West Virginia University has recently conducted a study on the time issue and found out that audio feedback is quicker than written comments. A 3.81 minute-audio corresponds to 13.43 minutes in written feedback (Ice et al., 2007). According to Rotheram (2007), audio feedback can help teachers save time, especially when they use it to replace lengthy feedback on students’ written work. The research mentioned above claimed that audio feedback helps save time; however, King et al. (2008) have proved the contrary. For example, teachers spend 14.77 minutes on giving feedback every week in face-to-face classes whereas online instructors dedicated 48.72 minutes to the same activity (Van de Vord & Pogue, 2012). In addition, Mathieson (2012) argued that audio feedback requires twice the time needed to evaluate an assignment using the written format. Based on the literature, the time factor is an issue that needs more attention. Also, one important aspect that the literature left out is the teaching context, in which audio feedback has proven to be more and less time consuming.

The first evidence presented is from  a “teacher tips” article by Gibbs (1992) that seems to exist- in that references to the article are found on Google searches, but I was unable to verify the claim except to say that the 60 second equivalence claimed is not mentioned in the referenced article. Next, he cites one of my favorite articles by Phil Ice et al. (2008) which I think is the best study with hard empirical answers to Edouard’s research questions. – though I wouldn’t call a 8 year old study ‘recent’. Ice and his colleagues pretty well convinced me from this and other work they have published. As I noted my own experience confirms their “claims”. His third evidence for time saving comes from Rotherham (2007) who provides anecdotal evidence of his own personal use of audio, with findings that audio feedback did save him time.

Next we turn to the evidence that “proved the contrary” – this is where the article really falls off the road of acceptable scholarship. The first evidence claims that King, McGugan, & Bunyan (2008) “proved” that audio takes more time. The proof was obtained by a sample of only 4 instructors. They counted the number of words of feedback provided by these four instructors when using audio and when using traditional text based summary evaluation forms. They found that the number of words of feedback provided by the 4 instructors increased almost 10 times when audio was used! How much longer did this increase take in instructor time? One of the instructors claimed a small decrease in time spent providing a order of magnitude more feedback while the other 3 reported slight (less than double in all cases) time spent creating audio as compared to text. Thus, to argue that providing ten times the feedback in less than double the amount of time, almost disproves the claim.  Second, we turn to the Van de Vord & Pogue (2012) article and the claim that providing feedback by audio takes close to 4 times the length as text feedback. Unfortunately for Edouard, the Van de Vord articles makes no mention of audio feedback, but is describing feedback in online courses- feedback that uses text response and engagement in threaded discussions. It makes one wonder if Edouard read the article he has quoted. Finally, he quotes Matheison (2012) study that did not compare audio to text feedback as claimed, but rather it compared the time taken to record an audio visual screen cast in addition to the summary text comments. When one adds any time consuming activity to an already existing time consuming activity, it is logically impossible for there to be a time saving.

In Edouard’s conclusion he again argues that McFarlane & Wakeman (2011) found that audio feedback takes more time than text, when in fact they find advantages to the use of audio and state “In terms of the tutors’ workload, generally this approach was found to take an equal amount of time compared with written feedback”. McFarlane & Wakeman go on to describe ways that the audio recording process can be made more effective than that experienced by the very small group of tutors on this study.

This article does have some small value – especially the quoting of the 10 suggestions by Alan (2014) for effectively using this technology. However, the sloppy scholarship exposed in this article, actually does a disservice to the discipline and raises doubts in people where none should exist. Audio does “usually” save teacher time. However, as with all technologies, efficiency is more influenced by the way the technology is used than the technology itself. But the promise and the potential of this simple technology application is huge.

In summary the research I uncovered while writing this blog continues to provide evidence that teaching presence increases, time is saved and students really appreciate audio feedback from teachers. In addition, the technology for recording and returning audio and video is consistently improving. It is unreasonable to expect that ALL audio enhanced designs will produce ALL of the potential benefits in every context, but there is enough evidence to suggest that all responsible distance education teachers should at least give it a try.

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