Oral Journals: A Journey From Analog to Digital

Kathy Brenner writes about the use of audio journals and the progression of technology. See Martin Sankofi's Portal article "Web 2.0 in the Language Classroom," Essential Teacher,December 2008.

It was early morning, before classes. I walked into the university English language center and watched as one of the ESL instructors inserted a student's audiotape into a tape recorder. My colleague listened, took notes, and recorded her feedback on the student's tape. When finished, she loaded the next tape and repeated the process.

ESL instructors continue to use individual audiotapes and recorders to record and improve students' pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar structure for an assortment of justifiable reasons. This method is familiar and easy, and there is no complicated technology to deal with. Certainly, for those who prefer this approach or for those without access to computers and/or new software, quite simply, it works.

However, today's millennium generation expects the use of technology in the classroom (Carlson, 2005). Technology not only motivates today's students, it also allows them to communicate in ways that they know and relate to best. In the ESOL classroom, integrating technology has created a motivated and enhanced language learning environment, and computer-assisted instruction has generated new possibilities for the use of oral (recorded) journals for English language production. ESOL instructors can travel from the analog oral journals of yesterday to today’s digital output of MP3 files. From using a wiki to integrating a WebCT format and an iTunes U connection, teachers can motivate nonnative speakers of English to overcome pronunciation problems and build awareness for self-correction while providing additional language practice outside of class.

Pronunciation problems can be overwhelming for ESOL students and interfere with their ability to communicate and be understood. Oral journals are one way to improve problematic articulations, familiarization with suprasegmental features, and expansion of students' listening skills. Receiving teacher feedback creates a strong incentive for student listening in general and, more specifically, for students to listen at their own pace without worrying about embarrassment in the classroom.

Warschauer, Turbee, and Roberts (1996) have written about computer networks and how they contribute to student empowerment. Computer-assisted, digital oral journals can promote a more engaged and motivated learner because today's students relate better to their wired world. The oral journal’s less threatening environment equalizes student performance by eliminating fear and competition in the classroom.

While teaching in South Korea, I used digital oral journals for the first time, and what a difference digital sound and operational portability made. With this new exposure to technology, questions emerged: Once back in the United States, how would I feel about returning to the traditional analog equipment? Would I have access to digital technology? Simultaneously, I stressed about how daunting it might be to figure out the new technology on my own. Did I have to accomplish this task alone? How difficult would it be to find people with technological expertise who would also be interested in and excited about what I wanted to do with oral journals?

In the Beginning

When I first started working with oral journals, the tape and recorder were easy to operate—no fuss, no bother, nothing complicated. So why change? After my digital experience inSouth Korea, I was keenly aware of two things: improved digital sound quality and the ease of portability. I could take my laptop, connect, and listen anywhere; I did not have to be in a language lab or near a tape recorder. However, I still had to learn about software and how everything connected for fluid operation. This would take time, effort, and patience. So what was the next step?

The Computer Training People

In addition to the availability of computer training classes, a key ingredient for learning about new technology is your workplace information technology (IT) staff, who are able to guide you as you move through a particular process. IT personnel are invaluable resources for accomplishing an assortment of technology-related tasks. Once your teaching goals and objectives are clearly defined, you can proceed toward the same outcome together. And then you will be ready to begin.

Start With a Wiki

For the fall semester, the IT staff suggested that I use the university's wiki Web site, which was set up specifically for collaborative group projects. We created a dedicated wiki site for my class—a home base for student oral journal submissions with password access limited to my students only. The wiki would serve as a place to deposit the uploaded sound files. Next, I would listen, takes notes, and send my feedback to the students via university e-mail. Very quickly, I realized that sending MP3 files via e-mail severely clogged the students' inboxes and my outbox. In fact, I received storage warnings on an almost daily basis—I had no idea how much hard disk space was required for an average MP3 file of teacher feedback. By the end of the fall semester, I realized that the problems with e-mail delivery were bothersome enough to warrant a change of format and technology.

Advance to WebCT and iTunes U

For the spring semester, the IT staff and I decided that it was time to advance to more complicated technology that would combine all of my student and teacher oral journal requirements under one roof, so to speak, and eliminate the need to use e-mail. The recommendation was to move to the WebCT format (now Blackboard;http://www.blackboard.com/) with an iTunes U connection (U meaning university; http://www.apple.com/education/itunesu_mobilelearning/itunesu.html). Many universities and colleges are using either Blackboard or WebCT as their online course database for faculty and students. Because WebCT was integrated at the university, the online courseware format was already established.

iTunes U is a university connection to Apple's iTunes. Any university can apply for an account with Apple and, as of now, there is no cost involved. Apple hosts the university accounts, probably as a consequence of a proprietary iTunes U server code; by not allowing anyone to make any modifications, Apple is enforcing a form of quality control. An iTunes U account allows the creation of a course site by an institution that in turn directly links the WebCT course database to iTunes U.

