Popular for its use in higher education, VoiceThread (VT) is a powerful Web-based tool for capturing group conversations revolving around an image, document, or video. Similar to how a conversation in a traditional discussion board forum is composed of threads, VoiceThread is the combination of the media slides and the comments that viewers of the slideshow have added to them. What is unique about VoiceThread is that comments can be text-based, or recordings of audio or webcam video. This can make an online group discussion a more visual, socially interactive event.
As an English instructor who teaches online literature classes, I use VoiceThread as a substitute for Blackboard’s Discussion Board. Because my students are already reading quite a bit in my literature classes, I have them respond to literature readings in a VoiceThread that I create and share with them. I’ve found that they will say more if they are not worried about making spelling and grammar errors. A VoiceThread gives my students 5 options for commenting: text-based comments, microphone recording, phone-call recording, webcam video recording, and drawing on slides with a doodling tool. About half of my students post microphone-recorded voice comments; the other half type comments.
My VoiceThreads use a basic format. After building a simple slideshow of images (a picture or an excerpt from the text), I post a microphone-recorded comment to each slide. In this way, I use the commenting tools to ask a question. I then have my students reply to my question by adding their own comments to the VoiceThread.
To do this the first time, each student simply creates his/her own VoiceThread account. About a week prior to the start of the course, I send an email to students called “5 Things You Can Do Now To Get Off to a Great Start”. One of those things is to register for a free VoiceThread account. VoiceThread is available for free at voicethread.com and the iTunes App Store for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices. All they need is an email address (their MATC account works great), and they are set. I also tell them that they should look around the house for microphones (from video games or boom boxes) or check to see if their computer or mobile device has a webcam. I don’t require that they purchase one; however, microphones are available for about $20.
Prior to the start of class, I create a VoiceThread button (with link) in the course menu. Once logged in, they can access my VoiceThread and add their comments. In addition to replying to my question, I ask that my students directly respond to another student. My students do not create pages for the VoiceThread; nor do they create their own forums. This is essentially how I would structure it if I used the Discussion Board tool in Blackboard. For most students, the learning curve is very low; having used chats and other communication tools, most students are able to jump right in.
VoiceThread works really well during the first week for introductions. It’s nice to hear the students’ voices and to see photos of them, in some cases. Some students also use the webcam feature, so we can see them move and hear their children in the background.
One summer, I had a student who regularly went out to her car with her laptop and recorded her comments with a webcam. She liked being able to get away from her children for a while and VoiceThread was the perfect excuse. Because I believe that voice comments help create a stronger bond between students, I do give bonus points for voice recordings. In subsequent weeks, students respond to my questions and to each other.We have been able to have really interesting discussions and debates using this technology. VoiceThread allows me to choose whether our link is public to the world or private (accessed only by people on my list).
Another great feature of VoiceThread is the ability to create at least 4 unique commenting identities with each basic account. Each VoiceThread identity has its own name and picture. Students can upload a photo or use one of the default images. This feature allows the user to choose what identity they would like use when adding comments. It also allows students to share an account (which I do not recommend.) After the students have all commented, I go back into the VoiceThread using a different commenting identity and record my summary and observations. The students have said that they like that feature because it lets them know if they were on the right track. It also gives me a chance to expand upon the lesson a bit more.
Students have commented that they really, really like VoiceThread. The consistent comment I get on evaluations is that they felt more connected to the other students and to me. Many students complain that online learning can be very isolating. VoiceThread seems to remove that barrier just a little.
This sense of connection spills over into other aspects of the class, too. In the English 218 online course, students are supposed to have a conference with me prior to writing a major essay. They can either call me or come in person. Typically, about 4 out of 20 students will come in person! Once I began using VoiceThread, I have had at least 15 of the 20 students come in person. When they show up, they tell me that they felt more comfortable meeting with me because they felt they knew me, that my voice was familiar to them.
Similarly, I’ve had online students stop me in the hallway and say, “Are you Ms. George, by any chance?” When I say that I am and ask them how they knew, they tell me that they recognized my voice. I’ve also noticed an uptick in how many will phone me since I began using the VoiceThread. And Iâ€™ve seen that they are more likely to use each other as resources, most likely because they have a stronger sense that they know their classmates. Most importantly, students become more engaged in the course.
VoiceThread gives students a way to complete at least some of the course requirements. Indeed, students who are reluctant to complete written assignments will faithfully record VoiceThreads. I can then work with the reluctant students by showing them how to translate their comments into an essay. Often, these are students who would have eventually dropped or failed the course because they weren’t doing the core requirements.
Another thing that I like is that VoiceThread emails me every night telling me which students have posted in the VoiceThread. There’s a direct link in the message, so without going into Blackboard, I can click the link, get to the comment and grade it immediately. Or, I can use that information to determine which students posted on time. It also tells me the time the comment was made and the type of comment that was added.
As you might know, when you sign up for a free basic VoiceThread account, you are allowed to create 3 free VoiceThreads per email address. However, my I-ask-they-respond set-up allows me to recycle and reuse my three VoiceThreads every semester. I use one VoiceThread for English 219, one for English 223, and one for English 218. At the end of the semester, I delete all the student comments and begin with a clean slate without having to pay for more VoiceThreads. Although it is not expensive to set up an account that would give me additional VoiceThreads, why spend money if I don’t need to?
VoiceThread can be a great communication tool and can be useful for building a sense of community in online courses, and it can be applied towards almost any project or learning objective. In my Black Women’s Literature course, I routinely discuss how Black women are portrayed in popular media. It’s really cool to be able to post video clips in VoiceThread and have my students add their comments after viewing them.
Although I usually have my students create an author presentation using PowerPoint, I’m thinking about having them develop it in entirely in VoiceThread or having them upload their PowerPoint projects to a VoiceThread. This would easily open the projects up to group discussion using the online commenting tools. My high school aged son uses VoiceThread in his Spanish class so that his teacher can work with him on pronunciation. I can see how it would be amazing in an online foreign language course.
As you can tell, I’m really enthusiastic about this technology!