Using Sound in Classroom Projects

By Sandy Chapman

Classroom projects sometimes involve assignments that require students to observe their environment—to notice and document something relevant to the course content they are studying. Often this is done in writing, through field notes and journals, and visually, through illustrations, photographs, or video. Another, less-used, media possibility is audio-recording. It requires the act of listening, which can, itself, be educational.

The Chronicle of Higher Education's Multimedia section recently included a podcast titled "Learning with Sound" by Shea Shackelford, an independent radio producer who worked in collaboration with Dr. Springer, a sociology professor from SUNY Potsdam on a project that required students to interview strangers in diverse environments and to record " life soundscapes."

The two-week project, inspired by the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road, sent thirty–five students on a road trip. Their assignment was to read and reflect on Kerouac's novel and create interview questions spawned by issues explored in the story, then interview people around the country. Student questions to ordinary passer-bys concerning their personal thoughts and experiences included: "What was your best adventure?" "What was your craziest road trip?" and "How do you balance love and relationships with chasing the passions in your life?" The result was a literary audio- soundscape mapping the country from San Francisco to Massachusetts.

In his podcast, Shackelford had some pointers for professors who might want to try using sound as a medium:

  • Make the deadlines short. Requiring students to work quickly will help cut through some of their initial fears about talking to strangers. Just have them do it.
  • Transfer responsibility for the project to students.
  • Experiment. There are many online resources, including how-to technical guides and free editing software, available for students to download off the Internet.
  • Structure your projects so they don't become too time consuming. Remember, you will need time for editing and producing.
  • Use technical challenges as learning opportunities. Shackelford mentioned his own personal pedagogical style—one he calls "academic short-sheeting." Rather than providing students with everything they need, the professor strategically gives students less information and equipment than required. This creates learning experiences as students discover what they are missing.

All in all, audio is a powerful medium well worth exploring. To listen to Shackelford's podcast click on Learning with Sound.