My VoiceThread Biology Journal Club

This is a guest post by educator and VoiceThreader, Dr. Karen Wells.


Teaching graduate-level biological sciences in the online classroom can be challenging! As an online instructor, I’m always looking for ways to “translate” enriching experiences from the brick-and-mortar classroom into the virtual classroom. One essential component for graduate-level instruction is the Journal Club: students critically read and evaluate the primary literature and then engage in a presentation and discussion of the research. This is a bedrock activity that I’ve struggled to appropriately structure for my online courses. For many years, I used traditional text-based discussion forums for my online Journal Clubs, but I found them to be unsatisfying at multiple levels: the inability to directly interact with the figures and data while at the same time posting input; insufficient interactivity between/among students and instructor; inadequate depth of content in student posts; a lack of high-quality engagement.

Luckily, VoiceThread (VT) to the rescue! Over the past few years, I’ve harnessed the power of the VT platform to overcome these previous weaknesses and transform my online Journal Clubs into the highly interactive and engaging activity I’ve always envisioned! My virtual students are now able to explore bioscience research at a depth I found elusive within the text-based format.

Here’s the Journal Club “formula” I currently use in my online courses, and it’s also the one I used for my VoiceThread Certified Educator Capstone Project:

* Student leaders submit PPTX slides that contain high-quality images of pre-assigned figures from the primary research article. I upload these slides into VT, and this then serves as the central media for our discussion. (Note: Starting on 10/28, students can add slides to a thread that you create without having to give them full editing access.) These same student leaders also post some initial discussion questions as starter (audio) comments on their VT slides.

* Throughout the week (one unit), the whole class works together to critically read, evaluate, and discuss the data within the research article. Each student is required to make two substantive posts to the Journal Club, at different times and to different figures. Each content-based post must be audio- or video-based, be 1-2 minutes in length, and include doodling as a means to draw attention to specific relevant data within the images on the slides.

* For the duration of the Journal Club, each student leader monitors & facilitates the voice-based discussion of his/her assigned figure by providing additional discussion questions, responding to classmate input, steering the discussion in relevant directions, and providing a closing audio post shortly after the Journal Club ends. As the instructor, I constantly monitor the entire VT discussion and provide feedback or questions as needed.

Here’s an abbreviated example of a recent VT Journal Club from one of my cell biology courses. In the interests of privacy, all student responses have been deleted. Unfortunately, this removes the best portion of the VT! But I’m hopeful that my comments, along with the central media, will provide some sense about the power of the platform and the way it can be applied.



About the author:

Dr. Karen Wells is a Senior Lecturer with the Center for Biotechnology Education and the Advanced Academic Programs at the Johns Hopkins University. She teaches biochemistry, cell biology, physiology, and neuroscience courses, at the graduate and undergraduate levels, both in the classroom and online. Karen is a VoiceThread Certified Educator.