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Written v. spoken interaction

In a recent discussion on TOOC (Teaching Online Open Course) that I’m a tutor on at Brookes a couple of participants commented on how they feel more exposed when writing than speaking online as it creates a permanent record – this prompted the following thoughts which I’m posting here:

There’s a move towards providing feedback to students in the form of audio – one reason is because some people find it quicker to produce the feedback that way. In the one audio feedback project I’ve worked on, the two academics chose to actually write their feedback out first then read out what they’d written, so it certainly wasn’t the case on that occasion. The real benefit of producing audio feedback is that it is less open to interpretation. There is a natural tendency, particular amongst students perhaps, who are in a position of constantly being assessed and so are probably more vulnerable to criticism, to read into the text the most negative tone possible. With audio feedback anyone commenting on the work can do so in a more conciliatory gentle tone and that’s appreciated.

Issues with audio though are that firstly it can be more difficult for non-native English speakers. At times in my life I’ve had passable skills at other languages (I pick them up quickly then forget them quickly) but that was always written – it’s easier to pick identify the words when written down than when they’re spoken. The other is speed – I hate manuals that exist solely as a series of videos. I want to be able to scan down some text quickly and pick out the useful bit, I don’t want to have to wade through a whole set of irrelevant stuff, which is often a little sales pitch and some theme music. Audio feedback doesn’t do that (imagine an online world where we all have our own theme music …. actually on second thoughts that seems pretty cool) but it’s still more laborious to sit through.

Although it’s easier to create an audio file, it’s still maybe preferable to write stuff. It’s the rehearsal stage that’s easier. In computer-mediated communication rehearsal is anything that happens before publishing, so all of the corrections and changes that happen before you hit “post” is rehearsal; everything you change after is revision. Although I try to maintain as conversational a tone as possible in my posts and blogs, there’s still a bit of reading through to make sense (believe it or not) before posting. Spelling and grammar also get a bit of a look over too, even in a chat room. It’s when you need to do something speedily in text that the problems really start. Chat can be a nightmare, so can twitter if you have lots of people simultaneously contributing to a conference or something. You’re trying to type fast in order to get your point across while it’s still relevant, and meanwhile the conversation has moved along as the faster typists dominate the conversation.

In teaching situations where I’ve used chat as a medium (this goes back to when I was at Warwick just over 10 years ago) this was identified as the biggest challenge for ESL speakers. It takes longer to compose a chat post if English isn’t your first language, but also if the conversation fragments, so that a line can be a response to a dialogue three lines up, but in between two other conversations are happening, (for example), then that can be very difficult to follow too, unless your language skills are up to it.

For that reason it’s common netquette to start a line with @name (if several conversations are going on at once) so you know which conversation it refers to, but what we used to do at Warwick was ask the students to take it in turns. A student could say “pass” if they had nothing to say, but it meant that no-one was unconsciously censored. It slows the interaction down considerably, but I think this is something that is simply part of the adjustment that has to be made when moving online.

I was going to say this in our first webinar. I’m aware that in a mixed-mode webinar, where some are coming in via text, and others via voice, that this creates a power-relationship, the voice people dominate. In some occasions this is actually preferable. If you’re teaching then you might want to be the only one with voice, and have the students respond with text, and just bring them in with voice if they have a long or complex contribution, but this is still by invitation. Otherwise you can have lots of people breaking in over each other and it becomes difficult to follow.

Encouraging people to adapt to this slower pace is difficult but worthwhile, I think. Patiently waiting for someone to finish typing their post so they can contribute equally to the conversation, rather than carrying on talking, is an essential technique in running a webinar. Some people say they miss the energetic to-and-fro of a face-to-face conversation, but … that’s a good thing. Energetic toing-and-froing is awful for some people (me included) because if you’re someone who needs a second or two to collect your thoughts before contributing, there’s never a long enough gap to begin your contribution.

I once surveyed a class about an online lesson, both by written questionnaire and by focus group. The differences in the results were very marked. The predominating written response was it was engaging and fun, the predominating spoken result was that it was slow and boring. My interpretation of the results was that the focus group was dominated by people who excelled at face-to-face interactions, and in the move to online working they were losing their dominant role. The remainder found online more egalitarian.

For this reason, I think online meetings and lessons are MORE effective than offline ones. At the very least we should mix them up, so that the strengths of both modes can come into play.

