VoiceThread in an Academic Presentations Class

Maria Parker, Program Director and Faculty, English for International Students, Graduate School

Maria Parker was one of fourteen faculty and one graduate student who participated in a Spring 2010 CIT Fellowship for language faculty interested in exploring with colleagues the most effective and most efficient ways to increase students’ oral production in the target language, in order to increase students’ language learning.

Maria Parker, English for International Students Program Director, was interested in providing speaking time for students outside of class that encouraged spontaneity, was informal, and helped build classroom community. Additionally, Parker wanted to provide more practice opportunities that she could monitor for completion (and respond to if desired) but which would not create additional grading time. Parker hoped that using VoiceThread would extend communication and interaction in English outside the classroom, provide low-stakes, low-stress speaking practice, and enable her to monitor completion without increasing assessment time.

VoiceThread is an easy-to-use technology that provides an online space for students and faculty to post pictures, videos, or presentations and for other students and/or faculty to respond by making an audio or video comment. Parker was using VoiceThread for out-of-class assignments that she hoped would increase student speaking time.

For her first assignment, Parker asked students to post a comment in the form of an audio response to a thread Parker started about challenges or unexpected situations the students encountered upon first arriving at Duke or in the US. This was also the topic of their next presentation so the assignment started students thinking (and speaking) about the topic and allowed them to compare their experience to their classmates’. Students enjoyed the activity, but many encountered technical and user interface problems which kept them from responding to the thread and limited the effectiveness of the class assignment. These may have been mitigated by starting with a practice thread to check student understanding of the interface.

For another assignment, Parker started a thread and students responded by talking about an experience or failure from which they learned a useful lesson. In addition to their post, they were to listen to all their classmates’ responses and then comment on at least one classmate’s response. The goal of this activity was to encourage students to interact with and respond to each other.

One lesson learned is that all VoiceThread comments are connected to the main thread or prompt (when a student posts a response to the original thread, it is not possible for someone to comment specifically on their response; instead, the secondary comment is seen as a response to the original thread). This makes interaction with more than one level (beyond a simplistic prompt-response) difficult and limits the interaction between multiple students responding to a single thread since students cannot comment on others’ comments. This assignment would have been more effective if the students created their own threads on a topic or idea provided to them in class or via email, and other students were required to review individual threads and comment on the student post.

In summary, VoiceThread provided low-stress opportunities for students to practice speaking outside of the classroom in a new way, but because of both technology issues and assignment format, VoiceThread was not as effective as it could be. In the future, Parker is interested in looking at using VoiceThread with student pairs to increase student satisfaction with the assignment.

Tips for using VoiceThread:

  • Students benefit from a clear overview and training of using VoiceThread. If students encounter too many computer or accessibility issues, they will struggle with the tool.
  • Create a practice thread to see if the assignment format will be successful. If that isn’t possible, consult with the CIT to get additional input on the assignment set-up.
  • For assignments requiring students to respond to each other in addition to an initial prompt, have the students create the initial thread as VoiceThread doesn’t allow multiple levels of response (comments attached to comments attached to the initial post), but only one level (comments attached to an initial post)
  • Be prepared for possible problems anytime you use a new technology. Provide a way for students to ask for help or discuss what to do if they have difficulty with the assignment.