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Volume 9, Number 1: September 20, 2002

The Sights and Sounds of Learning:
Designing a CD-rom to Enhance your Online Course

by Susan Brantly,
University of Wisconsin-Madison



In the summer of 2001, "Nineteenth-Century Scandinavian Fiction" debuted as a distance course through the Madison campus. It featured a course CD-ROM, through which lectures were delivered via illustrated audio. The course also made use of online quizzes, bulletin boards, email and chat rooms. Based on student feedback, the course was improved and delivered once more in the summer of 2002. The purpose of this article is to share some of the lessons learned while developing the course for those engaged in or contemplating a similar project.

Project History

In 1998, I was chosen to participate in the INTIME project, sponsored through Learning Support Services (LSS) on the Madison campus. My chief interest was to begin to incorporate art in the classroom to help convey cultural and literary concepts. Technologies such as PowerPoint and digital scanning made producing multi-media lectures cost-effective and relatively uncomplicated. My experiences in the classroom convinced me that art was a powerful pedagogical tool, and PowerPoint lectures brought with them the added bonus of clarifying the organization of lectures so students could take more effective notes.

Les Howles of the Division of Instructional Technology (DoIT) approached me about collaborating on a streaming experiment for the web. I was interested in learning about the process and volunteered to supply slides and lecture content for a short piece on "August Strindberg's Use of Scenic Elements."1 Syllabus Magazine noticed the lecture and listed it in an article examining "exemplary uses of multimedia in support of higher education."2 The project encouraged me to begin thinking about creating an entire course built around such illustrated audio presentations. To circumvent the occasional delivery difficulties involving bandwidth, I began to consider placing the lectures on a CD-ROM. This decision brought with it some unforeseen advantages. The CD-ROM has become a valuable independent study resource during the regular school year, and other colleges have expressed an interest in using the material. Scandinavian Studies is a small field; several Midwestern campuses are struggling with a single Scandinavianist who is hard-pressed to meet student demand for culture courses. Treating the CD-ROM along the lines of a course textbook, other campuses can present this course without costly or cumbersome tuition and/or licensing agreements between campuses.

The design and development of the course took place during the 2000-2001 school year, sponsored by various sources. Ron Cramer of Learning Support Services volunteered his time and talent as recording engineer and sound editor. Title VI funds through the European Studies program paid for a project assistantship for Brad Berkland, who constructed the CD-ROM itself and designed most of the important course web features. An IDEAL Grant through the International Studies office helped to pay for software, supplies, and honoraria for student actors, artists, and musicians. The Division of Continuing Studies supplied resources for a student hourly worker, who compiled the course compendium, as well as additional funds for supplies, permissions, and CD reproduction costs.

All of these resources were necessary for creating a high quality product. Obviously funding opportunities will vary widely on different campuses, but they are worth pursuing. The more time and resources invested up front, the better the end result. The lectures produced for such a project are likely to be in use for years.


The first step in creating a course CD-ROM is to have a complete outline of lecture topics to be included. Instead of planning 40 to 50-minute lectures, it is better to divide lectures up into sub-topics, covering 5 to 10 minutes. The advantages of this strategy are both technological and pedagogical. From a technological perspective, a 10-minute illustrated audio file is smaller than a 50-minute colossus and can be more easily edited, manipulated, and/or streamed on the web. Pedagogically, the shorter lecture elements enable students to focus better on the material and make it easier to backtrack and locate information they want to replay.

Once the outline was set, I chose to design the slide illustrations before writing the lecture script. "Nineteenth-Century Scandinavian Literature" was a handy subject because of the greater availability of material out of copyright. I used PowerPoint in order to design the slides used in the illustrated audio movies. Figure 1 is an example of one of the slides from the course.

Figure 1. Vladimir Propp "Morphology of a Folk Tale" (Revised) 1. Lack 2. Quest 3. Magical Helpers or Opponents 4. Tests 5. RewardI have garnered a number of design tips from my own mistakes and working together with Les Howles of DoIT and Ron Cramer of LSS. In my opinion, one should choose a color template at the beginning of the design process and stick with it throughout the course. The use of color should help to focus student attention, not become a distraction. For example, when used in the course movie, the color of the text box on this slide changes to yellow depending on which point of Vladimir Propp's structure of a folk tale is being discussed on the sound track, making it easier for the student to follow along.