I think feeling exposed when writing online is something that we can get used to – you’ll see that my written stuff on my blog and on these posts is largely stream of consciousness. With more time I would be more coherent, but I still check for spelling and grammar to some extent. However, as long as we are more or less understandable I think this matters less in these environments than in more official scenarios. The only time it is crucial is when correcting someone else’s punctuation and grammar. Getting it wrong then is extremely embarrassing. The observation that when correcting someone you’ll make a mistake yourself is known as Muphry’s Law. And these written things are still more coherent than my spoken stuff. For some research last year I interviewed a range of people in the Ethiopian government, and when transcribed there were one or two whose transcripts read like a text book. I was aware they were eloquent, but that ability to talk without shifting tenses, or confusing the object, or changing flow halfway through is extremely difficult. Most of us do that all the time, but like you said, it’s not recorded.

That’s different here of course, Marion, Simon and I are recorded. I haven’t played back my videos because I think they’d be excruciating to watch. My intro video was scripted, but I tried to make it sound naturalistic, because I think that’s easier to listen to. I think I may have gone too far and actually ended up sounding incoherent. Hopefully they’re not too bad.

As an addendum, though really it should be line one: if you have any hearing-impaired participants, then of course you should use text only. There’s really interesting stuff written by Diane Carr on how the introduction of voice to platforms (mainly Second Life) has marginalised deaf people. Well worth reading up on that. I’ll add references to the comments.


3 thoughts on “Written v. spoken interaction

  1. This is really useful Mark. You begin by talking about audio feedback. This is an area where I have done quite a lot of work. One of the points I usually make is that the medium is different to text and so it’s purpose will be. As you note one of its great strengths is the clarity it provides in terms of meaning. A difficult message conveyed by voice with kindness can be received quite differently to the same words when they are written. I think it is difficult to compare text and the recorded voice when talking about feedback because audio is not got in some situations, just as written feedback or other methods are not ideal often.
    The speed of interaction and learning is an important consideration. I have heard Ray Land, for example, emphasise this point when challenging assumptions to do with the use of social media for learning techniques such as tweetchats. It is useful to consider tweetchats or webinar backchannels, because again I think you need to look at the purpose – often such fast learning devices are more to do with engagement than learning in the moment, though I think some people (including students and tutors perhaps) overlook the asynchronous opportunity to aid reflection and follow through. Your point though is mostly concerned with speaking or writing (generation) rather than reading or listening (using) I think. Thanks for getting me engaged!

    • Thanks Andrew. I was going to mention your work with using screen recordings to record visual as well as audio in giving feedback as that was an influence on the work we did, but – well as you can tell these posts are a stream of consciousness brain dump and I got distracted by a different train of thought, so that reference got missed out.

      I actually think written reflection is more effective than spoken. I really value the extra time taken to consider responses, and improve and revise language and the more egalitarian nature of written interaction. So often spoken or synchronous chat discussion can be a free-for-all where the competition is to contribute at all, not contribute with value. On the other hand, there is an energy that comes with synchronous communication where there is an intellectual buzz that comes with hearing and sharing ideas with others – such as in our meeting last Wednesday. So stuff gets missed out, and comments are sometimes not as thought out, but it is more motivating.

      Obviously the “v.” is the wrong path – it’s not versus; the two modes complement each other and the best solution is to find ways to move effectively from one to the other. A spoken discussion, with the themes identified and noted, and with an opportunity to reflect at leisure on what’s spoken about, balances these two modes. I usually get my best thoughts about 5 mins after the conversation has ended. Creating online discussions that support l’esprit d’escalier perhaps should be de riguer for synchronous meetings.

  2. The references:

    Carr, D. (2011) ‘Constructing Disability in Online Worlds; Conceptualising Disability in Online Research’ in Peachey, A. and Childs, M. Reinventing Ourselves: Contemporary Concepts of Identity in Virtual Worlds, UK: London, Springer, pp 177- 190

    Childs, M., Oliver, M. and Bate, S. (2010) “Providing feedback using audio: disseminating practice at Coventry from the Audio Supported Enhanced Learning (ASEL) project”, Association for Learning Technology Conference “Into something rich and strange” – making sense of the sea-change, Nottingham, UK, 7-9, September 2010

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