Classroom Technology

Digital Voice Recorders Turn Students Into Interviewers

By Katie Ash — July 13, 2009 6 min read
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Students in Oklahoma are using digital voice recorders to capture family and local community history, elementary school students in Oregon are teaming up with the state park system to create educational podcasts with the audio devices, and foreign language students are recording and playing back lessons to practice pronunciation and vocabulary.

Because of their portable size, low cost, and ease of use, ed-tech experts say the new generation of digital voice recorders make ideal classroom tools.

“I think that a digital recorder is one of those things that I would put in every middle school [and high school] student’s backpack. There are so many ways they could use it,” says Larry S. Anderson, the founder and director of the Tupelo, Miss.-based National Center for Technology Planning, a clearinghouse of information about technology in the classroom.

For example, students can record themselves reading a story they’ve written in order to critique both their story and their oral presentation skills, says Anderson. And the device can give students who have trouble writing stories a voice, he adds.

“Not everybody learns the same way,” he says. “There are those who may not be able to write a story, but they can tell a story.”

Digital recorders can also be useful tools for English-language learners, says Anderson. They can use the devices to practice pronunciation or make recordings of certain phrases or words to increase their vocabulary.

Eva LaMar, a 3rd grade teacher at the 400-student Riverbend Elementary School in Springfield, Ore., teams her students up with local state park officials to record educational podcasts about the parks with digital voice recorders.

“[The state parks] don’t have the money to produce the documentation and support [materials] for the teachers, and we’ve got kids who would love to put together podcasts,” she says.

Last year, in addition to recording their own findings and research, the students gave state park rangers questions, which they answered using a resource called GCast. The service allowed the rangers to call in and answer the questions on their own time and made it easy for the students to pull the audio files and incorporate them into the podcats, says LaMar.

In the end, the park benefits from having the resource, and the students have the opportunity to apply their skills to the real world, she says.

Creating Content

Digital voice recorders are often a more practical option for schools than microphones attached to iPods, says LaMar, simply because they are affordable—a decent voice recorder can range in price from about $50 to $100—and they are durable.

In addition, many digital voice recorders use memory cards to store the files, so multiple students can use the same device by switching out the memory card, says LaMar.

And because digital voice recorders can fit in the palm of a student’s hand, they are easy to carry around and use. “When you need it, it’s there and available,” she says.

Because the device is so small and easy to use, the technology itself fades into the background, say Anderson and LaMar.

“The technology needs to be invisible, and the content needs to be in the forefront,” says LaMar.

Digital voice recorders are a good example of how technology can become a tool for creating content, says Wesley Fryer, a co-founder and the executive director of Story Chasers, a multi-state, nonprofit initiative that supports student and teacher citizen journalism.

“The technology is the easy part,” says Fryer. “It’s not hard to show folks how to use the recorder. What is most challenging is the interview process.”

Story Chaser’s principal project, Celebrate Oklahoma Voices, encourages students across Oklahoma to archive and share local oral histories.

“When you interview a grandparent, neighbor, or relative and ask them to tell you part of their life story, you have that chance to hear it and maybe write a paper about it,” says Fryer. “And if you can record it with audio, there’s so much value, from a family standpoint, but then also of course also from a historical standpoint.”

‘Emotion and Expression’

Don Wilson, the instructional-technology director for the 14,600-student Midwest City-Del City schools east of Oklahoma City, participated in the Celebrate Oklahoma Voices project.

“It’s really about the information skills that kids gain,” he says. “It’s exactly the opposite of your typical textbook assignment.”

The project also gave teachers a chance to teach students the ethical way to use the tools, says Wilson, such as not recording other people without their permission and how to respect copyright laws when putting together a multimedia presentation.

“One of our main concerns was educating students on the appropriate use of these tools,” he says.

The audio element of digital voice recorders in particular is motivating to students and captures an extra layer of creativity and expression to student work, says Fryer.

“There’s some magic to the human voice. There’s emotion and expression,” he says. “There’s a level of communication that you can convey with recorded audio that you don’t get when you just read someone’s text that they’ve written.”

But perhaps the greatest advantage of digital voice recorders is that they create learner-centered lessons, Fryer says.

“If we want kids to have meaningful experiences in schools, ... we need the students actively creating content, not just being passive and listening to the teacher,” he says. “Digital audio recorders empower individuals to be active in their learning.”

Choosing Wisely

The variety of digital voice recorders available can make narrowing down the field daunting, but there are certain features to look for, says Arnie Abrams, a professor of multimedia at the Ashland, Ore.-based Southern Oregon University.

“At the heart of it, sound quality is the ultimate feature needed in a digital recorder. This is especially true if you are going to record musical performances,” says Abrams. Most classrooms will want at least 16-bit sound at 44.1kHz, or “CD-quality sound,” he says.

Teachers should also consider whether they want a device with a built-in microphone or an external one, says Abrams. External microphones capture better sound, but make the devices bulkier, he says.

In addition, schools should investigate whether the recorders use removable memory cards, so that the devices can be passed from student to student without having to exchange their files, says Abrams.

Some other factors to consider are how the device is powered, what file formats it can record in, whether it has sound effects or filters, if it has the capability to screw into a tripod, and how simple it is to use, says Abrams.

“Above all, I want to be able to give a student a recorder and tell them to take it home and record their narration. I don’t want them to come back and tell me they couldn’t figure out how to use it,” he says. “In some cases, a lower-end model will be easier to use than the high-end one with all of the bells and whistles.”

But once the students have the tool in their hands, the possibilities for what they can be used for are vast—ranging from recording narration for a video, to practicing a lecture or speech, to creating podcasts, says Abrams. “Having a digital recorder makes it easy and painless for students to record their voice and the world around them.”

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