In the case of the university, when students registered for an ESL course, they were automatically connected to the course through the registrar's office and WebCT. This connection provided password-restricted access for only those students involved in the course (or public portals for open access). I worked closely with the IT staff to design how the WebCT and iTunes U connection should function for teachers as well as students. Once students had registered for the course, they had access to oral journal task assignments and could then upload their MP3 files and submit their homework.

The WebCT course layout has three tabs: Build, Teacher, and Student. Students only have access to the Student tab, but teachers have access to all tabs. Teachers build their course Web site using features such as assignments, calendar dates, announcements, grading, and the ability to view student access (which students are accessing the site, when, and for how long). As part of the WebCT student home page setup, I built a library of hyperlinks that connected to Web sites for pronunciation, university special collections, New York Timesvideos, and assorted news and science podcasts.

On the iTunes U homepage, I organized the index tabs in the following categories: Student Oral Journals (for submission), Teacher Feedback, and Shared Oral Journals (collaborative projects). Students recorded their oral journals as MP3 files in iTunes U or from another source and then uploaded their files into the Student Oral Journals tab. Next, I entered iTunes U, clicked on a student's oral journal entry, and listened to the submitted assignment. Using Audacity software (http://www.audacity.com/), I recorded my feedback and created my own MP3 file, which I then uploaded to the Teacher Feedback tab. Next, I e-mailed students to inform them that I had uploaded my feedback and that they were now able to listen to my feedback and practice. An important note: iTunes U has editing functions that enable a variety of permissions to control user access to the recorded materials (Apple, 2008, p. 9). This critical function assures content confidentiality between student and teacher.

Time and Experience

Why not continue to do things the way you have always done them? Why not just stay with the traditional audiotapes and recorder? Because with today's students, technology has become the modus operandi, and if you want them to be better engaged, utilize the tools that they relate to best.

Finding the right IT person to work with is critical. This person will help you become familiar with the software and how it functions, and you can educate and excite him or her about your oral journal projects.

Once you are set up and have had some practice, the ease of building your course Web site with iTunes U and recording teacher feedback will quickly manifest itself. Furthermore, the digital oral journal is portable. There are many places where you can listen and record; you are not limited to a particular location.

Three Challenges

There are three challenges that stand out: the wiki and the e-mail inbox/outbox debacle, the possibility of a time-consuming workload, and potential technological malfunctions. As for the wiki and e-mail issue, be aware of the constant (possibly daily) need for the students to empty and delete their inboxes and for you to empty and delete your outbox. With regard to your workload, the beginning can be rough, but once you and the students become more experienced and familiar with the process, the actual procedure will move along more quickly and smoothly. Finally, there will be delays and frustration related to technology. When it comes to setting up new software and working out a new process, it takes time and requires patience.

To ensure the smoothest transition to using this type of setup for an oral journals project, it is helpful for teachers to ask themselves the following questions:

1. Are oral journals an effective use of my time?

2. Is the medium being used appropriately?

3. How does this medium affect my relationship with the students?

4. What are the technical difficulties that might arise?

5. Should teacher feedback be individualized or standardized?

6. Are teacher and student reactions to digital oral journals the same?

7. Do oral journals create too much additional work?

Be Flexible and Open to Change

New technology can be intimidating. Leaving what is comfortable and familiar for what is more difficult and complicated can be disconcerting. However, it is clear to me that there are considerable advantages to working with new computer technology and software, especially when the learning curve is either in your direction or that of your students.

Technology takes patience; it breaks down and sometimes doesn't work the way it is supposed to. However, once the new technology and software are understood, organized, and being used on a regular basis, there will be a sense of accomplishment along with the why-didn't-I-do-this-earlier feeling.

Oral journals are a language resource that promotes each student's individual voice, increases awareness of problematic pronunciation, and builds a stronger student–teacher relationship. Together, technology and digital oral journals are a winning combination.

References

Apple. (2008). Apple iTunes U user's guide. Retrieved October 12, 2008, from http://deimos.apple.com/rsrc/doc/AppleEducation-iTunesUUsersGuide/index.html

Carlson, S. (2005, October 7). The net generation goes to college. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A34.

Warschauer, M., Turbee, L., & Roberts, B. (1996). Computer learning networks and student empowerment. System, 24, 1–14.

Kathy Brenner (kathy_brenner@hotmail.com) is a member of the ESL faculty at Northeastern University, in the United States.