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Professor Randy Piland boosts class engagement in online courses via VoiceThread

VoiceThread logo.About three years ago, Communications Professor Randy Piland heard about a new, interactive tool called VoiceThread that educators were beginning to incorporate into their classrooms. The web-based application allows individuals to create and share collections of images, videos, and documents, so others can comment on them and start conversations.

Because of its universal accessibility via cloud technology and its collaborative nature, Piland thought it would be a useful tool to use in his online summer courses. After semesters of experimenting, he has perfected a way to utilize the technology.

“I think it’s perfect for [the online environment],” he said. “I want it to be exciting. I look for all the fun stuff. [VoiceThread] just really revs me up, and so hopefully I can transfer that same kind of excitement on to my students.”

VoiceThread Encourages Class Participation

VoiceThread allows faculty to introduce projects using text, voice, and video. Students can then watch those introductions and the projects themselves before commenting on them.

“You can text, voice, or video your comments, and that really engages the student to be more involved,” Piland said. “My interest is to move away from texting because you can’t hear the inflections of someone really caring or being concerned or interested. So, I want it to be voice. I really want people to express themselves, or I want video. I want to see you talking about it.”

Essentially, Piland wants his students to engage in in-depth, thoughtful conversations. To ensure students are participating, he initially closes visibility of comments to students. He said this prevents students from formulating peer-influenced conversations.

“I don’t like to show comments to the students until the very end because I don’t want your comment to influence the next person,” he said. “[If you say] ‘I agree with you, Sam—that’s exactly what I was thinking,’ well, you didn’t say anything. You just took the easy way out. If you leave it wide open where they can go in and make their own comments, then it’s truly what they felt.”

Piland said he opens up total visibility of forums to students after everyone has submitted responses.

“If you commented on [a video project], you would only see your comment—you couldn’t see the rest of the class’s,” he said. “But, when everybody hands it in, I can reveal everybody’s, and they can go back and review everybody’s.”

After viewing their peers’ responses, students can go back and respond to others’ thoughts, so individual comments can evolve into conversational threads.

“What a powerful way to exchange information,” Piland said. “It’s interactive. Maybe it’s just me being a visual person, [but] I want visual methods to try to help those learners who maybe are also visual learners, rather than having a textbook. I guess I’m less traditional in a lot of ways. I want to try to engage [students] through other means.”

VoiceThread in Moodle

Faculty can integrate VoiceThread into their Moodle courses, so students can quickly access modules to complete assignments. And because professors can include up to 50 students on their individual accounts, they can easily add all students into the program.

“My first year I used it with a photojournalism class, and it had two sections, so I put all 36 students in one VoiceThread—two 18 classes,” Piland said. “I [had] them watch a video and then comment on it after they had watched it. It was a real heavy photojournalistic story about diamond mining in the Congo and the whole issue of slavery, but it was very well done by a photojournalist telling a story.”

Analytics

The program provides faculty with analytics concerning which students are visiting modules, what they are viewing in the modules, how often they are viewing the modules, and how long they are staying plugged in via customizable charts and graphs.

Google Chrome Integration

Faculty can integrate VoiceThread into their Google Chrome browsers, and they can create custom homepages if they wish to have their own custom portals, too.

VoiceThread’s Mobile Application

Additionally, VoiceThread is available via a free mobile application, so students can access content from anywhere at anytime. Students without smartphones can participate in mobile environments, too, as they can dial a number associated with their class account and provide comments via text or voicemail.

“It’s mobile, it’s integrated, it’s universal,” Piland said. “It can be used in hybrid situations. If you did a lot of these, you could do some inside and outside of class or not at all in a face-to-face class. But, in an online class, you would probably try to incorporate it every chance you could.”

VoiceThread as a Presentation Tool

Aside from using VoiceThread as a visual element and conversation-initiator, faculty can use it as a presentation tool. By creating multiple sections in one thread, professors can treat VoiceThread as an interactive PowerPoint-type resource.

“You could make it like a PowerPoint,” Piland said. “It [could] change right in that window, and you could have it [setup] to a point where it stops, and [then] you comment. [Then], you could go through another slide, now think about it, now comment.”

Regardless of how faculty choose to use the program though, Piland says it’s useful because it boosts interactivity and student participation in both face-to-face and online classrooms.

“I think there’s so many different ways to engage the student and to do a different way of teaching,” Piland said. “I don’t always want to be up front teaching—I want you to dig, I want you to learn. It’s different—it’s got other parts to it. It’s not just watching a podcast. It’s putting elements in place, so that [students] can go there when they can, in any format, and see it.”

To see some examples of how other faculty are using VoiceThread in their courses, you can access a digital library of VoiceThreads created by educators around the world.

If you are interested in using VoiceThread in your courses and would like some assistance, contact Teaching and Learning Technologies at 336.278.5006 or tlt@elon.edu.

Sam Parker

Sam Parker

Sam Parker is a Marketing Student Writer Intern with Elon University's Teaching and Learning Technologies.

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