I selected black as my background color, because it creates a dramatic presence on the computer screen, but will not compete with the color of my illustrations. Complex background patterns are usually a mistake. In consideration of color-blind students, one should avoid combining red and green. For text passages, I chose a bold Arial font, since it appears to retain relative clarity even when subject to various computer manipulations.

Whenever possible, slides should contain substantial visual content and pure text slides should be avoided. The illustrations I have used in "19th Century Scandinavian Fiction" are meant to provide added cultural information, as in the following example (Figure 2). Figure 2. The Effects of Corsetting

In Anne Charlotte Leffler's story, "Aurore Bunge," the title figure goes skinny dipping and notes the marks that her corset has left on her torso. This particular illustration brings home what a corset does and what the marks mean, as witnessed by a remark in one of the chat sessions: "That still blows my mind that women wore those everyday." Another student, expressed the value of using art to understand the literature and culture of the 19th Century in a bulletin board entry:

"What I have enjoyed about the artwork, beyond the fact that it provides a visual for the literature, is that it provides a visual for the movements we are reading about. For instance, during the romantic era the art we looked at had its own romantic elements (emphasis of nature, dreamy, happy....) the modern breakthrough, when realism reigned, and society was being scrutinized had artwork that had darker elements, a mood of pessimism. Now as we are reading about work during neo-romanticism we see work that is becoming more surrealistic, a bit more introspective on a personal level. I think the artwork is giving us a good idea about the movement of society in general, and gives us a clearer picture, along with the literature, of the mood and life at different times during the 19th century."

Thus, the illustrations used in an illustrated audio lecture should be thought of as important pedagogical tools, not just something to fill the screen while students listen to lecture. Although it may take time to track down the appropriate image, it is worth the effort and occasional expense.

Just as visual illustrations add to the learning experience, the audio track can be much more than a replication of in-class lectures. A soundtrack that suffers from poor recording quality, background noise, hemming and hawing, or a monotone delivery is going to make it harder for students to stay focused on the content of what is being said. Radio is a useful model to bear in mind. Radio offers lively, conversational voices as well as auditory variety, thus keeping the listener engaged. On the soundtrack of "Nineteenth-Century Scandinavian Literature," my voice is the voice of lecture information and analysis. All quotations are read by someone else. Before the recording begins, find someone who can be brutally honest about your skills as a narrator and be willing to fire yourself if need be. It would be better to have someone else read your scripts. To begin with, I simply recruited handy students and colleagues to read the quotations, but soon found that not everyone can read well on tape. In the end, I hired student actors from the Department of Theatre and Drama.

In Jens Peter Jacobsen's Niels Lyhne, there is a scene in which Niels Lyhne is told by Mrs. Boye, the woman he loves, that she is engaged to marry someone else. A suggestive scene ensues in which Niels begins to rock Mrs. Boye in a rocking chair. Students hardened by the more blatant approaches to sexuality in the media today often overlook the impact of this scene on a Victorian audience. Click on Figure 3 below for a sample of how we got the point across on the CD-ROM. Figure 3. The Parting Scene
Although combining this passage with Bizet's Carmen was my idea, credit for the effectiveness of this piece goes to Ron Cramer's skills as a sound editor and actor Mike McGuire's inspired reading. Not only do students get the point of the passage after this, but they are almost guaranteed to bring it up on the course bulletin board or in the chat session. Several students remarked, "I love all the voices :)," and one said, "I need that guy on the lectures to read these stories to me. They sound so much more dramatic when heard."

One version of the course lectures was produced using QuickTime, but licensing difficulties caused us to switch all the lectures over to Flash. Brad Berkland designed a visually pleasing and easy-to-use format for delivering the lectures on the CD-ROM. (Figure 4). Figure 4.

Students can easily navigate from the main menu to individual lectures and proceed in a proper sequence from one lecture to another. Movie controls function like a VCR and slide transitions are marked in order for students to find information quickly.

Students generally liked this format, as one student noted: "Having more control over the lecture allows us to replay sections, repeat words we missed, or pause the lecture while taking notes." Students from both summers the course was offered, identified the CD-ROM as the most valuable part of the course, rating it 4.7 in 2001 and 4.85 in 2002 on a scale where 5 was "Very Helpful."

Delivering the Course

Although the CD-ROM became something of the "content core" of the course, teaching and delivering the course involved much more. In this area, the web was invaluable.

