Audio Technologies

Audio technology is the probably the most underutilized of the technologies that can be used to provide an interactive component to training or education done at a distance. It is cost effective for large or small groups, provides users with a method to connect with other users and the instructor which reduces the sense of isolation common for distance learners. Equipment purchases for audio conferencing are low or nonexistent if a public bridge is used and the user places the call. Pilot studies are easily undertaken without major funding.

Uses for audio teleconferencing include:

    • Viewers call the program origination site to ask questions which is common in satellite delivered teleconferencing;
    • Continuous open audio line so that sites participate freely and fully in discussion which is common in two-way audio/two-way video systems;
    • Conducting full classes using only audio technology;
    • Augmenting audio technology with audiographics technology where an electronic blackboard or graphics pallet is used by the instructor at the origination site and the image is transmitted to and seen by all receive sites;
    • Scheduling class audio conferences with the instructor/expert when using other mediated systems such as video tape based classes delivered by satellite, cable, student loan, or learning center, or to augment traditional face-to-face classes.

Setting Up An Audio Conference: If your facility does not have a conferencing function available through the switchboard, or a conference bridge, there are a number of bridge conferencing services available. These include ConferTech, AT&T, Darome, US Sprint, and DataBeam. Call the organization to determine charges and how they set up conferences.

To set up an audio conference, call the bridge operator with the following information:

    • Time of day for the conference and approximately how long it will last.
    • Whether the participants will call in or the operator is to call them. A list of names and telephone numbers. If users call the bridge they will incur the long distance charges. For public bridges with 1-800 numbers, international participants must be called by the bridge operator.
    • Number of ports - one per person or one per site. Public bridges can accommodate hundreds of calls at once.
    • If the entire group will meet and then split into smaller discussion groups, the operator will need a list of who is assigned to which group.
    • The name of the meeting chair.

Equipment: Individuals will need only a regular telephone. If a group at one site is to call in, a speaker phone is the minimum equipment needed so that everyone can hear and speak to the other sites; however these usually "clip" the sound when there are too many inputs such as several people talking at once. The remedy is an audio conferencing product, such as those available from Shure, NEC and Darome, which connect with the phone line and are put in the center of a conference table with the participants around it. These units house microphones and speakers and have no audible echo, distortion, or objectionable clipping or dropout.

Using an Audio Conference: As a component of a national telecourse offered via C-band satellite by the University of Missouri - St. Louis (Lane, 1990), four hour-long audio conferences were held every two weeks for student interaction. Students viewed two hours of the telecourse every Saturday morning. Nineteen students and the instructor could participate in each of the three sections. If a student was unable to call-in, the conference was taped and sent to the student ($6). Students had three texts, including a 200-page study guide, and used self-directed learning contracts. Assignments were mailed to the instructor to grade and returned to the students.

Audio Conference Research

Research was designed to determine if group audio conferencing was a useful method of interaction with the instructor. The instructor holds a doctorate in adult education and used facilitation methods recommended by Knowles (1970). Little research has been done in audio conferencing (Williams, et al., 1988, p. 24).

Bales has defined interaction as the behavior of one person influencing the behavior of another in a face-to-face situation. Interaction analysis in its broadest sense is a method of describing and interpreting human interaction as it occurs in a specific group setting (Bales, 1950 in Emmert, 1970, p. 373).

Interactivity is a widely used term, but it is an underdefined concept. As a way of thinking about communication, it has high face validity, but only narrowly based explication, little consensus on meaning, and only recently emerging empirical verification of actual role (Hawkins, 1988, p. 110). The most helpful definition for interactivity would be one predicated on the issue of responsiveness. The distinction called for is between interactive, quasi-interactive (reactive), and non-interactive communication sequences. Quasi- and fully-interactive sequences differ clearly from non-interactive communication in requiring that sender and receiver roles be interchangeable with each subsequent message. The complete absence of interaction is marked by incoherent conversation (Hawkins, 1988, p. 110).

The users of interaction analysis techniques have identified three dimensions: the affective, cognitive, and multidimensional. The affective systems generally examine such teacher behaviors as positive/negative reaction to students, praise, criticism, encouragement, acceptance, and support. Cognitive systems focus on a statement's abstraction level, logical processes, and the type of logical or linguistic function a behavior serves. Multidimensional systems attempt to identify factors from affective and cognitive dimensions (Emmert, 1970, p. 374).

Enough categories should be established to describe any occurrence and should be mutually exclusive so that the observer cannot describe an occurrence with more than one category. All verbal behavior is classified into one of three divisions: Teacher talk; student talk; and silence, confusion, or miscellaneous occurrences. Teacher talk is further classified as indirect and direct. (Emmert, 1970, p. 381.) Subcategories were added to the existing system (E. J. Amidon et al., 1968, in Emmert, 1970, p. 398.) Occurrences are determined by calculating the percentage of time used for all categories (Emmert, 1970).

Methodology: Tapes were made of each audio teleconference. Students were assigned to one of three sections to test the factor of group size; sections contained, 19, 14, and 6 students. The tapes were transcribed, coded, and analyzed using the unit of one line of type in the transcript.

