The Multi-Faceted Uses of VoiceThread for Online Undergraduate Instruction

This is a guest post by Susan Bertolino, University Professor and VoiceThreader.

Online education is a part of the college experience. More departments are choosing to include online classes in their course schedule. Many instructors are trained to use Web Ex as a mode of conducting synchronous learning, in which college students meet with their instructor via the internet for class discussion, questions, outlines of assignments and other necessary components of active learning. Yet problems arise with this method. Some students have difficult schedules that cannot allow for certain meeting times. Some students have quirky home Wi-Fi connections, so they do their online work at the college computer lab, where they sit next to other students who use the lab to check Facebook and go on Tumblr instead of doing coursework. How does the online instructor address these problems when the emails come in, saying I work every night, I have to pick up my kids, the lab is crazy busy at that time, my roommate uses the computer for his online class at that time—the list goes on.

Our program decided to address these issues by dispensing with synchronous learning entirely. We use Voicethread as our one common tool, along with Temple University’s Blackboard system that is available for all instructors and students. The advantages are enormous:

* Students choose when they will log into the assignment along with the background material necessary to complete their work.

* Students can choose to record or videotape any comments. (They can also write their comments, but I personally discourage it as I use Voicethread for the interactive benefits.)

* Second language learners can practice speaking their English in a non-threatening environment.

* Voicethread builds community. Once students get used to using the tool, they begin to relax and open up. They see each other online, so they feel they are building relationships with each other, just as they would in an in-person classroom.

* Students who refuse to talk in class feel less pressure when they need to speak, as they are discussing the text on their own terms. Often the shyest students excel with Voicethread.

* Students can comment directly on assignments and powerpoints.

* With a free account, students can create 5 voicethreads. Some students choose this instead of commenting on the comment Voicethread. It is up to the instructor whether he or she is comfortable with separate voicethreads, depending on the assignment.

* The tool is easy to use. Common glitches may come from an outdated flash player; bad Wi-Fi or too many people are accessing the same voicethread.

I use Voicethread with my online and in person classes, as I believe in using educational technology in the classroom. Too many people think of technology as consumption along with instant gratification. It is one thing to write a tweet. It is another to respond to an assignment with page numbers from the text along with personal insights into specific information. Good technology keeps our minds active. Once the student gets used to the format, it all works out. By the final assignment, I don’t get any email that tells me the tool is inaccessible. They know what to do.

I’m including some work from my fall semester of 2014. One combines one of my in-person classes with my online class. I created this assignment as a response to Stud Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The first Voicethread assignment asked the students to interview a full-time worker; the second section asked them to reply more about the book Working by Studs Terkel. I deleted some of the answers for the sake of brevity. I also included an interview with my husband as an entertaining way to model the first half of the assignment.

The second assignment pertains to The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Only my online students participated. It is based on a powerpoint I created on some of the chapters in the texts. Students were asked to comment on key images, using specific terminology from the text.

You will see that Voicethread allows for a lot of teacher commentary to explain the powerpoint. I alternated from comments I created for my summer class to new ones I made for my fall semester one. Both voicethread assignments show how some students choose to use the web camera while others preferred the audio recording. For the powerpoint assignment, I gave them the option to choose; however, for the interview, I asked the students to videotape their interview unless they had a reason not to do so, and that problem needed to be discussed with me.

I hope I have given an overview of how Voicethread works in online classes along with the more traditional classroom format. Speaking for myself, it has opened up my teaching tremendously. Students left the course with better critical thinking skills and a sense of accomplishment on how to use educational software. Voicethread creates a positive teaching tool for any class environment. I encourage all educators to give it a go!

Susan Bertolino has taught in the Intellectual Heritage Program for the past ten years at Temple University. Before moving to Philadelphia, she was a bilingual classroom and resource teacher for K-8 in Chicago–Spanish is her second language. She loves using educational technology in various modes as she thinks it addresses the three primary learning styles: auditory, visual and tactile.