It’s really time to put the age old arguments about online classes being dull, cold, and alienating to bed and accept that these problems are only effects of the choices made by those who design, develop, and teach the course.
If you are an online instructor who is aching to break out of the social limitations of the text-based discussion forum that still dominates online courses, despite the audio and visual rich social technologies that abound, read on. Take a few minutes to step inside one of my online classes and view this clip of an interaction between me and one of my former online Art Appreciation students from a class VoiceThread activity. The excerpt you see here shows a single slide (out of many) from an online activity. Students were required to comment after reading a chapter that introduced them to the concepts of “form and content.” In this way, the activity is used as a formative assessment for them to begin to develop mastery of new concepts and skills.
You probably observed a few things about this interaction. First, the student was nervous and she was clearly pushing herself outside of her comfort zone. This is when we learn the most! Most students aren’t willing to leave voice comments when they’re nervous and many students aren’t willing to voluntarily push themselves outside their comfort zone. We need to ask ourselves, “How can we support and encourage these actions as online instructors?”
Secondly, you likely noticed that she made a mistake in her first assessment attempt. And that it was okay for her to do so. This is because the assessment is a “formative assessment,” meaning it is an assessment “for learning,” rather than an assessment “of learning.” In my feedback, I let her know she had made an error, and by delivering my feedback with video, the message was received in a less threatening way. She was able to hear my voice inflections and see my facial expressions. She knew I wanted her to succeed and try again. And she did. And the next time, she succeeded, and I made my pride in her very clear. Her follow-up comment demonstrates her progress and mastery of the learning objectives. Students in my online classes often tell me they get more personalized feedback than they have ever received in a face-to-face class.
And, what’s also important about the VoiceThread interface is that the environment is participatory. This means the comments students and I leave are viewable by the entire class. While there is no way I could require or ensure all students viewed the interaction between she and I, those who did learn from it and improve their mastery of the objectives.
As I sit back and reflect on many years of teaching with VoiceThread though, my most prized teaching moments have been with the learning successes I’ve seen with my dyslexic students. I recall one particular student with dyslexia who was taking online classes because she was also homebound, preparing for a major kidney surgery. She was in my class the first year I taught with VoiceThread and she was the only student who made use of the video (webcam) comment feature. What stunned me was how deeply eloquent and proficient her verbal interpretation of the artwork on the screen was, while the written assessments she submitted to me demonstrated an entirely different story. At that moment, I realized how much more — beyond social presence and community building — we miss, as online educators, when we construct learning environments purely around text based assessments. And I related very differently to my learners from that moment on.
The example shown above demonstrates many of the reasons why I teach with VoiceThread, a cloud-based asynchronous communication tool that I use to enhance my online course, which is taught within a traditional course management system. You can click here for a 10-minute tour of a VoiceThread activity. VoiceThread empowers me to create multimedia content, as well as to interact with my students and to have them interact with each other using voice, video, or text as their preferred method of communication. And using VoiceThread for formative assessments allows me to use my feedback as additional teaching moments too. In my feedback comments, I can share additional context about the image or topic on the slide. At the start of the next learning unit, the students are given the assignment to review the entire VoiceThread from the previous unit (including all student comments and my feedback). These VoiceThreads become resources for larger projects or summative assessments and through their creation stronger social presence and community is fostered throughout the class.
You can think of a VoiceThread as a conversation around a slideshow of your own media files. These media files can be your PDFs (you can export your Powerpoints or Keynote presentations to PDFs very simply), images, video files, audio files (for the music instructors out there), and more. And you can mix the media so your VoiceThread could include, for example, four presentation slides, two images, a video, and three more presentation slides at the end. Use your imagination! When you have your media curated, you simply add your own comments in voice (using your computer’s microphone), video (using your computer’s webcam), or text (using the keyboard on your computer). Then you share your VoiceThread securely with the Group you’ve set up for your class or give access to anyone you want who has access to the link or place it on the Browse page and make fully public.
I use VoiceThread in a variety of ways in my online class. Using the tool is easy but teaching effectively with it is a skill that has taken me many years to refine. What I find critical is to understand that it’s a very robust tool and you must scaffold your students’ use of VoiceThread, rather than expect them to be masters of it from day one (remember, week one is stressful enough).