A Room of Voices
Now firmly into the first semester of blended learning, I realise how accustomed I’ve become to entering a virtual room of disembodied voices, and aurally recognising each student. These auditory interactions are now our primary method for the lecturer-student relationship and I’ve been fascinated by the role of our voice for online teaching in the specific context of higher education.
Since starting my current role, as Senior Lecturer in Building Services Engineering, I’ve always looked for opportunities to use digital learning tools to enhance the student’s experience, so, when we moved to online teaching, I quickly got to know my Menti from my Miro. However, I became alarmed by the growing obsession with the virtual learning technology and I wanted to provide a simple antidote. Something to hold on to for the times when technology fails.
The Voice: Tone, Pitch, Pace, Identity, and Authenticity.
The role of a lecturer is distinctively different from other forms of public speaking, as we must build long-term positive relationships with our audience: the students. Therefore, we should not aspire to be the slick public speaker, but rather we should feel comfortable to show our human side.
So why not hone the skill of vocal confidence in mastering the techniques of online teaching. Looking back, I think I developed this interest, not in the workplace, but through my hobby of hosting radio shows on student, and later, community radio stations. Before online streaming and automatic “listen again” functions, it was a labour of love to hear my shows again. Before setting out to the studio to broadcast, I would tune my home radio, set my minidisc recording, and hope no-one in my house was going to re-tune to another station. After each show I would listen back, enjoying the music I loved to hear, and to see how I sounded to the listeners. It’s quite a shock the first few times, I didn’t sound like “me”, and I could hear my nervousness exposed through the airways. But show by show, my voice mellowed into the rhythm of it. My enjoyment and passion for the music could be heard.
In summer 2020, I led a peer-group CPD session, subsequently presenting the work at the HEPPP Expertise symposium: Developing Your Online Voice for Teaching [YouTube video]
The CPD 3-week programme was structured with short pre-recorded videos, and peer-group discussions to explore the concepts and share experiences. The group size was small, yet still representing a wide range of disciplines and teaching formats. The topics each week built on concepts of building relationships using voices.
- The Voice Forms the Relationship: The voice is the essence of someone’s personality, where the word itself comes from “persona” which is the Greek word for the mouthpiece of the face masks used by actors in ancient drama. As a group, we listened to a range of speakers and posed possible reasons why we build positive or negative relationships with them.
- Your Relationship with Your Voice: The first time you hear your own voice played back, you confront a new version of yourself. Yet, our brains have never been programmed to hear that version, as physiologically, our ears receive vibrations transferred internally, as well as sound transferred through the air. This vocal confrontation has been explored by Rousey and Holzman (1967) and they showed that by hearing our primary emotions exposed in our voices, we respond with negative association. Ok fine, but how do we change that? I proposed that we can address this simply through practice of listening back to recordings, aiding the neural reassignment of what our voices sound like. In addition, this would be paired with a healthy self-esteem, allowing us to show our vulnerabilities through our voice, using this as a positive tool in relationship building, rather than a weakness.
- The Voice Creates the Learning Environment: If we’re now in agreement that our voices are powerful tools to build positive relationships, then we can now apply this to the higher education learning environment. I used the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, D, 2011) to define what a “learning environment” is: social, cognitive, and teaching presence. This framework helped to guide our discussions through the different styles of teaching. These broadly covered:
– Size of cohort;
– Student profile;
– Session type;
– Skills developed.
For each of these, we discussed how the Voice sets the tone of the virtual room, and not necessarily the first slide. It that it is the Voice that will decide whether we keep, or lose, control in the virtual room.
4. Vocal Gymnastic Linguistic Acrobatics: We all can appreciate the toll that many hours of teaching takes on our voices. To ensure that we are in command of our Voice, we need to treat it kindly. Each week we ended with a few short exercises, which would keep the vocal muscles supple. This ranged from breathing exercises to tongue twisters!
In summary, the following key themes run throughout my work:
1. Vocal Confidence: Developing the mind’s relationship with the Voice, to deliver authentically.
2. Vocal Resilience: Ensuring the body is fit for the vocal workout, to avoid vocal fatigue.
3. Vocal Interactions: Honouring the dawn of communication as turn-taking, rather than one-sided, and assisting a conversation, rather than a performance.
Feedback from the participants was that these methods have helped them prepare and structure their sessions, as well as gave them a peer-support-group to reflect with as we entered this most challenging semester.