Using VoiceThread to communicate and collaborate
VoiceThread is an excellent online tool that promotes meaningful conversation through the use of visual prompts such as video clips, images, graphs, and more. This article gives step-by-step instructions to help educators create VoiceThreads that will engage students and stimulate thoughtful dialogue and collaboration.
One of the best free Web 2.0 tools available to teachers and students is VoiceThread. Initially defined as a “group audio blog,” VoiceThread allows users to have ongoing digital conversations built from text, audio, and/or video comments added by small groups of participants around any content imaginable. Some teachers upload PowerPoint presentations filled with quotes, charts, graphs, and statistics for their students to study. Others upload Word documents, provocative images, and/or short video clips. Regardless of the kinds of content choices that you make, VoiceThread has the potential to engage your students and — if you’re willing to find professional partners to play with — to connect your class with students across counties, countries, or continents.
VoiceThread has three distinct advantages for teachers interested in making digital communication a part of their professional practice:
- VoiceThread is asynchronous: That means that users can work on VoiceThread presentations at any time — even if their “partners” are unable to participate because they are in a different class period… or because they are sleeping in a different country a thousand miles away!
- VoiceThread is engaging: Let’s face it — the kinds of text-heavy digital conversations made possible by free tools like Ning and Moodle can be pretty boring to students. VoiceThread conversations, however, can be built around interesting images and interactive video content, capturing the attention of today’s visually driven learners. What’s more, being able to actually hear the voices — or even see the faces — of other participants makes digital communication through VoiceThread much more personal.
- VoiceThread is easy to use: There is absolutely nothing intimidating about VoiceThread — for teachers or students! Uploading content is as easy as adding attachments to email messages. Adding text, audio, and/or video content is a matter of hitting one easy-to-find record button. Moderating comments and viewing new contributions to conversations can be completed in two clicks of the mouse. VoiceThread’s simple interface makes it an approachable tool regardless of your experience with digital tools or the age level of the students that you’re working with.
Curious about what VoiceThread presentations can look like when created by kids? Then check out these presentations, which were all designed to engage middle school students in a study of their language arts, social studies and science curricula:
- Many Voices Darfur: In this VoiceThread, students use a collection of political cartoons as a starting point for a powerful conversation about the genocide occurring in Darfur.
- Why Do People Hate?: In this VoiceThread, a collection of quotes and provocative images serve as starting points for a conversation about the root causes of hatred in our world.
- Earth Analogies: In this VoiceThread students make comparisons between the Earth and several different common objects — baseballs, paper towel dispensers, avocados, Ferris wheels, colored pencils.
- Mutation Videos: Block 3: In this conversation, students use VoiceThread as a tool for giving and receiving feedback about a final product created for their science class.
- What Do You Value?: In this VoiceThread, students look at images of life in Denmark and then try to draw conclusions about the cultural values of the Danish people.
In each of these samples, notice how students interact directly with one another, wrestling with important concepts and their own preconceived notions. Also, notice how students are willing to challenge the thinking of their peers, to ask questions, and to elaborate on their own positions. All of these skills can be taught by teachers who work systematically to structure digital discussions in their classrooms. To learn more about creating the kinds of structures necessary to facilitate productive digital dialogue, consider reading Asynchronous Conversation Matters: Part II.
The first step that teachers and students interested in using VoiceThread should take is to visit the VoiceThread homepage and sign up for a free educator account. Equivalent to the features offered to VoiceThread Pro users, VoiceThread Educator accounts allow teachers to create an unlimited number of conversations for free. Without a VoiceThread Educator account, users are limited to only three VoiceThread presentations.
After experimenting with VoiceThread, many teachers make the decision to sign up for a single K-12 educator account in Ed VoiceThread, VoiceThread’s dedicated education community. While this service currently costs $60 per year, becoming a member of the Ed VoiceThread community carries significant advantages.
Perhaps most importantly, Ed VoiceThread users can create individual user accounts for up to 100 students. What’s more, students working in Ed VoiceThread are protected, allowed to comment only on content created by other Ed VoiceThread users. Finally, Ed VoiceThread makes it easy for teachers to monitor all of the content added by their students, increasing accountability and ensuring that contributions to school-based conversations remain appropriate at all times.
