Threading Voices with VoiceThread

Post By: Daniel Nester, Associate Professor of English and participant in the Learning Community on Online Teaching & Learning

Getting students to participate in class discussion remains an evergreen faculty concern. In the classroom, instructors might draw from any number of techniques, from working on the board or breaking up in groups to the classic open-ended Socratic question.

Online learning presents a similar challenge, but in a different setting and with another set of tools. In cyberspace, no one can see you raise your hand or hang out in the back row; instead, discussion is usually a text-based bulletin board–type affair, posting and responding in kind.

Things have changed. New tools suited to the asynchronous nature of online classes have emerged in the last couple of years, where discussion can be text-, voice-, or video-based.

One of these, VoiceThread, was discussed at a recent gathering of the new Learning Community for Online Teaching and Learning (LC:OTL). After a welcome from our facilitator, Thomas Rosenberger, Director of Online Learning Services, we were off to thread our voices discussing VoiceThread, as two faculty members walked through their experience with VoiceThread, and a lively discussion was had by all.

But First: What is VoiceThread, Exactly?

Sample VoiceThread screenshot with "hello my name is" in the media pane.

Like many online technologies, VoiceThread is perhaps better explained looking at it onscreen. One official description defines VoiceThread as “a collaborative, multimedia slide show that holds images, documents, and videos and allows people to navigate slides and leave comments in several ways – text, voice, audio file, or webcam.”

That definition works. Picture a PowerPoint-type slide show that offers interactive discussion, with voice, text, and video annotation. Students can comment at any point of the presentation. Posts with responses appear as a thread on each slide.

Not just the how, but also the why

First to present was Dr. Sheila Flihan, Professor of Education, who offered a case study working with VoiceThread in Education 590: Integrative Research Seminar, a hybrid graduate class from Spring 2018. Flihan chose VoiceThread for the level of involvement, the levels of thinking, and the type of documentation it can provide.

“I like to think of VoiceThread as an entry point,” Flihan said. “I was caught up in the nuts and bolts of it. Then I thought about the ‘why,’ the purpose of it, getting past the fascination with the shiny and new.”

Meeting weekly over the course of a year with Lily Shafer-Lahnum from Online Learning Service, Flihan worked on the basics, from creating, editing, and uploading VoiceThreads, to digging into the content and getting students engaged.

No longer driven by the how, Flihan was now driven by the why.

“In face-to-face classes, we do a lot of board work,” Flihan said. “From a theoretical standing, knowledge construction is made on a social basis. Working with VoiceThread really helped move in that direction—beyond student involvement, it’s about developing students’ skills and knowledge.”

Flihan uses VoiceThread at the beginning of module to introduce content, then moves to deeper knowledge into the discussion board. Using Bloom’s taxonomy as a reference point, Flihan explained the challenges of leading—and keeping—class discussions along the higher levels of learning.

Students get points for performing straightforward tasks like logging on, up to facilitation of discussion, from initiating and extending to clarifying and summarizing content. “I am aiming them from literal to higher-level thinking,” Flihan pointed out.

The challenge is posing a question and extending the conversation, keeping answers at that same higher level. In a proposal writing workshop, for example, students responded to “how to” posts, but then at a very early point, they were also the ones asking questions and clarifying answers. We listened to some audio posts as well as student responses, students providing updates and concerns regarding their recent research.

Creative writing online

Next up was yours truly, Daniel Nester from the English Department. I talked about English 206: Creative Writing, an all-online class that was also taught in Spring 2018. I began with a list of “problems and challenges,” a blue-sky wish-list really, of things I’d like to do in an online class of creative writers. First and foremost was to have a rich discussion, asynchronously, about writing, lectures, and our textbook. Students should be able to talk about issues and ideas as it pertains to their writing, as well as basic terminology and ideas (such as images, energy, repetition, form, and brainstorming).

Before VoiceThread, I had posted videos on YouTube lectures made with either taped PowerPoints or screen-captured videos using Camtasia or other software. Besides the whole rigmarole challenges to making video lectures, there was also the issue of having the discussion at another place. I may have disparaged Blackboard’s discussion board function at some point, but this was not in my notes. With VoiceThread, it’s possible to record a video lecture, as I did on a weekly basis in the Creative Writing class, and have discussions at the same content area.

I described what I called my workflow of making a video lecture, from a Word document in landscape orientation, which was saved as a PDF and then uploaded to VoiceThread. Next came an introductory video comment, followed by voice commentary with each slide. I showed a VoiceThread towards the ends of the semester that was rather large, with 40-plus slides, with discussion threads peppered in various sections. We discussed challenges of holding discussions in an online, asynchronous class. There are always the students who post in the last hour or post one big “Mega Comment.” How to assess?

One solution, Tom Rosenberger said, might be to cluster content rather than adhering to a strict week-by-week progression. That way, deadlines aren’t so hard and fast and may come closer to an asynchronous scheme.

More assessment and more challenges

Since this was a gathering of instructors, the conversation inevitably led to assessment and grading. Flihan, who pointed she worked from a “Wednesday to Wednesday” cycle, put on screen 21-point participation rubric, with columns for frequency and timeliness, areas that were the “biggest challenges.”

Our gathering continued the discussion of other practical challenges teaching online. In online classes, I said, more so than face-to-face classes, it’s important to be clear about when things are due and when material is posted. Email students often, and be direct about what is expected, what is due, and how students will be assessed/graded. Offering incentives for voice and video comments, for example, was something we discussed, baking it into participation rubrics from the start.

One goal for future online classes were to have points/slides in a VoiceThread that specifically call for discussion, rather than hoping students will chime in unprompted. Flihan’s VoiceThread sample had that, and many found it useful. Another was to have students participate in a discussion by actively trying out the technique discussed by producing their own examples—writing a metaphor, for example, or using alliteration. We also discussed the possibilities of group work in VoiceThreads, and how a workshop might work in an online class environment.

Oh, and I showed off my nifty audio gear! It was like playing show and tell, taking out my trusty Shure microphone and its cute little tripod. But you don’t need professional gear to use VoiceThread or teach online. As Abi Johnson, Instructional Technology Specialist, pointed out, the set of headphones that comes with an iPhone works just fine. And if your students are gamers, they can use the same pair of headphones they use when they play Fortnite. Except instead of conquering the world, they’re conquering the classroom.