Educational Applications of Streaming Audio ó Accessible Do-It-Yourself Multimedia

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The term "multimedia on the web" evokes expectations of web-based presentations with sound and video. Significant barriers exist today for the professor or teacher who wishes to create their own audio/video course content. However, streaming audio alone -- sound without video -- is a web-based technology that is available today. It is easy to learn, inexpensive to produce, and available to off-campus students with only a 28.8 Kb connection to the Internet.

During the summer of 1999, I  learned how to produce web-based multimedia presentations for my classes. I had seen such presentations on corporate sites in the form of "streaming media." They had looked and sounded very good when I viewed them over my universityís T1 Internet connection.

After spending a week making some very simple files, however, I decided not to proceed further with streaming audio/video (A/V) for two reasons. First, the technical skills needed to produce all but the very simplest streaming video are considerable. Though itís easy to "capture" (convert from VHS videotape format to digitized file format) a straightforward video clip, the editing skills needed for all but the simplest videos (cutting, splicing, fade-in and fade-out, adding titles and captions, synchronizing with sound, and so on) require considerable practice and time to learn.

Second, A/V files are too large to stream fluently over a modem connection to the Internet, whether the modem is 28.8 or 56 Kb. There are many pauses in the streaming process, and the video motion is jerky, making presentations unusable in a course for students who prefer to work off-campus and who have only a modem connection to the Internet. Though these problems are eliminated when the A/V file is viewed in an on-campus computer lab, I felt I could not justify forcing my students to use already overcrowded labs rather than their own home computers. (See Exhibit 1 for more information about producing streaming video.)

However, I discovered that while A/V presentations did not stream to a 28.8 Kb modem connection fluently enough to be usable, audio presentations did stream very well at all but the busiest Internet times. Furthermore, the software required to create the digitized streaming audio files is free, as is the software required to listen to them. Finally, the software is very easy to use; a teacher can make a streaming audio file after only 10 minutes of practice. In this article, I will explain how I integrate streaming audio technology into my own courses and will provide  instructions for downloading the software needed and creating a streaming audio presentation.

What Is Streaming Audio?

"Streaming audio" refers to a file format and software that permits a long audio (or A/V) file to be played without the listener's having to first download the entire file, a process that could take an hour or more and occupy several megabytes of drive space in the case of a long lecture. A quarter- or half-minute of the file is preloaded into a "buffer," which the player software uses while more of the file is streamed in advance. This buffer permits a very long file to be played continuously after only a few secondsí delay. 

There are several formats for streaming audio. I use the RealAudio [.rm] format, the current industry standard.

Why Stream Rather Than Download the Audio Files? 

Sound files can be made in many formats other than RealAudio's Streaming RM format, but I prefer streaming for several reasons:

Using streaming audio in the Classroom

At present, I use streaming audio in three ways:

I have found that making my own lectures available to my students for remote listening and study has been the biggest benefit to my classes. Years ago, I basically abandoned formal lecturing because it allowed students to be too passive, and I subsequently changed my teaching style to small-group work. During class, students work in groups of between four and six, beginning with assignments I have already given to them over the Web. I act as a mentor, going from group to group asking questions, refocusing discussion when needed, and listening a lot. Most classes end with the whole class in one large circle, engaging in a group discussion, during which students share the results of their small-group discussions.

But while streaming audio has transformed my classroom, there is still some material I feel I must present in lecture format. I could just write out the material, make it available on a Web page as yet another reading assignment, and do without lectures altogether. However, lectures allow students to hear a real voice behind the material, hear its intonations, and learn to make notes from a talk rather than from a text. Presenting material in a variety of formats such as this can lead to better learning, or at least to a different way of learning.

Streaming audio helps enhance the benefits of traditional lectures while eliminating some of their drawbacks. For example, I dislike the passivity of students as they listen to an extended in-class presentation and resent spending precious classroom hours in this way. Streaming audio makes it possible to present a lecture without taking up classroom time in lecture-form presentation. Furthermore, streaming audio challenges the inherent authoritarian nature of the traditional lecture format, which typically allows little time for interactive question-and-answer or discussion to a large audience. 

I have made streaming audio files of each of the lectures I use in the courses I taught in the fall of 1999. I assign the lectures as homework, so that my students can listen to the lecture whenever they want. All lectures are available as links on the course Web page. Students can pause, back up, and replay the lectures, or parts of them, as many times as they wish, so that they can make notes, answer the telephone, make a cup of coffee, and so on. With more time to assimilate the lecture material, they can also think more critically about itóan activity that should be encouraged.

Using Virtual Handouts

I compose Web pages for use in conjunction with each lecture, much as I used to make up handouts. Itís easy to make simple diagrams with a basic graphics program like Windows Paint and include them in the Web handouts. Students can either look at these pages on line while listening to the lecture, or they can print out the handouts and write their lecture notes directly on them. See for example, the assignment (Exhibit 2) for my first lecture on "The Medieval World View," which contains links to the lecture in streaming audio and the Web page handouts.

I assign each lecture with its accompanying Web page handout as homework, along with a writing assignment based on the lecture. My students listen to the lecture, making notes and studying the handout. They then complete the writing assignment, which they e-mail to the other members of their discussion group and to me. I keep it for grading purposes. Each student has to read at least one or two of their groupmates' assignments.

At the next class, students are well prepared to discuss the lectureís contents, raising questions and criticisms with each other. They spend class time discussing and interacting with each other and with me rather than sitting back passively listening to me lecture or making notes but without discussing or interacting. I also use threaded Web discussion forums provided in Microsoft FrontPage 98 on a FrontPage server, real-time IRC Chat on our MSU IRC server, and e-mail distribution groups (like small mailing lists) to encourage further critical discussion.

Conclusion

I was surprised that student response to my full integration of streaming audio into my Fall 1999 courses was so positive. Most of them appreciated the fact that they could pause the lectures or even listen to them more than once. I am continuing to use streaming audio and have begun to collect some guest lectures for use in future classes, always making sure to get permission from my guest lecturer to put the talk on the web. (See Exhibit 3 for more detail on student responses.) 

Internet-based teaching can make teaching more interactive, more focused on critical thinking, discussion, and problem-solving, and less concerned with assimilation and retention of information. With this simple and cheap streaming audio technology, I can use all of my class time to enhance student-centered, interactive education. I recommend the technology to anyone who wants to enhance his/her teaching.

Here is my tutorial, complete with all necessary links and hints Iíve learned from trial-and-error experience, talking with others, and exploring the web.