If signing up for Ed VoiceThread is simply not possible and if you are teaching students who are under the age of 13 — the youngest age that VoiceThread will grant individual user accounts — consider creating one free VoiceThread account for classroom use. This solves the challenge of asking students or families to sign up for personal accounts. Then, consider creating a collection of “identities” for students to use while commenting in your classroom conversations. Identities allow students to identify themselves — as well as new comments — while participating in stranded conversations without revealing their names, a responsible Internet safety practice for any student working online.
Be inventive with the identities that you create! Selecting interesting images — popular celebrities or athletes, cartoon characters from the 1980s, superheroes, politicians — lends a sense of personality to VoiceThread presentations that your students are likely to enjoy. Before long, your students are likely to begin referring to the identities in your conversations as if they were real people making real contributions: “Did you see what Bart Simpson wrote?” “That guy asks great questions!”
To create identities for your classroom VoiceThread account, select My Account from under the Help menu:
A list of identities that you have already created — or a list of generic icons automatically generated by VoiceThread — will appear. Select Add an Identity from the bottom of this list:
Enter a name and then upload an image for your new identity. Then, select Save. Your new identity will be added to the list of identities that you’ve already created:
Planning a VoiceThread
Once you’ve created a VoiceThread account and a collection of identities for students to use while commenting in your digital discussions, it’s time to create your first presentation. Begin by carefully selecting a topic that will promote debate between students. Poor choices now carry consequences later. Students are naturally drawn to conversations, but only when those conversations are motivating and mentally challenging. Possible topics include: “What can you learn about the values of a country by studying their choices — both as individuals and as a nation?” “Is global warming really having an impact on our world?” “Has urbanization helped or harmed our community?” “How can statistics be used to mislead or to misinform?” “Is graffiti a form of artistic expression or simply vandalism?” “Who is worth admiring?”
After collecting a series of quotes, images, statistics, documents, and/or video clips that represent your topic, carefully script out short opening comments for each image that include a question for your students to consider. Scripting initial comments prior to recording will allow you to organize your thinking — and your content — in a logical order. This early organization will save time as you produce your final product.
Initial comments should be somewhere between one and three sentences long. Longer comments are boring and will discourage your students from adding their own thoughts to each slide. Remember that your goal is to promote conversation, not to lecture your way through your slides. If you find yourself recording initial thoughts that are longer than one to three sentences, you probably have content that isn’t very interesting to begin with.
Uploading and organizing images
Once you have finished creating a script for your images, select Upload from beneath the Create tab in your VoiceThread account:
Then, select the location where the content for your VoiceThread presentation is currently stored:
After selecting your content — PowerPoint slides, images, video clips, Word documents — VoiceThread will automatically add them to a working window for your presentation. From this window, you will arrange your content in a logical order and have the opportunity to add titles or weblinks to individual slides:
To manipulate an individual slide in your presentation, click on it in your working window. A yellow frame will appear around the selected content, and a thumbnail will appear in the bottom left-hand corner of your screen. Slides bordered by a yellow frame can be repositioned in your presentation by left-clicking and dragging to a new location. By selecting Add a Title and Link beneath the thumbnail of your chosen content, you can add both a title and an external weblink to each slide that will be visible in your final presentation.
To finalize your presentation, select Add a Title and Description from the top of the working window to name your VoiceThread and to add a narrative that will make your work stand out in the VoiceThread catalog.
Adding comments to your conversation
After uploading and organizing the images for your VoiceThread presentation, you’re ready to begin adding video, audio, and/or text comments. All three types of comments have strengths and weaknesses. While video comments allow users to see one another — a feature that students really tend to enjoy — they also present Internet safety issues that your district may not be comfortable with. Audio comments are engaging and appropriate for students who struggle with writing, but they also take longer to listen to and tend to slow a conversation down. Text comments are perfect for students learning to articulate thought through writing, but they can be visually intimidating and impersonal. Over time, you’ll learn which comment types are the most appropriate for use with your students and in your school.
