Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of audio

January 16, 2015 Tony Bates
Image:, 2013

Image:, 201

This is the second post on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

As you will see, I am a great fan of recorded audio in education, and believe it is very much under-exploited medium.

© InnerFidelity, 2012

‘Sounds, such as the noise of certain machinery, or the background hum of daily life, have an associative as well as a pure meaning, which can be used to evoke images or ideas relevant to the main substance of what is being taught. There are, in other words, instances where audio is essential for efficiently mediating certain kinds of information’

Durbridge, 1984

Audio: the unappreciated medium

We have seen that oral communication has a long history, and continues today in classroom teaching and in general radio programming. In this section though I am focusing primarily on recorded audio, which I will argue is a very powerful educational medium when used well.

There has been a good deal of research on the unique pedagogical characteristics of audio. At the UK Open University course teams had to bid for media resources to supplement specially designed printed materials. Because media resources were developed initially by the BBC, and hence were limited and  expensive to produce, course teams (in conjunction with their allocated BBC producer) had to specify how radio or television would be used to support learning. In particular, the course teams were asked to identify what teaching functions television and radio would uniquely contribute to the teaching. After allocation and development of a course, samples of the programs were evaluated in terms of how well they met these functions, as well as how the students responded to the programming. In later years, the same approach was used when production moved to audio and video cassettes. This process of identifying unique roles then evaluating the programs allowed the OU, over a period of several years, to identify which roles or functions were particularly appropriate to different media (Bates, 1985). Koumi (2006), himself a former BBC/OU producer, followed up on this research and identified several more key functions for audio and video. Over a somewhat similar period, Richard Mayer, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was conducting his own research into the use of multimedia in education (Mayer, 2009).

Although there have been continuous developments of audio technology, from audio-cassettes to Sony Walkman’s to podcasts, the educational features of audio have remained remarkably constant.

Presentational features

Although audio can be used on its own, it is often used in combination with other media, particularly text. On its own, it can present:

  • spoken language (including foreign languages) for analysis or practice
  • music, either as a performance or for analysis
  • students with a condensed argument that may:
    • reinforce points made elsewhere in the course
    • introduce new points not made elsewhere in the course
    • provide an alternative viewpoint to the perspectives in the rest of the course
    • analyse or critique materials elsewhere in the course
    • summarize or condense the main ideas or major points covered in the course
    • provide new evidence in support of or against the arguments or perspectives covered elsewhere in the course
  • interviews with leading researchers or experts
  • discussion between two or more people to provide various views on a topic
  • primary audio sources, such as bird song, children talking, eye witness accounts, or recorded performances (drama, concerts)
  • analysis of primary audio sources, by playing the source followed by analysis
  • ‘breaking news’ that emphasizes the relevance or application of concepts within the course
  • the instructor’s personal spin on a topic related to the course.

Audio however has been found to be particularly ‘potent’ when combined with text, because it enables students to use both eyes and ears in conjunction. Audio has been found to be especially useful for:

  • explaining or ‘talking through’ materials presented through text, such as mathematical equations, reproductions of paintings, graphs, statistical tables, and even physical rock samples.

This technique was later further developed by Salman Khan, but using video to combine voice-over explanation with visual presentation.

Skills development

Because of the ability of the learner to stop and start recorded audio, it has been found to be particularly useful for:

  • enabling students through repetition and practice to master certain auditory skills or techniques (e.g. language pronunciation, analysis of musical structure, mathematical computation)
  • getting students to analyse primary audio sources, such as children’s use of language, or attitudes to immigration from recordings of interviewed people
  • changing student attitudes by
    • presenting material in a novel or unfamiliar perspective
    • by presenting material in a dramatized form, enabling students to identify with someone with a different perspective

Strengths and weaknesses of audio as a teaching medium

First, some advantages:

  • it is much easier to make an audio clip or podcast than a video clip or a simulation
  • audio requires far less bandwidth than video or simulations, hence downloads quicker and can be used over relatively low bandwidths
  • it is easily combined with other media such as text, mathematical symbols, and graphics, allowing more than one sense to be used and allowing for ‘integration’.
  • some students prefer to learn by listening compared with reading;
  • audio combined with text can help develop literacy skills or support students with low levels of literacy;
  • audio provides variety and another perspective from text, a ‘break’ in learning that refreshes the learner and maintains interest
  • Nicola Durbridge, in her research at the Open University, found that audio increased distance students’ feelings of personal ‘closeness’ with the instructor compared with video or text, i.e. it is a more intimate medium.

In particular, added flexibility and learner control means that students will often learn better from preprepared audio recordings combined with accompanying textual material (such as a web site with slides) than they will from a live classroom lecture.

There are also of course disadvantages of audio:

  • audio-based learning is difficult for people with a hearing disability
  • creating audio is extra work for an instructor
  • audio is often best used in conjunction with other media such as text or graphics thus adding complexity to the design of teaching
  • recording audio requires a minimal level of technical proficiency
  • spoken language tends to be less precise than text.

Increasingly video is now be used to combine audio over images, such as in the Khan Academy, but there are many instances, such as where students are studying from prescribed texts, where recorded audio works better than a video recording.

So let’s hear it for audio!


I need to add some example podcasts to illustrate some of these unique characteristics. Unfortunately many of my intended examples are not publicly accessible, being behind password protected university or college firewalls (or are no longer available). Any suggestions for open access podcasts that illustrate one or more of these functions will be particularly appreciated.

Other questions for you:

1. Are there other unique characteristics of audio, or advantages or disadvantages, that I have missed and should include?

2. Do you share my enthusiasm for recorded audio? If not, why not?

3. Is this section useful for teachers and instructors?

References and further reading

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables (out of print – try a good library)

Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Durbridge, N. (1982) Audio-cassettes in Higher Education Milton Keynes: The Open University (mimeo)

Durbridge, N. (1984) Audio-cassettes, in Bates, A. (ed.) The Role of Technology in Distance Education London/New York: Croom Hill/St Martin’s Press

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (2005) Seven things you should know about… podcasting Boulder CO: EDUCAUSE, June

Postlethwaite, S. N. (1969) The Audio-Tutorial Approach to Learning Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company

Salmon, G. and Edirisingha, P. (2008) Podcasting for Learning in Universities Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Wright, S. and Haines, R, (1981) Audio-tapes for Teaching Science Teaching at a Distance, Vol. 20 (Open University journal now out of print).

Note: Although some of the Open University publications are not available online, hard copies/pdf files should be available from: The Open University International Centre for Distance Learning, which is now part of the Open University Library.



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