VoiceThread serves as an effective tool to address concerns students and faculty have about interaction, flexibility and connection in online courses. It requires minimal technological expertise, KU IT supports it, and it is integrated into Blackboard.
Ali Brox, an assistant teaching professor in environmental studies, says that by integrating VoiceThread into an online course, instructors can retain some of the student-instructor interaction they desire while simultaneously addressing the time and technical concerns they and their students often have.
VoiceThread is a cloud-based platform that enables users to share and discuss documents, images, videos, audio, and text. A user can share a VoiceThread with an entire class or specific individuals. It can also be kept private. Students and instructors can comment or provide feedback on shared media. These comments can be made using text, audio, or video. These options are particularly useful because some online students prefer to keep their identities largely anonymous online; this may be why they chose an online course in the first place. The ability to create and reply with voice or text, as opposed to video, may be attractive to those students. (Ubell 33-36).
The use of VoiceThread for student assignments and instruction can help to engage students during online courses. In an interview with EdSurge’s On Air Podcast, Michelle Pacansky-Brock of California State University at Channel Islands said the use of VoiceThread in her art history course was revolutionary, especially after she heard the voice of one of her online students explaining a piece of art as opposed to the text-based platform that had been common in her online teaching.
“I was like, ‘I never realized how much content there is in a student voice,’ ” she told EdSurge.
For many instructors, the ability to create a personal connection with students in an online forum can be crucial to their willingness to teach an online course. For students, an important component of a successful or effective online course is student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction (Clinefelter and Aslanian 26).
Here are a few ways Brox has integrated VoiceThread into an online environmental studies course at KU.
During the first week of class, she asks students to introduce themselves using VoiceThread. She provides questions to prompt students in the information they could share. These are similar to questions instructors may use on the first day of an in-person class: What is your name? What is your major? Where are you from? Why are you taking this class?
She provides screenshots with step-by-step instructions about how to create and share a VoiceThread, along with a link to video instructions of the same process. She also records her own introductory VoiceThread. She uses video but allows students to use video, audio, or text in their introductions. The assignment also asks students to comment on at least two of their classmates’ introductions. If students create their own VT and comment on two others, then they receive full credit for the assignment.
This assignment serves multiple purposes, especially in light of some of the concerns students and instructors have about online course work. The majority of students choose to use video or audio for their introductions, and this produces a connection with a face or voice that some fear they will miss during online classes. From a technology standpoint, this assignment provides a low-stakes way for students and instructors to become comfortable creating, sharing, and commenting while using VoiceThread. This allows opportunities for intervention or assistance with the application if needed, and helps to forestall problems with future assignments that are higher stakes and tied to specific learning outcomes.
Students’ engagement with the instructor and each another improves both student success and satisfaction in online courses. This assignment provides the opportunity for those types of interaction: Some students choose to share photographs of themselves or places they have traveled; others pose questions when they are commenting on a classmate’s post. That then produces a conversation between the two as they engage more fully about a particular topic or idea from the introduction. These “touch points” of interaction between and among students and instructors produce some similar experiences to in-person (or traditional) classroom environments, which is another indicator of student satisfaction in online courses (Kuyath and Winter 68).
One learning objective in Brox’s course is to develop a deeper understanding of specific concepts related to the study of the environment, culture, and society. She assigns a VoiceThread presentation to help students achieve that goal. The assignment asks students to apply a concept they have been reading about and discussing in the online discussion board to an example of their own. They provide the text, image, or video of their example, and then analyze how it represents the concept.
Brox models the assignment with her own example. Then students create their own VoiceThread and comment on at least two of their classmates’ examples. This assignment also helps fulfill another course goal: engage with ideas about human-environment interactions through critical reading, writing, and discussion. Students routinely practice critical reading and writing through the text-based discussion boards in the course, but this assignment allows students to orally present and discuss key concepts, which develops another level of communication skills.
The student presentation assignment also addresses some of the instructor and student concerns about online courses: It encourages students to engage with each other in a medium other than text. This promotes a sense of belonging that may be lacking in the written discussion boards. The range of examples students come up with provides ways for students to connect with each other in personal ways. Frequently students share photographs or pieces of writing (like a poem) that have personal significance. They then analyze these in academic ways. The subsequent student comments display personal and course-related feedback. This mimics the types of interaction students are accustomed to during in-person classes.
Brox has found VoiceThread useful for end-of-the-week recaps about key concepts, points, or ideas. She often sends out a Blackboard announcement with reminders or key ideas to keep in mind, she has found VoiceThread to be an additional resource for the types of summaries or reviews instructors might employ at the end of a class session or unit during an in-person course.
For example, after reading and commenting on a lesson’s discussion board posts, she may record a quick VoiceThread that summarizes the main points students made and mentions particularly well-done posts or crucial questions that students raise. This serves as a way to reiterate to students the content that they should understand from that week or lesson. The idea to do these recaps came from a student suggestion on the end-of-semester surveys. She initially did these in written form, but realized the additional use of video might give students a connection to her, the instructor, and provide another medium for students to digest the information. In an online end-of-semester survey, one students said: “Dr. Brox felt very interactive and I liked how she occasionally made a VoiceThread on certain subjects, and also how she left comments as it felt like she was really there with us.” These recaps or summaries also allowed her to engage in what Nicole Matos refers to as “just-in-time” teaching, where instructors adjust to the needs of their students in timely ways.
VoiceThread is ideal for mini-lectures because it is easy to use and doesn’t require scheduling time in a recording booth for recording. A VoiceThread can be recorded at a moment’s notice and posted immediately. Matos echoes the importance of adapting your teaching to the needs of your particular students at particular times: “Update course content frequently. It helps to create and maintain a feeling of intimacy that is so difficult to establish — and so easily lost — in an online course. While you may have some static contact preloaded from semester to semester, I believe most content should emerge out of the evolving needs of the particular population of students in the course” (Matos).
While reading discussion board posts during a lesson that focused on a concept important for the remainder of the semester, Brox noticed that some students were having difficulty understanding the full application of the concept. In response, she recorded a quick mini-lecture that defined the concept, gave a couple examples of how to apply it to a situation, and reminded students about the reading and page numbers they should revisit for additional review. She was able to record this from her kitchen table and post it immediately. The flexibility of VoiceThread for situations like this enables similar types of teaching and response that instructors are accustomed to in in-person classes. If she notices that students are not following along during an in-person discussion or lecture, she might pause, go to the board, and review key points. VoiceThread allows her to engage with similar pedagogical strategies for an online course in a timely manner.