The most common types of comments added to K-12 VoiceThread conversations are text and audio comments. To add either type of comment, begin by selecting the Comment button from the main working window toolbar:
Your first image will appear above a simple commenting toolbar:
To add an audio comment, select the Record button found in the commenting toolbar at the bottom of your image. The first time that you insert an audio comment, you will be asked to give VoiceThread access to your computer’s microphone:
When you are finished recording your audio comment, select Stop Recording:
Your recorded comment will then be played back for your approval. If you are satisfied with its quality, select Save. If you’d like to re-record, select Cancel:
Each new comment added to a VoiceThread conversation is identified by an icon in the sidebar of the image. When a comment is being played, a speech bubble appears above the icon of the identity that added the comment:
To add a text comment to your VoiceThread presentation, select Type from the commenting toolbar at the bottom of each image:
After selecting Type, a speech bubble will appear above the icon representing the identity of the commenter. Type your comment into the speech bubble and then select Save from the commenting toolbar. Your comment will automatically be added to the image and your icon will appear in the sidebar:
If your students are working with one classroom VoiceThread account, it will be important for them to select a new identity every time that they add thoughts to a slide that has already been visited by other users. Doing so will ensure that their new comments stand out as unique contributions. To switch identities in VoiceThread, begin by clicking the identity icon found in the bottom left-hand corner of the commenting toolbar:
A list of every identity associated with the VoiceThread account that you have logged in with will be generated. Students can then simply select an icon that hasn’t been used by any of their peers yet and begin recording:
Navigating through a VoiceThread presentation
There are two ways to navigate through a VoiceThread presentation. First, you can use the block arrows found in the corners of the commenting toolbar to move through slides in sequential order:
You can also click on the thumbnail images found in the bottom right hand corner of the commenting toolbar to move through your VoiceThread in a non-sequential order:
Final VoiceThread tips for teachers
There is no doubt that VoiceThread has the potential to be one of the most motivating tools that you use to facilitate instruction in your classroom this year. Students, regardless of their age, are intrinsically drawn to interesting conversations with peers, so structuring opportunities for collaborative dialogue around classroom content is a logical decision! To make the most of your VoiceThread experiences, however, consider:
Allowing students to draft comments in groups of two or three
After you introduce new VoiceThread presentations, it is always helpful to give students time to work in small groups to brainstorm and draft initial comments together. This ensures that the first comments added to your discussions will be well thought out and aligned with the directions you’ve given for the assignment. What’s more, this ensures that all students will have a comment in your conversation to follow, increasing their interest!
Joining in the conversation
In the early stages of your work with VoiceThread, it is important to join in the conversations with your students! By doing so, you’ll be able to model the kinds of comments that are productive and valuable. Be sure to use proper grammar and spelling — and to elaborate on your thinking. Also, be sure to find ways to respond to other students and to ask lots of questions.
Those are the skills that make for high quality VoiceThread presentations — but they won’t come naturally to most students. Seeing examples from you will help your classes to learn more about quality additions to digital conversations.
Highlighting comments in class
After starting a VoiceThread presentation, it is important to revisit the conversation occasionally in class in order to keep the project at the forefront of your students’ minds. Browsing and selecting “Spotlight Comments” a few times a week will provide students with examples of high quality work to model their own contributions after.
Be sure to spotlight different kinds of comments to your students — especially those where students are reading and responding to one another. Many students, particularly those in elementary and middle school, can be egocentric, which translates into conversations where everyone is talking but nobody is listening! By celebrating students that are interacting with one another, you’ll begin to see more cross-conversations in your digital presentations.
Also, be sure to spotlight comments that don’t add any real value to your conversation. While this obviously has to be done gently so as not to hurt the feelings of your students, it is important for classes to begin to recognize that “throw-away” comments only serve as distractions in meaningful discussions.
Whatever choices you make with VoiceThread, be proud of yourself for taking a digital risk. Asynchronous conversations are playing a larger role in the lives of today’s teens, and you’re actively working to change your instruction to meet your students where they are. That’s the very definition of responsible practice!