Teacher Talk: Indirect Influence
1. Accepts, Clarifies, Student Feelings


2. Praises or encourages: evaluates student's ideas as right, good, appropriate.


3. Accepts or Uses Student Ideas: rephrases idea
3a Acknowledges Student Ideas


3c Clarifies Student Ideas


3d Diagnoses learning needs


3D Designs pattern of learning exp


3f Formulates directions for learning


3E Evaluates results: re-diagnose needs


3s Summarizes Student Ideas


4. Asks Questions: to gain information, knowledge, or opinion(not rhetorical questions)
4f Asks Factual Questions


4c Asks Convergent Questions


4d Asks Divergent Questions


4e Asks Evaluative Questions


4s Asks Evaluative Questions


Teacher Talk: Direct Influence
5. Gives lecture: facts, information, opinions, ideasorientation (includes rhetorical questions)
5f Factual Lecturing


5M Motivational Lecturing


5O Orientation Lecturing


5P Personal Lecturing


5R Gives or asks for Resources


6. Give directions: physical act by learner


7. Criticizes/Justifies Authority: defend position


Student Talk
8. Predictable response: teacher initiates talk
8f Factual Response


8c Convergent Response


9. Unpredictable: student initiated
9d Divergent Response


9e Evaluative Response


9i Initiated Comment


9s Student share exp./solutions


9t Student talking to student


9Q Student questions another student


Everything else: periods of confusion difficult to determine who is talking, all talking; or no talking
10. Silence or confusion
10s Silence


10c Confusion


10E Equip. induced silence/confusion


10N Name/city ID preface


10Q Equipment induced Question -- "Still connected?"


Total Units (one line)



Summary of the Findings

The 24 percent downtime caused by the clipping of the audio bridge was a major deterrent. The media was not seamless and transparent. It impeded the process of communication, however, as the students became accustomed to the equipment clipping, the percentage of clipping episodes decreased.

Students spoke 41 percent of the time and of that, shared their experiences 24 percent of the time. The instructor spoke for 22 percent of the time and of that, spent five percent of the time asking for shared experiences which generated 24 percent of the interaction by students.

For all three groups, there were a total of 95 interactions where one statement generated the next statement so that interaction was perceived to be occurring according to the earlier definition. Group A accounted for 40 separate interactions through the four hour periods; Group B had 35 interactions; and Group C which had the smallest number of students, had only 19 interactions but generated the longest periods of interactions.


This research begins to frame the questions regarding the use of audio teleconferences. Students agreed that the audio interaction was productive as opposed to having no interaction at all. Since the students were located throughout the U.S., the audio interaction was the only choice for group interaction, and cost-effective.

Future purchasers of audio conferencing systems should note the heavy percentage of time spent that was unproductive due to the equipment. Users of older audio bridges might consider the feasibility of replacing a heavily used bridge with equipment that does not clip.

The results should assist distance educators in structuring telecourses crossing borders to include the use of audio conferences to provide interaction with the instructor.

We should be asking the pragmatic question: What about interaction and acceptance of innovations in communication arrangements, interaction and novelty value (does it fade?), interactivity and utility, and interactivity and tenacity of use? What is the role of interaction in the diffusion of media, maintenance of allegiance to channels, and the intervening impact of interactivity on use via attention? (Hawkins, 1988, p. 130).

These questions have rarely been asked or researched. Interactive arrangements help overcome barriers to adoption of the use of telecommunications for education. It is possible, that enjoyment emanating from interacting with media will lay the foundation for the development of real (or at least surrogate but satisfying) social relationships. Until appropriate data are collected, interactivity will continue to be viewed as an engaging, captivating process. (Hawkins, 1988, p. 131).

Tips for Audio Conferencing

Approach audio conferencing differently than a face-to-face meeting; there is a big difference in presentation. Use these points to capture the participants' attention in an audio conference.

Know the equipment: Know what to do to be heard on the system and what it takes to mute it. Locate the on-off switch and the microphone. Work with the equipment the day before the audio conference so that its operation is easy for you.

Participation: Involve the audience early to make them comfortable with the medium. Get participants talking within the first few minutes or they will act as if they are listening to a radio show. Ask participants to identify themselves by name and location.

Create Pace: Alternate short presentations with discussion, visuals, or a work sheet. Keep segments shorter than ten minutes.

Use Visuals: Throughout the conference, use plenty of visuals such as slides, overheads, or video tapes (mail to the receive site before the meeting). Use more visuals late in the program to provide focus and relieve boredom.

Handouts are important for visual learners. Use an agenda with paragraphs explaining discussion points.

Speaker Variety: Combine male and female teams as the change is pleasant to the ear. Use people with accents who are immediately identifiable. Plan the presentation order to vary the voices.

Plan the wrap-up: The worst thing one can ask in a 50-site teleconference is, "Are there any questions?" Instead, ask if there are "Any questions in Dallas?" Everyone in Dallas will look at each other and silently nominate someone to ask a question.


Amidon, Edmund J. (1970), Interaction Analysis, in Methods of Research in Communication, Eds, Emmert, Philip and Brooks, William D, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Amidon, E. J. and Flanders, (1970) 10-category Interaction Analysis System P. 378.

Advancing Communication Science: Merging Mass and Interpersonal Processes, Sage Annual Review of Communication Research: (1988) Editors Robert P. Hawkins, John M. Wiemann, and Suzanne Pingree.

Knowles, Malcolm. (1970) The Modern Practice of Adult Education, New York, New York. Associated Press.

Lane, Carla and Henschke, John (1990) "The Use of Audio Interaction in a Telecourse Offered by Satellite: Foundations of Adult Basic Education" in The Ninth Annual Midwest Research-to-Practice Conference Proceedings, pp 89-93.

Methods of Research in Communication. (1970) Eds, Emmert, Philip & Brooks, William D, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Interpersonal Processes, Sage Annual Review of Communication Research: Editors Robert P. Hawkins, John M. Wiemann, and Suzanne Pingree. Page 110.

Williams, Frederick; Rice, Ronald E.; and Rogers, Everett M. (1988) Research Methods and the New Media, Macmillan, New York.

from "The Distance Learning Technology Resource Guide," by Carla Lane