VoiceThread is a cloud-based, asynchronous discussion/commenting tool that provides opportunities for video, audio, and annotative feedback on a media file by creating a Flash-based video for sharing or embedding on a website or within a CMS. Developed at the University of North Carolina, it is available online at www.voicethread.com, it also has numerous tutorials, libraries of examples and help guides. There is also a mobile app available for users as Flash is not accessible on ios devices. Individual photos or avatars can be uploaded and associated with posted comments While there is a free version, it has limited sharing options and number of threads (their name for video files) available. For a yearly licensing fee, tiered for number of thread and users, it offers a robust set of features and sharing options. The sharing and commenting capabilities enable students to provide feedback on each other’s work, instructors to offer group feedback or peer-review opportunities, or create shared discussions on text or media.
The market audience for VoiceThread is broad–from K-12, to higher education, to business. While not focused specifically on a distance learning environment, the company recognizes that this is one of its most likely audiences and offers teachers a wide variety of training materials and online classroom examples. It does stress the collaborative feedback and writing options, as the library of samples demonstrates, and this is one of its most beneficial features for online writing classes. From online users, there is a large variety of available class examples to view and in a search of writing or composition, over 100 threads are available, with titles ranging from Teaching Writing as a Process, to Writing across the Curriculum, as well as online writing center guides and library research resources.
Because of VoiceThread’s unique commenting feature, while there are tools that offer video, commenting and sharing, none that I found to compare it to provide the combination of commenting features on both media and text, the ability to limit access to individuals or classes and options for public posting and comments. Products offering some of the features include Mediasite, Panopto, Slideshare, Cooliris, Camtasia, or Adobe Connect.
Files can be uploaded from text or media (Figure 1) and once a new thread is created, there are commenting and annotating options via microphone, webcam, keyboard or audio file upload. It is also possible to draw directly on the discussion item with circles, lines, or other doodling options.
Once an instructor creates individual accounts for a class, the users can be put into groups (Figure 2), based on what thread you want the group to access. Threads (links to the Flash file) can be emailed, embedded on a CMS or made accessible through invitation with the url.
|Figure 3: VoiceThread Activity Menu
For the instructor, all new comments are visible on the VoiceThread dashboard with a balloon (Figure 1) or from the Activity page (Figure 3). An email is also sent out to the instructor whenever a new comment is made (Figure 4).
|Figure 4: Email Notifications for New Comments
Noted for encouraging richer interactions within a class, VoiceThread provides individualized ways to comment or provide feedback to media and discussion within a classroom. It is not gadget heavy, so it could be used across age groups. Menus provide ease of sharing, embedding and commenting. There is also a mobile app on which you can view threads.
Challenges pointed out are that it does cause a rethinking of how to create assignments that encourage individual feedback and comments can end up being longer and thus affect time and more involved assessment. A graduate student post related a different experience and review, expressing how confusing and frustrating it was as she reviewed the product, but hers was one of the only negative reviews I read (ED655 Online Pedagogy). Educause in its “7 Things to Know” series pointed out that it can be browser “quirky” and have some functionality issues as a result, but they were reviewing the product five years ago and those concerns were not mentioned in later reviews. It does produce Flash movies as its output format, so that limits viewing on mobile devices unless you download the app. With the app, viewing and commenting on threads is very easy and viewable within a mobile device, but it is more difficult to view multiple comments on a smaller screen.
ADA accessibility has been one of the concerns with VoiceThread, but they have added closed-captioning and have recently released a version compatible with screen readers and assistive technologies. Awareness of features, upgrades and user feedback has increased as a result of both wiki and educational websites dedicated to VoiceThread users and use. Different student populations can also benefit from opportunities that VoiceThread affords as it can enable more introverted students, English Language Learners (ELL) or other students participation options with alternate methods of communication beyond just text in an online environment (Borup, West and Graham, Koricich)
Pedagogy & Applications
As a pedagogical tool, VoiceThread supports active collaboration and student-centered discussions, both emphasized in the literature as ways to provide more “information-rich environments” for online students (Mehlenbacher, Warnock, Cooper and Selfe as cited in Neff 92). Focused on interactivity and learner-centered classrooms, Gamson sees collaborative environments as spaces where “sharing one’s ideas and responding to others improves thinking and deepens understanding” (as cited in Neff 100). VoiceThread provides ways to address a range of these concerns in an online environment. Improved audience and voice possibilities afford students the ability to interact with each other and help alleviate the tendency for isolation to occur from just a text-based classroom. Students are able to connect with each other in potentially more effective ways (Warnock, Cook). This is one of the areas that VoiceThread can offer the most possibilities within the classroom.
