Simulation and Practice with VoiceThread

This is a guest post by educator and VoiceThreader, AJ Fitzgerald.

A common complaint about secondary and post-secondary education is that it’s simply not practical enough. Students commonly wonder aloud amongst their friends, “Why are we learning this?” Here on the internet, memes abound about how infrequently the average adult uses high school subjects like calculus and cellular biology in real life. The commenters often ask why they couldn’t have learned something useful instead, like taxes.

Though I’m proud to know calculus and certainly won’t be handing out tax advice anytime soon, I also recognize important feedback when I hear it. So this “practical information gap” is something we set out to address amongst our first year students at Temple University Rome. The (imperfect) solution we came up with was a 1-credit seminar that would cover such “practical” topics as adjusting to college (especially for international students), university/campus resources, study skills, goal-setting, time management, budgeting, education financing, and career prep.

Time constraints meant that we could only offer a brief introduction to each of these topics, but I knew that I wanted students to leave the course having practiced these important skills. For our career module, that meant actually drafting a resume and cover letter. But translating the third piece of the standard application process, the job interview, to the classroom environment proved a bigger logistical challenge than the rest. One hour wasn’t enough to conduct mock interviews during class time, and requiring students to meet me after class wasn’t ideal either. So in the first two semesters of the course we skipped the practical element of job interview prep – instead I shared some tips and advice during class and then moved on to their resume and cover letter drafts.

Though I don’t necessarily have fond memories of the initial lockdowns here in Italy, nor the frantic shift to online learning, that period was a great opportunity to re-assess much of what I’d been doing in my courses. I first started using VoiceThread for a creative writing class in Spring 2020, and found it a valuable tool to keep my students connected and engaged across oceans and time zones. After participating in a few training workshops as I continued to familiarize myself with the platform, I finally had the idea to try implementing a simulation exercise in my first year seminar. “VoiceThread Job Interview” was the result.

I keep telling myself that I should re-record the video slides for this activity, but I still rely on those original clips from Summer 2020. It had been months since a student physically stepped foot on our study abroad campus, and I still remember the eerie feeling of recording them in a cold, empty classroom. You can see plainly that my lockdown haircut was still in full effect, and I stumble over my words in a few places.

The recordings may not be perfect, but perhaps the authenticity of these imperfections helps put students at ease. After all, it’s meant to be a low-stakes activity for formative, not summative, feedback. I grade it on a complete/incomplete basis, and the point is for students to work out their thoughts and nerves in VoiceThread before moving on to high-stakes interviews in real professional settings. I ask them all the most common questions so that they can begin rehearsing their answers, and afterwards I provide individualized video feedback to each student. Comment moderation ensures that each student’s submission is shared only with me and not their fellow “candidates,” just as in a real interview. I initially worried that students would hesitate with the roleplaying aspect of this activity, but instead they often seem to dive in uninhibited. Some even dress for the part!

Compared to an in-person mock interview, VoiceThread’s biggest advantage is that it’s recorded. Students can re-listen to my feedback as often as they need, and they can also play back their own answers to get a feel for how they appear to the interviewer. Separating each interview question into separate videos slide allows for targeted feedback on each specific response. And as the human resources industry relies more and more on technology in the hiring process, I think VoiceThread uniquely prepares students for the type of online interview platforms they might soon encounter in real life.

We’re now back to teaching classes in-person here in Rome, but I still find myself returning to VoiceThread often when designing assignments and activities. Of course it’s great for student presentations, or make-up assignments when students miss class. Occasionally I also use it to return essay feedback quickly. But still my favorite application is the kind of practical simulation discussed here, and I look forward to designing similar activities in future semesters.

About the Author: AJ Fitzgerald is a writer/educator and Coordinator of the Academic Support Center at Temple University’s Overseas Campus in Rome, Italy. Holding degrees in both Physics and English, Fitzgerald’s creative/research interests lie at the intersection of STEM and the humanities: the relationships between science, science policy, literature and other creative media, as well as the socio-cultural impacts of advancements in science and technology. Follow him on Instagram (@ajftz4), Twitter (@ajfitz4), or LinkedIn.