Beyond “Discussion Forums”—Changing the Game with VoiceThread “Conversation Starters” (it’s not just about the technology)


Guest author: Janice Robertson, Visiting Associate Professor, History of Art & Design Department, Pratt Institute

Once upon a time, less than twenty years ago, before there was such a thing as an LMS (Learning Management System), I asked students to respond to assigned readings with comments handwritten on 3 x 5 index cards. I collected the comment cards a week prior to the class in which the topic was to be discussed, so I could read, grade, add my own handwritten comments, and return the cards to students for viewing on the day of the class discussion. Meaningful exchanges with individual students developed over the course of the semester, and I would create “in class” opportunities for students to voice their positions, whenever possible. But I was the only one with across the board access to the comments.

The advent of LMS “discussion forums” gave everyone access to all the comments. I could collect the comments online, so the lead time was reduced and they could be due a day or two in advance of a given class. The comments got longer, there were copy cat comments, I spent more time reading, and I no longer wrote comments in return.

Then came VoiceThread, a cloud application, designed to promote asynchronous group conversations and collaboration—and the possibilities exploded—because VoiceThread brings pictures, videos and multimedia comments into play. Users can speak, type, draw, link and video record, so there’s multi-sensory engagement and comments can be highly charged. Visual material is displayed front and center within VoiceThread’s framework, so users can see images while they’re commenting on them. That’s huge, because it invites picture-based thinking.

VoiceThread is so full of new teaching possibilities that, after discovering it in 2008, I turned my back on “discussion forums” and spent the next four years developing art history class projects that: “change the balance of power,” “open media up to conversations,” “turn text-based teaching on its head,” and so forth. If you’re interested, here’s a link to a group of VoiceThreads (based on conference talks) that share those ideas. [Ed. note: Penn State has a great introduction on VoiceThread for those interested in tutorials – or just create a VoiceThread account to find them].

In 2012, I found myself teaching a 500-level class centered around a very difficult textbook, and I realized that it was going to be important to bring the text back into the picture. So I came up with the idea of VoiceThread “conversation starters.” In response to each week’s textbook readings, I asked students to:

1. Choose an image linked with the textbook readings and upload it to a class VoiceThread. (Images from the textbook had been scanned and arranged in chapter-by-chapter ARTstor image groups, so students could easily access them.)

2. Choose a text passage and quote it in a VoiceThread text comment, citing the textbook page number.

3. Develop a VoiceThread comment—in response to the image and text passage—something to get the class thinking and talking!

4. Students were encouraged to follow the work of classmates, and to comment in response to “conversation starters” that sparked their interest, but this was optional.

The “conversation starters” were due two days in advance of our class. That gave me a chance to see what students were getting out of the readings, and to gage their interest in grappling with conceptual issues and particular artworks. It also gave me a chance to add images chosen by students to my digital class presentations.

In class, when we arrived at images that particular students had elected to discuss on VoiceThread, I deferred to them. Those students always had something to say, their classmates usually did too. Students were increasingly vocal, class discussions took surprising turns, and the most important teaching of all took place in those synchronous circumstances. VoiceThread “conversation starters” served as a form of crowdsourcing and students became co-creators of class content; they walked away with a sense of ownership, and rightly so. It started with technology, but it didn’t end there; we changed the game, and our class was transformed.

2 responses to “Beyond “Discussion Forums”—Changing the Game with VoiceThread “Conversation Starters” (it’s not just about the technology)”

  1. Dana Howard says:

    Janice, I love that VoiceThreads spills over into the classroom.

    I had the experience of having it be a unifying element in an all online AP Art History class. It made student collaboration on a final projects pretty easy. After commenting on my VT’s all year, they then and a chance to work in teams to create review VT’s for the group on various topics. Although most of these high school students never met face-to-face, they were able to communicate as if they and been sitting next to one another all year. I wonder if the picture-based thinking you mention is the reason that VT creates such a great group dynamic.

    As a teacher, the daily digests that I received in my email allowed me to use those for grading and monitoring VT participation. It seemed that each year, in course evaluations, it was the VT’s that were the student’s favorite part of the class.

  2. […] uploaded some lecture content, crowdsourced syllabi, blogged on everything from using varied digital technologies in the classroom to making museum experiences meaningful, and looked in-depth at key […]

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