Humanizing Online Learning with VoiceThread

It’s really time to put the age old arguments about online classes being dull, cold, and alienating to bed and accept that these problems are only effects of the choices made by those who design, develop, and teach the course.

If you are an online instructor who is aching to break out of the social limitations of the text-based discussion forum that still dominates online courses, despite the audio and visual rich social technologies that abound, read on. Take a few minutes to step inside one of my online classes and view this clip of an interaction between me and one of my former online Art Appreciation students from a class VoiceThread activity. The excerpt you see here shows a single slide (out of many) from an online activity.

Students were required to comment after reading a chapter that introduced them to the concepts of “form and content.” In this way, the activity is used as a formative assessment for them to begin to develop mastery of new concepts and skills.

You probably observed a few things about this interaction.  First, the student was nervous and she was clearly pushing herself outside of her comfort zone.  This is when we learn the most!  Most students aren’t willing to leave voice comments when they’re nervous and many students aren’t willing to voluntarily push themselves outside their comfort zone. We need to ask ourselves, “How can we support and encourage these actions as online instructors?”

Secondly, you likely noticed that she made a mistake in her first assessment attempt.  And that it was okay for her to do so. This is because the assessment is a “formative assessment,” meaning it is an assessment “for learning,” rather than an assessment “of learning.” In my feedback, I let her know she had made an error, and by delivering my feedback with video, the message was received in a less threatening way.  She was able to hear my voice inflections and see my facial expressions.  She knew I wanted her to succeed and try again.  And she did.

And the next time, she succeeded, and I made my pride in her very clear.  Her follow-up comment demonstrates her progress and mastery of the learning objectives.  Students in my online classes often tell me they get more personalized feedback than they have ever received in a face-to-face class.

And, what’s also important about the VoiceThread interface is that the environment is participatory.  This means the comments students and I leave are viewable by the entire class. While there is no way I could require or ensure all students viewed the interaction between she and I, those who did learn from it and improve their mastery of the objectives.

Video and Voice Empower Dyslexic Learners

As I sit back and reflect on many years of teaching with VoiceThread though, my most prized teaching moments have been with the learning successes I’ve seen with my dyslexic students.  I recall one particular student with dyslexia who was taking online classes because she was also homebound, preparing for a major kidney surgery.  She was in my class the first year I taught with VoiceThread and she was the only student who made use of the video (webcam) comment feature. What stunned me was how deeply eloquent and proficient her verbal interpretation of the artwork on the screen was, while the written assessments she submitted to me demonstrated an entirely different story.  At that moment, I realized how much more — beyond social presence and community building — we miss, as online educators, when we construct learning environments purely around text based assessments. And I related very differently to my learners from that moment on.

What is VoiceThread?

The example shown above demonstrates many of the reasons why I teach with VoiceThread, a cloud-based asynchronous communication tool that I use to enhance my online course, which is taught within a traditional course management system.  You can click here for a 10-minute tour of a VoiceThread activity.  VoiceThread empowers me to create multimedia content, as well as to interact with my students and to have them interact with each other using voice, video, or text as their preferred method of communication.  And using VoiceThread for formative assessments allows me to use my feedback as additional teaching moments too.  In my feedback comments, I can share additional context about the image or topic on the slide.  At the start of the next learning unit, the students are given the assignment to review the entire VoiceThread from the previous unit (including all student comments and my feedback).  These VoiceThreads become resources for larger projects or summative assessments and through their creation stronger social presence and community is fostered throughout the class.

You can think of a VoiceThread as a conversation around a slideshow of your own media files.  These media files can be your PDFs (you can export your Powerpoints or Keynote presentations to PDFs very simply), images, video files, audio files (for the music instructors out there), and more.  And you can mix the media so your VoiceThread could include, for example, four presentation slides, two images, a video, and three more presentation slides at the end.  Use your imagination!  When you have your media curated, you simply add your own comments in voice (using your computer’s microphone), video (using your computer’s webcam), or text (using the keyboard on your computer).  Then you share your VoiceThread securely with the Group you’ve set up for your class or give access to anyone you want who has access to the link or place it on the Browse page and make fully public.

I use VoiceThread in a variety of ways in my online class.  Using the tool is easy but teaching effectively with it is a skill that has taken me many years to refine. What I find critical is to understand that it’s a very robust tool and you must scaffold your students’ use of VoiceThread, rather than expect them to be masters of it from day one (remember, week one is stressful enough).

VoiceThread Teaching and Learning Examples from the History of Photography (online):

  • Syllabus Overview
  • Ice Breaker I require voice or video comments in my ice breaker to ensure all students get over their nerves. Interestingly, this strategy has increased voluntary voice/video comments from 25% to 75% in the activities that follow.
  • Formative Assessment: Mini-video lecture followed by formative assessment
  • Student created VoiceThread by Diane Rhodes: My students were required to locate a practicing art photographer, interview that person and produce a showcase about his/her work.

10 Tips For Using VoiceThread For Learning

  1. Understand the limitations of a free account, which allows you to experiment with VoiceThread. Basically, instructors need premium accounts (and there are many options) but students may use free accounts.
  2. Get started with a low risk ice breaker. It’s a great way to orient students to the interface and ensure they know how to leave a comment without the worries of assessment.
  3. Start with a required voice/video commenting activity to maximize human presence. You will find that if you give students the option to comment in voice, video, or text the most will choose text.  A simple and effective strategy I use is to require voice or video comments in my low risk ice breaker.  Keep in mind that students will be nervous — so be supportive and leave friendly feedback for all of them.  This approach levels the playing field and creates a supportive environment for all learners. After implementing this strategy, I’ve seen an increase from 25% to 75% of my students voluntarily using video or voice for their comments.
  4. Create a VoiceThread Group for your class (creating Groups is not available for free account holders). After you create a group, simply paste the “invitation link” inside your class and when your students click on it, two things will happen:  they will register for VoiceThread and they will join your group.  Once they’re a group member, they (and only they) have access to the VoiceThreads you’ve shared with that group, creating a simple and secure sharing system.
  5. Scaffold the use of VoiceThread into the class for optimum learning benefits.  For example, give students time to get familiar with the interface, then require them to comment for a few weeks, then you can experiment with the advanced “editing” feature which turns a VoiceThread into a “wiki” and, finally, empower your students to be independent content creators and make their very own VoiceThread.
  6. VoiceThread can be easily embedded into any course management system that accepts external html embed code.  The embed code includes a “sign in” feature which means your students sign into their account and access the secure VoiceThread content without every leaving your course.
  7. Be aware of VoiceThread Universal, an html version of VoiceThread’s flash based player which is accessible to students who are blind and rely on full screen readers to navigate the web.
  8. Encourage your students with iPhone or iPads to download the free VoiceThread Mobile app to increase their access to voice/video commenting and make their learning mobile!
  9. Build accessible VoiceThreads.  For audio comments you will use over and over again in your classes, use the text comment feature to create text-based transcripts of those comments.  This way, students who need to read the comments will have that option built-in.
  10. Be informed about the array of account options that are available for higher ed VoiceThread users — from individual, to department, to site wide licenses.  Site wide licenses include VoiceThread’s awesome new LTI integration which makes single-sign on a reality for your students. This means they don’t need to create an external account and you also don’t need to create a Group for your class or manage your students’ enrollment as they add/drop.

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