A few years back a rep from a company called Sonocent came to see me to demo a software programme they had developed called Audio Notetaker. With this, you could record audio from, say, a lecture and the speech would be represented as coloured blocks with spaces in-between representing the pauses. These blocks could then be manipulated in various ways, such as colour-coding of parts that were more important, or deleting or moving them around. You could also make notes in a box next to this recording and also pull in PowerPoint slides to link chunks of the audio with parts of the lecture.
This is a little bit confusing to explain so I’ve made a short video showing the software in action.
Originally, it seems that this was designed for dyslexic students as an aid to taking notes after lectures as the visual element really helped them. However later Sonocent began to see other possible applications, such as helping non-native students grasp their lectures better when studying abroad. Hence the rep coming to see me, thinking our students might benefit from this and, well, would I like to buy some licenses?
I thought the software was interesting but it seemed overly complex to make it useable for students. When he demoed it, the number of steps needed to record and then categorise the data seemed to outweigh the amount you would actually learn from it. I just couldn’t see students being bothered quite frankly. So, in the end, we ended up not buying any licenses and I forgot all about it.
That was, until a couple of days ago when I went to a NATESOL conference in Manchester and saw a very interesting presentation by Elizabeth Allen from Bristol University on how she’d been using Audio Notetaker with her students. She’d gone through the same initial stage with her students of trying to use it for lecture recording/understanding and her students had come back and said they hated it.
However, she decided to persist with it and thought that it might be useful for analysing how people spoke in presentations, so she took the audio from some TED Talks and ran it through the programmes. This was when it suddenly began to get interesting. Together they began to analyse and colour-code the speech from the talk, identifying key points or main ideas in one colour, supporting info in another, repetition/signposting in another.
What was noticeable for the students was just how little ‘key’ information there actually was and most of the talk was either repetition of points or giving supporting examples. This made them realise that they didn’t necessarily have to understand everything when listening.
Of course the difficulty for the students was in identifying *where* exactly the important information might occur. Again, the audio track helped them. By analysing the language that came before the key points, they could identify certain recurring phrases that prefaced anything significant; so things like: ‘*what struck me was*’, ‘*what was noticeable was*’ etc. As you might imagine, this was really useful for students.
Elizabeth also used it to help develop students’ productive spoken skills as well. Students were asked to record themselves giving a presentation and the audio was sent to the teacher to be analysed in audio notetaker. Now, what was interesting here was that visually it was very easy for the students to see when their speech lacked fluency. Because audio notetaker puts gaps between the blocks when there are significant pauses, it’s easy to see where the students demonstrated or lacked fluid speech by looking at how long or short the blocks were. Now, of course, this doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about accuracy or the quality of the content, but on a very basic level, this can be a very powerful tool to help students practise more fluent speech.
It also helped her students identify issues in their seminar skills. One thing that was obvious from looking at the colour coding of a student seminar recording was how they didn’t really cross talk the way that students normally do but instead followed a very clear rota of each student speaking for an allotted time as if it was a very formal debate.
I think for some students it might just be useful to *visualise* speech rather than always having to either read or listen to it, particularly in a foreign language. And sometimes looking at something visualised in a slightly different way can bring unexpected insights.
I haven’t had a chance to use this with my students yet, but I’m looking into getting a few free licenses to trial. If you want to try it yourself, you can go to the Sonocent website and download a free trial for your computer. In terms of actual cost of getting the software, they seem to have a variety of pricing models from buying the product outright for £130 or buying temporary licenses for 6 or 12 months for £29 (discount on the latter at the moment). They also have specific deals for schools, where you can get discounts for volume purchases or you can get loan licenses, meaning you can easily switch the ownership from one student to another.
I suspect this might be the one confusing aspect of using this software: where’s the best place to put it? Better to buy licenses so that students can install it on their own devices or put them on the school’s computers where everyone can access them. But then how easy will they be to use if they’re tucked away in a computer lab somewhere.
Now, I’m not sure whether the cost is justifiable, that comes down to your institution and finances and how much you would use the software. But I find it intriguing at the very least and I’m sure that with a little thought, you could come up with a decent list of ways it could be used to help EAP students listen and speak more effectively. Off the top of my head, these are some possibilities:
– comparing formal and informal speech by recording examples and noticing the difference in the length of utterance and number of pauses
– Fluency improvement by getting students to record and re-record short extracts and noticing whether the number of gaps decreased each time.
There is also a free mobile app you can download from the App Store on iOS or the Play Store on Android. This is basically just a recording app to make it easier to get the audio but you can do some basic colour coding to separate parts of the speech. And this is something you could easily download to get a feel for what the actual software can do.
What do you think about this? Have you used it with your students or could imagine a use for this in class?