Adena Schutzberg, senior lecturer in geography, uses the web-based communication application VoiceThread to serve as the “seminar table” in her online Geography 897G Trends in Geospatial Technology course. The course is an elective in the Master of Geographic Information Systems program offered through the World Campus and is targeted to working professionals.

Schutzberg said she created the course because “One of the things I felt was missing from our curriculum was a real seminar like we had back in college where you read some heavy material and then sit around the table and dig into it together as a class.” One important skill she said that type of a course strengthens is articulating a point of view in spoken form.

Because the seminar-style course she was designing would be delivered completely online with no face-to-face component, she needed a way to recreate the seminar table virtually. Schutzberg said she consulted Beth Bailey, instructional designer in the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, who pointed her to VoiceThread.

VoiceThread, which Schutzberg first used in the course in summer 2010, allows a user to upload various types of media to form a slide show, then share it with a selected group, who can comment on it in the form of audio, video, or text.

In the current spring 2011 offering of the course, to help the students learn VoiceThread, Schutzberg asked the students to view a thread in which she introduced herself, then to each create their own thread to do the same. She then asked them to comment on each other’s threads. She said, “I kill two birds with one stone: get to know the technology and get to know each other.”

As an example of her use of VoiceThread in the course, Schutzberg described the first topic, “the web as research tool.” Each of the students is assigned a different reading. They are then asked to conduct research on a web resource guided by a set of questions to evaluate the credibility of the resource. Schutzberg created a thread that displayed the set of questions to serve as the metaphoric seminar table. The students then reported the findings of their research by adding audio comments on the thread. Schutzberg said, “They’re asking each other questions; they’re challenging each other. I see my role as mostly to keep poking them. I try to be as Socratic as possible and pull them along.”

Screen capture of VoiceThread.

Schutzberg and her students “gather around the virtual seminar table” in a lesson about
user interfaces. Comments are represented as bars across the bottom of the interface.
Yellow bars indicate unplayed comments.

To encourage her students to voice their opinions freely with a sense of security, Schutzberg restricts access to her course VoiceThread threads to members of the class only. She said, “While the course itself is wide open to anybody, the only people who can look at the threads are my class. I want them to feel comfortable that they’re only talking among themselves.”

After the first four weeks of the course, during which Schutzberg outlines the lessons and creates the accompanying threads, she twice asks each student to pick a topic, assign readings and research to the rest of the students, build a thread, and facilitate the class dialogue. Khusro Kidwai, the Dutton Institute instructional designer now assisting Schutzberg, observed, “The way Adena presents the student-guided topics is: imagine yourself at your workplace and you are asked by your colleagues to investigate a technology and address everybody at lunch on Friday.”

Schutzberg said she discovered when she offered the course the first time that students did not have a lot of experience leading conversations around research. While she does not require them to use audio as their means of commenting on class threads, she said, “I encourage them to, because I want them to have the experience of communicating with professionals by voice, which they have to do in their day-to-day work.”

Grading of student comments within the assigned threads is a challenge, Schutzberg admitted, although she posts a grading rubric for the students to follow. The rubric calls for each student to comment on each thread twice. She schedules two rounds of discussion so that students have the opportunity to respond to others’ comments. She said her main goal is to set expectations for the class dialogue, so that if students participate and stay on-topic they will earn full points.

As far as the overall course grade, Schutzberg said, “The most important piece is that at the end of each week after they’ve had these conversations, they send me an e-mail with their reflections. It allows them to think back, to tie things together, to pull out ideas that are brand new to them or surprised them or that are going to be particularly applicable to their work. That to me is how I’m going to grade how well they did in these conversations.”

When asked whether she had any advice for other instructors considering using VoiceThread in their courses, Schutzberg said, “If you’re hesitant, your students will be hesitant. Just dive right in there, let them know they’re going to be able to figure it out, and they will.” In her course, she said she observed that “by week two or three, the technology is almost invisible.”

Geography students practice facilitating professional dialogue using VoiceThread

Adena Schutzberg

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