August 24, 2010, 08:00 AM ET
Using VoiceThread to Give Students a Voice Outside the Classroom
[This is a guest post by Shannon Polchow, an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of South Carolina Upstate. You can communicate with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Just like most educators, I view teaching as a process. After incorporating a new activity or giving a new course, I reflect upon the outcomes. What went well? What failed? Sometimes I know the modifications I would make the next time around, but other times I look to my student evaluations for guidance. This recently happened after teaching an introductory Spanish class online. While I felt that the class had gone well, a student's simple observation led me to my latest modification: find a way for students interact with one another in an online setting. The online forum I employed enabled me to speak in an asynchronous fashion with my students, but it did not allow them to communicate with one another, leaving them isolated, alone in cyberspace to work on their assignments with no personal interaction. The comment sent me knocking on my friendly technology consultant's door, and together we found a simple solution: VoiceThread.
VoiceThread is a ridiculously simple online program that allows students to comment on authentic materials, whether they be pictures, documents, web pages, or video. Students can provide written feedback to the material presented along with oral feedback via their computer mics, web cams, or cellular phones. For the more adventurous, students can provide video commentary as well.
Basically, I upload a prompt, invite my students to participate, and wait for the comments to come in. It is an easy tool that allows my students to gather in cyberspace and interact with one another. The system is user-friendly as well, providing a plethora of how-to guides, sample threads, and a library of ideas from other educators and users.
VoiceThread offers a free trial account for those in higher education. After registering, creating a thread is a mere three steps. Under the "Create" tab, you need to select and upload a prompt to your thread, which could include documents, pictures, web pages, and videos.
Note: all images can be clicked to view larger versions.
With the file uploaded, VoiceThread allows you to add your own comments. Depending on the project, I use the comment feature to either provide instructions or give my own example. You have the same options as your students. You can type your comments or record them. I enjoy using my webcam to give the students a glimpse into who I am.
Share the Thread
With the prompt and personal comments uploaded, it is time to share the thread with your students, and there are several ways to do this. You can embed the link onto a class site, one like Blackboard, or you can send out invitations to your class if the students have an account. Initially, I had my students register for their own free account and then added their individual e-mail addresses into my contacts list. With an upgraded Pro account, I was able to do all of this before classes began, saving me from the hassle of reminding students to register. The initial set-up was quick and easy, taking a maximum of fifteen minutes to set up approximately twenty student accounts. Once their information is entered, I just select their names and then send the invitation.
Once the e-mail is sent, the students receive a nice message in their inbox. The e-mail has a picture of the prompt and a link to the site where they are able to record their presentation.
Working with Comments
As each student comments, their personal icon appears around our presentational screen. Since there are various ways in which a student can comment, I specify that they are allowed to use any option but the keyboard since the purpose of the project is to listen to their voices. Each student can log onto their account and listen to themselves and their classmates.
Before using VoiceThread in an online setting, I tested the program on my traditional classes. Both literature and language students alike really took to the program. While teaching Don Quixote, students used VoiceThread as their own personal confessional, suggesting topics that they would never ask in class. In language classes, there was a high level of participation from all students. VoiceThread gave all students their own voice in discussions, breaking down the affective filters most students carry with them into a language classroom.
However, it is important to note that VoiceThread is not only for the foreign languages. In the library of threads, the program has been incorporated into science classes, digital storytelling, and study abroad.
To my surprise, I have received unsolicited e-mails thanking me for using VoiceThread in the online class. I even received positive comments from my traditional face-to-face students. However, there have been some drawbacks. First, I ran through the free offerings rather quickly. I was allowed to create a mere three threads, but that was enough to reel me in and get me to spend the $99 for a Pro account. With the upgrade, I have only encountered minor limitations. For example, while a student is able to record their presentation via telephone she is only allowed to record for three minutes, after which she must pay to use this method. However, the ease of the program and my students' enthusiasm for VoiceThread makes it all worthwhile.