Last semester I tried out Voicethread as a new format for instruction in an online course. I found the software kind of fun to play with; the format it uses for virtual (asynchronous) discussion of any given “slide” really appeals to me. Instead of using a “threaded” discussion (ergo the name “voice thread”, student responses all appear around the slide (or video or text) in a way that is very collaborative…you get the feeling that you’re all “sitting around a table” and having a seminar-styled conversation.
But — as with most things online — there is a lot of ‘front loaded’ preparation, with both the slides, the questions, and the comments. While I had originally assumed that I would be using voicethread software for the entire term, it occurred to me that it might be more useful to employ it just twice: at the beginning and at the very end of the term. This allowed me to set the tone for the course while also giving me a strong “closure activity” to wrap things up.
One of the problems of teaching online, I think, always happens at the beginning and the end: at first, everyone is trying to learn the technology and the system the teacher is employing. At the end, students usually just conclude by turning in some document, rather than having a genuine conversation. Voicethread gets students involved in a way that can break expectations and get students talking to one another right away.
I’m not sharing my voicethreads from last semester here, because I want to respect the privacy of the students. But I can give snapshots, followed by a quick overview of what I did at the beginning and the end, if you’re looking for a practical tip.
My online course was a literature class for graduate students in our MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction. Before the class began, I set up a voicethread as an introduction to the course content. The first slide was a generic “hello” and introduction by video that framed the course in a personal way: it humanized the relationship right away, because they heard my voice and saw my face and could tell that I was interested in what they had to contribute because I was soliciting feedback. In the slides that followed, I shared images, one slide after another, of the covers for the texts we were reading in the semester ahead. This allowed me to give an overview of the readings, and to explain some of the concepts that we would be learning that term. But more than this, I made the subject of book cover art — and how it relates to genre fiction — the very subject. I briefly analyzed the implications of the art on each book cover a little (e.g., “notice the red font…implying danger”), or compared and contrasted different covers of the same book (eg., “notice how this earlier edition of the book uses art deco rather than photorealism”) — and then invited students to analyze the covers in their comments as well. They all got into the task, and showed me more than I myself had seen in the covers. This was a raving success, in my mind, because it got us in an analytical mode right away, while also cultivating interpersonal bonds via virtual discussion.
At the end of the course, I returned to voicethread and used it to get feedback on the class. I returned to using some of the book covers we analyzed at the beginning of the class, and “wrapped up” some of the class content with commentary. But then I shifted the focus to my main purpose of this “closing” exercise through voicethread: to solicit feedback on the class in a sort of virtual, shared, class evaluation. I had only five slides or so, each with a question typed on it that addressed a broad area of the course objectives. I specified the area of my question in caps. Questions I asked included “Which books this term taught you the most about the craft of writing?” and “What knowledge did you most glean from your classmates?” While my main intent was to foment student reflection on their progress of learning objectives, the comments included evaluation of the course, and were insightful to me as a teacher piloting this class for the first time.
Whether you use my approach (or voicethread) or not, I recommend that if you’re teaching online, you pay special attention to the beginning and ending of the semester. While learning is asynchronous, every course is predicated on the notion that there will be a synchronous experience: a period of time that the teacher has organized into a beginning, middle, and end. Technology can be employed to “bookend” that experience in a meaningful way.