January/February 2001 // Case Studies
The Educational Applications of Streaming Audio: Accessible, Do-It-Yourself Multimedia
by Grover C. Furr III
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Grover C. Furr III "The Educational Applications of Streaming Audio: Accessible, Do-It-Yourself Multimedia" The Technology Source, January/February 2001. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The term "multimedia on the Web" evokes expectations of Web-based presentations with sound and video. Although significant barriers exist today for the professor or teacher who wishes to create his or her own audio/video course content, streaming audio alone—sound without video—is a Web-based technology that is available today. It is easy to learn, inexpensive to produce, and available to off-campus students with only a 28.8 Kb connection to the Internet.

During the summer of 1999, I learned how to produce Web-based multimedia presentations for my classes. I had seen such presentations on corporate sites in the form of "streaming media." They looked and sounded very good when I viewed them over my university’s T1 Internet connection.

After spending a week making some very simple files, however, I decided not to proceed further with streaming audio/video (A/V) for two reasons. First, producing all but the simplest streaming video requires considerable technical skill. Though it’s easy to "capture" (convert from VHS videotape format to digitized file format) a straightforward video clip, the editing skills (cutting, splicing, fade-in and fade-out, adding titles and captions, synchronizing with sound, and so on) needed for all but the simplest videos require considerable practice and time to learn.

Second, A/V files are too large to stream fluently over a modem connection to the Internet, whether the modem is 28.8 or 56 Kb. There are many pauses in the streaming process, and the video motion is jerky, making presentations unusable in a course for students who prefer to work off-campus and who have only a modem connection to the Internet. Though these problems are eliminated when the A/V file is viewed in an on-campus computer lab, I felt I could not justify forcing my students to use already overcrowded labs rather than their own home computers. (See Exhibit 1 for more information about producing streaming video.)

However, I discovered that while A/V presentations did not stream to a 28.8 Kb modem connection fluently enough to be usable, audio presentations did stream very well when viewed at all but the busiest Internet times. Furthermore, the software required to create the digitized streaming audio files is free, as is the software required to listen to them. Finally, the software is very easy to use; a teacher can make a streaming audio file after only 10 minutes of practice.

What Is Streaming Audio?

"Streaming audio" refers to a file format and software that permits a long audio (or A/V) file to be played without the listener's having to first download the entire file, a process that could take an hour or more and occupy several megabytes of drive space in the case of a long lecture. A quarter- or half-minute of the file is preloaded into a "buffer," which the player software uses while more of the file is streamed in advance. This buffer permits a very long file to be played continuously after only a few seconds’ delay.

There are several formats for streaming audio. I use the RealAudio [.rm] format, the current industry standard.

Why Stream Rather Than Download the Audio Files?

Sound files can be made in many formats other than RealAudio's Streaming RM format, but I prefer streaming for several reasons:

  • RealAudio files can be played almost immediately, without being downloaded in their entirety first.
  • In the event that Web use is heavy and even an RM file does not stream fluently enough, the student can simply download the file to his/her hard drive and play it with complete fluency thereafter. The professor need only provide students with a direct hyperlink to the file.
  • RM files are up to 40 times smaller than sound files in other formats. They can be downloaded more quickly, and they take up less space, with little or no perceptible loss of sound quality.
  • Many college computer labs, such as those at my institution, do not permit students to download anything onto them.
  • RealPlayer now comes bundled as a plug-in with the free Netscape Navigator and is easy to download and install by itself. Users of older versions of Netscape Navigator and of Microsoft's Internet Explorer can download it from the Real.com site. (See my streaming audio tutorial for details.)

Using Streaming Audio in the Classroom

At present, I use streaming audio in three ways:

  • Sound samples. For example, in my Middle English Literature class, I can demonstrate various modern experts' oral interpretations of Middle English texts, such as the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, read by a scholar from the University of Georgia.

  • Lectures. Some lectures are already freely available in streaming audio format on the Web, such as a discussion of Ebonics featuring Professor Richard Wright of Howard University's Linguistics Department.

  • Supplementary material. Some of my own lectures are available, such as "The Medieval World-View."

I have found that making my own lectures available to students for remote listening and study has been most beneficial to my classes. Years ago, I basically abandoned formal lecturing because it allowed students to be too passive, and I changed my teaching style to emphasize small-group work. During class, students work in groups of four to six, beginning with assignments I have already given to them over the Web. I act as a mentor, going from group to group to ask questions, refocusing discussion when needed, and listening a lot. Most classes end with the whole class in one large circle, engaging in a group discussion, during which students share the results of their small-group discussions.

But while streaming audio has transformed my classroom, there is still some material I feel I must present in lecture format. I could just write out the material, make it available on a Web page as yet another reading assignment, and do without lectures altogether. However, lectures allow students to hear a real voice behind the material, listen to its intonations, and learn to make notes from a talk rather than from a text. Presenting material in a variety of formats such as this can lead to better learning, or at least to a different way of learning.

Streaming audio helps enhance the benefits of traditional lectures while eliminating some of their drawbacks. For example, I dislike the passivity of students as they listen to an extended in-class presentation and resent spending precious classroom hours in this way. Streaming audio makes it possible to present a lecture without taking up classroom time with a lecture. Furthermore, streaming audio challenges the inherent authoritarian nature of the traditional lecture format, which typically allows little time for interactive question-and-answer or discussion in a large group.

I have made streaming audio files of each of the lectures I used in the fall of 1999. I assign the lectures as homework so that my students can listen to them whenever they want. All lectures are available as links on the course Web page. Students can pause, back up, and replay the lectures, or parts of them, as many times as they wish so that they can make notes, answer the telephone, make a cup of coffee, and so on. With more time to assimilate the lecture material, they can also think more critically about it—an activity that should be encouraged.

Using Virtual Handouts

I compose Web pages for use in conjunction with each lecture, much as I used to make up handouts. It’s easy to make simple diagrams with a basic graphics program like Windows Paint and include them in the Web handouts. Students can either look at these pages online while listening to the lecture or print the handouts and write their lecture notes directly on them. For example, see the assignment (Exhibit 2) for my first lecture on "The Medieval World View," which contains links to the lecture in streaming audio and the Web page handouts.

I assign each lecture with its accompanying Web page handout as homework, along with a writing assignment based on the lecture. My students listen to the lecture, making notes and studying the handout. They then complete the writing assignment, which they e-mail to the other members of their discussion group and to me. I keep it for grading purposes. Each student has to read at least one or two of their groupmates' assignments.

At the next class, students are well prepared to discuss the lecture’s contents, raising questions and criticisms with each other. They spend class time discussing and interacting with each other and with me rather than sitting back passively listening or making notes without discussing or interacting. I also use threaded Web discussion forums provided in Microsoft FrontPage 98 on a FrontPage server, real-time IRC Chat on our MSU IRC server, and e-mail distribution groups (like small mailing lists) to encourage further critical discussion.


I was surprised that student responses to my full integration of streaming audio into my Fall 1999 courses were so positive. Most students appreciated the fact that they could pause the lectures or even listen to them more than once. I am continuing to use streaming audio and have begun to collect some guest lectures for use in future classes, always making sure to get permission from my guest lecturer to put the talk on the Web. (See Exhibit 5 for more detail on student responses.)

Using the Internet can make teaching more interactive; more focused on critical thinking, discussion, and problem-solving; and less concerned with assimilation and retention of information. With this simple and cheap streaming audio technology, I can use all of my class time to enhance student-centered, interactive education. I recommend the technology to anyone who wants to enhance his/her teaching.

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