Exposing students to multi-modal classroom experiences, beyond just text, lectures and discussion boards provides a way for students to better visualize assignments (Warnock) and helps students who may benefit from varied learning methods, thus also aiding in students’ participation in their own knowledge creation by having more focus on the “teaching activity” over the teacher (DePew 177). Stedman would also support these ideas as he stresses that “ideas on a screen may relieve some of [students’] anxiety and tension” related to writing or online coursework (as quoted in Neff 119). In “7 Things to Know,” implications for teaching and learning are emphasized as the review stresses that VoiceThread is set apart from other similar tools because of its “easy integration of voice and other types of media for commenting on an original artifact” and the “opportunity it provides for students to tell their own stories and to contribute to or directly critique the narratives of their peers” (Educause). As additional support, Brabazon posits that education “requires the application of a wide range of communicative technologies: not only threaded discussion groups or email, but aural, oral, verbal and bodily literacies” (25). While it is important not to use technology in a classroom without having a pedagogical purpose (Warnock, Cook), VoiceThread has the potential to impact student learning though improved engagement and class interactions.
|Figure 5: VoiceThread Example – Library Instruction
For librarians, VoiceThread could be used to create tutorials or class presentations that would provide students with feedback options, visuals and the ability to comment directly on a specific point or place within a website or resource, as learning how to navigate within a resource or evaluate sources are often challenges not easily resolved in a distance environment (Figure 5).
In a writing classroom, audio discussions on media or text can easily be created and provide students with varied ways to communicate in the classroom environment. I provide three examples in my presentation for peer-review, essay workshops or even usability testing as ways that VoiceThread could provide improved student interaction, writing support and CMS design feedback in an online environment (Figure 6).
|Figure 6: VoiceThread Example – Writing Classroom
One review notes that the ability to add video and audio sets it apart from other products, as “more lengthy and detailed explanations are feasible than would be suitable for text alone, while intonation and voice patterns convey information that can be missed or misconstrued in a text-based markup” (Educause). In evaluations from Sienna College, students said “the tool helped establish a sense of community and reinforced the impression that the instructor was involved in their learning process” (Educause).
In a study of an online graduate class using VoiceThread, students responded positively, most frequently mentioning that “collaboration exemplifies its multi-modal affordance that enables learners to communicate emotion, personality, and other non-verbal cues conducive to better
understanding and interpretation of meanings” (Ching 298). He further stresses that “VoiceThread has great potential for motivating and engaging learners in higher education, fostering higher-order thinking, and supporting collaboration processes” (300). Reviews were generally positive and reflected comments similar to Koricich, “VoiceThread has been particularly useful in promoting community and student interaction in online courses” (77).
Overall, I found VoiceThread to be user-friendly, a very different experience from a review provided by a graduate student who noted, “I wouldn’t wish the struggles I had with VoiceThread on anyone!” (ED655 Online Pedagogy). I set-up two classes, shared the link with my “students” (librarian colleagues) and with little effort, they were able to provide both text and audio comments on the sample presentations. The opportunities for improved student interaction, ability to link voice and/or video with comments, while also being able to write directly on slides are all positive benefits to improve students’ sense of community, lessen isolation and increase interaction in an online classroom. While no tool or piece of technology can provide a one-step solution, or offer the “perfect” online experience, VoiceThread can provide students with better ways to connect, relate to each other’s writing and provide feedback for each other, all methods to potentially improve students’ agency and ability to learn within an online classroom.
Ching, Yu-Hui, and Yu-Chang Hsu. “Collaborative Learning using VoiceThread in an Online Graduate Course.” Knowledge Management & E-Learning: an International Journal 5.3 (2013): 298-314.
Cook, Kelli Cargile. “An Argument for Pedagogy-Driven Online Education.” Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Co., Inc. 2005. 49-66.
DePew, Kevin Eric, and Heather Lettner-Rust. “Mediating Power: Distance Learning Interfaces, Classroom Epistemology, and the Gaze.” Computers and Composition 26.3 (2009): 174-89.
Koricich, Andrew. “Technology Review: Multimedia Discussions through VoiceThread.” Community College Enterprise 19.1 (2013): 76.
Neff, Joyce Magnotto and Carln Whithaus. Writing across Distances & Disciplines: Research and Pedagogy in Distributed Learning. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2007.
Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How & Why. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2009.