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What Works!
How Online Instructors Improved Communication With Students

Dr. Philip Ice, an assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who has taught 30 online courses and designed 100 others, noticed that instructors’ heavy reliance on text for giving students feedback on their work was not very effective. In his experience, some students did not understand what he was saying, due to the loss of nuance involved in text communication.

Almost by accident, Ice devised a research project to see if audio communication was more effective than text communication in providing students with feedback. In 2005, Ice, who typically transfers student assignments into PDF format, discovered that the latest version of Adobe Acrobat had an audio commenting feature, which allows the user to imbed audio feedback within paragraphs.

Then an instructor at West Virginia University, Ice conducted a study in the summer of 2005 in which 48 students in two courses were exposed to audio feedback from their instructor. The students, who had all taken previous online courses in which feedback was limited to text, were asked to rate their preference for audio to text-based feedback. The perception score was 4.34 on a 5-point scale. He repeated the study over the following school year, this time with 136 students who had taken 3 or more courses with audio. The perception score of 4.28 showed that the favorable ratings students gave in the initial study was not due to the novelty of the audio program; there was no statistical change in perception of audio over time.

In addition to the satisfaction scores, Ice notes the success of audio feedback through student comments and growth recently in instructors’ use of the audio program.

Students say with the audio they have a clearer understanding of what their instructor is saying. For instance, Ice would type a comment to a student, “What are you thinking here in this paragraph?” Later, he used the same wording in audio. Students who received the text, Ice says, “were really offended because they thought I was questioning their ability to be a good student. In fact, I was asking, ‘Can you elaborate?’ Students have a better understanding of what you’re trying to say when they hear the intonation.”

Has this improved understanding translated into better grades? The current study Ice is working on, this one involving 14 institutions internationally, will look for a correlation between audio feedback and grades, as well as analyze data by gender, ethnicity, year in college, program of study and English as second language, among other things.

The initial results were enough to get more universities to adopt the Acrobat audio software. Based on “the latest anecdotal evidence, I would estimate the use of this technique at 30 institutions and 400-500 instructors. Some purely online institutions are starting to use this technique,” Ice says, noting a webinar he conducted helped it gain in popularity.

Ice also notes that providing students with audio feedback reduces grading time by about 70-80 percent while also, using word count, doubling the amount of feedback students receive.

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