It Takes Audacity

By  Matt McKinnon

Ok, so not just Audacity; any recording and editing software will do.  But Audacity is free, works with all of the major operating systems, and, at least in its basic form, is not hard to use.  (Though in order to export the files, they have to be converted to mp3 format using the LAME encoder.)

A few of my students have had trouble doing this, but most are able to create their own audio files to attach in Blackboard for me and their colleagues to listen to.

And that simple addition to my American Dreams course has added a dimension to online education that, after five years of teaching in the BLS program, I did not expect.

The voices are full of character. Rich in diversity.  Different in their tone and cadence.  Some are smooth and polished, others hesitant.  Some are quite moving, even poetic.  Some are transcendent in their plainness.

But all of them are honest.  Real.

They are like voices out of a Ken Burns documentary: serious, focused, reading (not speaking off the cuff) a personal account of the American Dream.

They add a profundity to the most banal of writing assignments.  They add depth.  They add life.

The assignment is simple: write a five minute reflection on what you think about the American Dream.  And then record it and post it on Blackboard.  Students do this twice—once in the beginning of the course and then again at the end, almost like a personal assessment of how their views have changed.  For the final assignment, they submit the written version as well.  And it is here that I have learned to appreciate the depth, the character that is conveyed with hearing someone speak their own words—as opposed to simply reading their words myself.

Of course there are limits:  I wouldn’t want to hear someone read aloud their five-page paper on politics and religion in America, or worse yet, their twelve-page book review in the Senior Seminar.  But for something short, something as personal and as powerful as a dream, as the American Dream, as their American Dream, it has an amazing effect.

I realized it when I listened to the audio files the first time I taught the course last year.  In a way that the written word cannot achieve, these voices of my students grabbed me—grab me still—and, for lack of a better way of saying it: made it personal.

After all, if we’re honest, we must admit that with all the benefits of distance education (and there are many), one of the things that’s missing is personal contact.  And what’s more personal than a voice?

Ok, a face.

Here’s me and my wife (I’m on the right).

Here's Vicente Fernandez.

And those rare times I have seen a picture of a student in one of the assignments they submit in their Senior Portfolio—usually as part of a photography assignment or a blog—it has had a similar effect: giving an added dimension to someone whose existence to me is represented entirely by the written word.

But there’s something about the human voice.  The old adage is that a picture is worth a thousand words, but if you’ve ever lost someone dear, you’ve probably had the thought: “What I would give just hear their voice again.”

Now here’s Fernández’s voice (and his hat):

But let’s not get carried away.

I have to admit that I hate Facebook, only reluctantly joined LinkedIn (but never use it), don’t care what folks are doing this weekend (or did last weekend), don’t want to see pictures of people from high school whom I didn’t really like in high school (or my second-cousin’s newest baby), and generally believe that our culture has gone overboard with social-networking, the effect being that communication (and society?) has been thinned out and dumbed down.

But when we take what’s useful from these platforms and make judicious use of them in our BLS courses, well, the effect can be startling, enriching, enlightening.

And in the case of Audacity, it can literally be the opposite of dumbing down:

It gives students their voice.

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