British Columbia

Audio textbook aims to unclog literacy issues for plumbing students

The piping trades program at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., will offer an audio textbook for Level 1 students from this fall.

Thompson Rivers instructor noticed some students were having trouble with written content of trades program

Paul Simpson wants to make the piping trades more accessible to all students. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

Plumbing textbooks can be pretty dense and hard to read, but a Thompson Rivers University (TRU) associate teaching professor has a plan to help — audio books.

The idea came out of discussions with students at the Kamloops, B.C., university about what could be done to help make the course work more accessible.

Paul Simpson said the suggestion of an audio version of the textbook came up and he immediately thought this would be one way to help students who were struggling with the reading and writing parts of the course.

Literacy B.C. has found that around 40 per cent of adults in British Columbia do not have the literacy skills they need to fully participate in society, but Simpson said it's rare for students to come out and say they are having issues with reading.

"There's a lot of stigma around the fact that reading might be a challenge," he said.

Paul Simpson editing his Level 1 audio textbook. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

Simpson said some students are encouraged to go into the trades because they have had issues with traditional book learning, only to discover that the reading and writing requirements of the piping trades program are still quite high.

'Valuable asset'

At the start of the year, he connected with the team at B.C. Campus, a group aimed at making courses more accessible for students, and started applying for funding for the project. 

Tim Carson, B.C. Campus provincial trade representative for open education, jumped on the idea of creating an audio book for plumbing students.

"Having another avenue into the brain, I think is a really valuable asset to have," he said.

Simpson soon started recording his first project, the Plumbing Level 1 textbook. He created a modified recording studio in his office using blankets and began reading the book.

Paul Simpson set up a temporary recording studio in his office to create the audio textbook. (Submitted by Paul Simpson)

He said there are lots of computer programs that will read text, but having someone with experience read the material means the emphasis is on the right words, which improves comprehension.

"The idea is to enhance textbooks and supply other methods of interaction with the material that students can utilize to help them if they need," he said.

He believes this is the first time an audio format has been used for a plumbing textbook in Canada.

School textbooks can be pretty dense and hard to read. We heard how a TRU instructor is using audiobooks to break down barriers.

Benefit to students

Students and former students of the program are already looking forward to having the extra resource when the first audio book is released in the fall.

Roberto Case, who just graduated from the piping trades program, said he would have benefited from an audio version of the text.

"I've always kind of struggled academically … I'll read a page and then find myself flipping right back to the start of the page two times just because it hasn't stuck yet," he said.

Roberto Case graduated from TRU's plumbing program this year and says he would have benefited from an audio textbook. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

Case also believes the audio version will also benefit students commuting to class, sometimes from other communities, as they can listen to the textbook on the way.

"I know that it would serve me, so I can only imagine it would serve other people as well," said Case.

Plumbing lab increases interactivity 

The audio textbook is just one way in which Simpson is making his classroom more interactive. 

A recently completed plumbing lab, which has the same number of fixtures as three apartment units, allows students to see where and how water flows by using glass pipes.

Simpson said it lets people experiment and see what happens when the plumbing codes aren't followed.

"The world is changing. The trades are changing, and I just want to make sure that I stay ahead of that curve," he said.

The new plumbing lab at TRU allows students to see how water flows when pipes are moved or resized. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)
There's a new plumbing lab at TRU made of glass is apparently the largest in Canada. It lets students see exactly what happens when water goes down a pipe.


Jenifer Norwell

Story Producer

Jenifer Norwell has been working with CBC since 2008. She's worked in Prince George, Vancouver, Sudbury and now makes her home in her hometown of Kamloops. She works with CBC Kamloops and with Daybreak Kamloops.