Matt Meyer, senior instructional designer with Education Technology Services, talks about what VoiceThread exactly is and the great potential it has a learning tool.
What exactly is VoiceThread?
Ahhhh, yes. This is often the most difficult thing to communicate if you are not actually experiencing a VoiceThread! VoiceThread is a totally web-based application that allows you to place collections of media like images, videos, documents, and presentations at the center of an asynchronous conversation. It allows you to have conversations and to make comments using any mix of microphone, a webcam, a telephone, text or uploaded audio file. VoiceThread runs inside your web browser, so there is no software to download and install. In essence, it allows you to create online presentations with rich visuals and the ability to allow viewers to asynchronously comment on every aspect of the presentation from whatever web-enabled device they are using.
What are the benefits of using VoiceThread for higher education?
The primary benefit is that it is a very easy to use tool that facilitates student engagement. By allowing discussion in various forms around both visual and audio media, it really extends the classroom. It facilitates participation by allowing students time to gather their thoughts around a topic before sharing it into the thread. By utilizing the features of commenting via voice, it adds a more personal element to the experience. By hearing and seeing the instructor and classmates during a VoiceThread, a familiarity develops that feeds deeper participation. Additionally, VoiceThread’s ease of use is a real catalyst to the experience, providing a low barrier to its adoption in the class. In my opinion, right now VoiceThread provides one of the easiest ways for faculty and students to digitally express themselves in asynchronous conversation, beyond the written word.
Can you give any examples of actual use?
A great resource for seeing actual use is the VoiceThread Digital Library. There are a number of examples with good documentation that explains the context of how they were used in teaching and learning. Also, the VoiceThread at Penn State website contains two case studies of VoiceThread used by instructors here at Penn State. We are developing a few more, including its use in an online course for Human Development and Family Studies this past year. The instructor used VoiceThread as a means to increase student-to-student interaction in the class and designed this to occur surrounding the ‘Kickoff Questions’ that started each topic. These questions, asked within the VoiceThread by the instructor, were aimed at getting students to share their own personal experiences around the topic and facilitate familiarity with classmates’ stories. It was also a way for the instructor to establish personal connections with her students and rapport in both instructor-student and student-student developed quickly. The instructor felt it was very effective and, in fact, said if she was teaching the face-to-face she would still use VoiceThread to encourage discussion outside of the class.
Are there any accessibility issues?
VoiceThread has gone beyond meeting some 508 guidelines with their product. In fact, they going more than a few steps beyond. Instead of trying to bolt on some accessibility features to their existing application, VoiceThread decided to develop a completely reimagined version of VoiceThread in which the interface is designed specifically for screen reading software. They rethought the core functions of VoiceThread and developed the interface to best fit the experience of the visually impaired. This alternative version of their product is called VoiceThread Universal.
Penn State tested the first release earlier this spring and provided feedback to VoiceThread on the results. We expect to see the next version of VoiceThread Universal this summer with the ultimate goal of having it fully ready for use for fall 2011.
How can a faculty member who is interested get started using VoiceThread?
The best way to get started is to go to the VoiceThread at Penn State support website (http://voicethread.psu.edu/) and review the materials available on the home page. In particular, the Support Resources area contains Quick Start Guides for both instructors and students. For the full rollout in the fall 2011, there will be more materials available, including a “Roadmap to Using VoiceThread” aimed at faculty and instructors who are interested in trying VoiceThread but aren’t sure how to go about learning the tool and then designing an effective use with it.