Online multiple-choice quizzes fill the role that attendance might take in a conventional course. Students are told that the quizzes are geared toward the CD-ROM and they should take the quizzes as soon as they have listened to lecture. The first time the course was given, the only deadline for the quizzes was the end of the class. This resulted in an avalanche of quizzes in the final days of the course. I judged such intense activity to be pedagogically unsound. The second time I gave the course, I set weekly deadlines for completing the quizzes. This encouraged students to keep up at a more even pace and enabled me to allow students more flexibility upon request.

Initially, the daily chat room sessions and bulletin board participation were optional. Students had a positive inducement to participate--they could raise their grades--but there were no negative consequences for not participating. Out of a class of 27, approximately 7 to 9 students logged in regularly for the chat room session. After some initial interest, virtually no one used the bulletin board. When all was said and done, I was unsatisfied by the level of interaction chosen by most students, since interactive exchanges are important for developing critical thinking skills.

Between the summer of 2001 and 2002, I took an online course on teaching online offered by LERN and taught by William Draves. 3 Becoming an online learner was an important experience in and of itself. One of the course participants confessed that if online activities were not required, he would not make the time to do them. With this in mind, I required some form of participation from my students in 2002. Students could choose between attending chat sessions regularly (4 out of 5 times per week) or earning at least 10 points per week through the bulletin board discussion. In the bulletin board sections, students earned 1 point by posting a comment or question, 2 points by responding to another student comment, and 3 points by integrating two previous student comments. The point system provided an incentive for students to read what the other students had written and to respond and synthesize the issues. Out of 44 students, 9 chose to earn their participation grade through the chat room and 35 through the bulletin board. I was much more satisfied with the course, and I believe the students were, too. The student evaluation score for the bulletin board went from 2.27 (between "Confusing" and "Neutral") in 2001, to 4.1 ("Helpful") in 2002. Those who choose to participate regularly in the chat sessions tend to love them, but some who try out the chat room experience great anxiety and cannot stand it. Therefore, student evaluation scores for the chat room are all over the board, resulting in averages around "Neutral" [3.31 (2001); 3.29 (2002].

Email is one of my more valuable teaching tools. I monitor each student's progress, and email them with praise or concern as the situation warrants. Because students are at a distance and isolated from the immediate feedback of the classroom, it is important for them to know that the teacher is paying attention to them. I invariably receive thanks regardless of whether I am expressing praise or concern. Students read their email and I have found it useful to send out deadline reminders, rather than relying on students to check the online syllabus.

At the end of the course, students are given 48 hours to write an open-book, open-note essay exam, sent to them via email and returned via email. The questions require students to synthesize information from several different texts and lectures. Clearly some students imagine that they can collect all the information they need in the final 48 hours of the course, but they are fairly easy to spot. Such students are in the minority and I have been very pleased with the overall quality of the exams I have received both times the course was taught.

Evaluation Results

On the evaluations, students rated different elements of the course on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing "Strongly Agree." Students generally gave the course high marks in organization [4.47 (2001); 4.59 (2002)] and clarity [4.6 (2001); 4.51 (2002)]. To the statement, "Overall I am pleased with what I learned in this course," students replied in the affirmative [4.4 (2001); 4.37 (2002)].

One student comment revealed a pedagogical benefit to careful preparation and the organized running of the course: "I was a little worried at first that the format of the class would make it easier for myself to procrastinate or slack off. But when I could see how much effort must have gone into designing the course and Prof. Brantly's prompt emails and daily office hours, it made me feel like I wanted to reciprocate as much effort as she gave to us." The initial effort of producing a quality CD-ROM continues to be perceived by students as an ongoing effort by the instructor. The existence of the CD-ROM allows me to focus on my role as intellectual guide and provides the time to shepherd students through their learning experience.

Did students find the course a satisfying learning experience? One did: "I never thought an online course could run so smoothly, be so interesting, and such a wonderful learning experience." Of course, it is not possible to please everyone. Some students expressed dissatisfaction at not being able to meet their classmates face-to-face. One student took exception to the representation of "Jewish/Christian theology" in the course and offered the helpful tip: "Try giving O[ral] R[oberts] U[niversity] a call." This objection, however, was not related to the distance format.



1. Web Address:

2. Sharon Gray, "Multimedia Across the Disciplines," Syllabus Magazine 13:9 (May 2002), 14-16. An online version of the article can be found at:

3. For much of the course content, see: William A. Draves, Teaching Online (River Falls, WI: LERN Books, 2002).

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