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VoiceThread as a Teaching Tool for Courses on Language and Society Kira Hall Department of Linguistics University of Colorado As a sociolinguist who relies on the use of sound to demonstrate perspectives on the relationship between language and society, I have been searching for a social networking tool that would enhance the audio-visual focus of my large lecture course Language in US Society (Ling 1000). VoiceThread, an online interactive media forum now sponsored by the University of Colorado and soon to be integrated with D2L, is a step in the right direction, even if in some ways imperfect. I evaluated VoiceThread in three different learning domains as my final project for the ASSETT-sponsored Spring 2012 Teaching with Technology Faculty Seminar, led by Mark Werner from the Office of Information Technology and assisted by Cory Pavicich (OIT) and Amanda McAndrew (ASSETT). 1 My Maymester course “Language in US Society” seemed like a good venue to test a new teaching technology, given the course’s intensive schedule and comparatively limited class size. We had been exposed to a range of technological media in the Teaching with Technology seminar that might benefit the learning experience of our students, including animation, clickers, and even the online virtual world Second Life. I found the potential of VoiceThread compelling for a course like Ling 1000, since it enables course participants to upload, share, and comment on diverse types of media files, among them audio and video recordings. Instructors as well as students can arrange files ranging from documents to images to video into a slide show, and then share their “voice thread” (as it is called in this technology) with other participants. Once invited into a voice thread, participants can make comments on any part of the voice thread, submitting their responses by microphone, webcam, phone, text, or audio file upload. On the first day of class, I informed my students that we would be testing a new interactive technology called VoiceThread; none of them had ever used it before. But they seemed keen to try out a new technology, so I distributed a syllabus that featured VoiceThread in three domains: (1) the course discussion forum, (2) group-organized “debates” on topics related to language and society, and (3) student-initiated final projects involving the collection and analysis of language data. Students who preferred a more traditional essay format were given the option of turning in a written paper instead of a VoiceThread project; only 27% of the class ultimately made use of this option. The student response to VoiceThread turned out to be very positive, once we jointly overcame the technological “glitches” that confronted us in each of the domains listed above. In an online survey distributed at the conclusion of the seminar, in which all 27 students participated, 67% expressed that “VoiceThread assignments had positively changed” their class experience and 70% registered that VoiceThread had “a positive impact” on their ability to learn the course content.                                                                                                                 1 Many thanks to Mark Werner, Cory Pavicich, and Amanda McAndrew for their organization of a thought-provoking seminar on the incorporation of technology into teaching. I am especially grateful to Amanda for helping me think through this project and develop the online assessment survey.


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  In the discussion below, I attempt to formulate what it is about VoiceThread that produced such positive feedback from my students. It is important to note at the outset that the medium did not work equally well across all three domains. While students enjoyed using the medium for the discussion forum and for their final projects, they were much less enthusiastic about using it for the group debates. Below, I suggest reasons for the success of VoiceThread in some domains and not others, as I describe the three ways I incorporated VoiceThread into the course. (1) The course discussion forum I have always made good use of CULearn’s discussion forum in my courses, but I have also felt limited by its reliance on text as the primary modality of exchange. With VoiceThread, I was able to upload audio and video files as the centerpiece of my “web assignments,” as I call them, providing document-based and webcam-recorded instructions regarding the kinds of questions students should pursue in their comments. This capability quickly proved useful for the course. Because we spend the first several weeks exploring the linguistic features associated with contemporary US dialects of English, among them New York English, Appalachian English, the English spoken in the Great Lakes area, and Southern California English, VoiceThread provided the means for students to hear examples of the dialects I was discussing in class and listen for their distinguishing features. For instance, in one early web assignment, I uploaded five sound files from speakers associated with diverse varieties of American English and had students “guess the speaker’s background” based on the speech features they heard. I was pleased to see the students demonstrate technical understandings of the dialectal patterns I had presented in class in their comments, as they wagered their best bets on the speaker’s origins. The incorporation of video material into these web assignments proved even more successful. The second part of the course focuses on how language varieties associated with minority groups, such as African American Vernacular English or varied types of “foreignaccented” English, are represented in the media. These representations are often highly pejorative, and are often achieved through a multi-modal synchrony of non-standard speech displays with stereotypical imagery involving sexuality, street violence, drugs, and so forth. VoiceThread’s multi-modal format allowed me to create a number of assignments structured around the viewing of selected media representations, such as a series of four “Ebonics” YouTube spoofs that I uploaded and organized for one of the web assignments. As the text-based comments reproduced below indicate, the viewing of video excerpts often prompted energetic,


 

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thoughtful, and engaged discussions of the broader ideologies associated with the linguistic representation:

One of the most compelling aspects of a VoiceThread discussion forum like the one pictured above is its non-linear format. Students post comments around a central question or idea, building off of a circle of previous posts through audio, webcam, or text-based responses. While the majority submitted text-based comments, many made interesting use of the audio and webcam functions as well, and some even experimented with all three formats across their responses. I suspect that as students become more comfortable with the medium, and with each other, their use of the non-textual modality possibilities will increase. Whatever the case, the diversity of media built into the comment function makes the exchange much more intimate,


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challenging the usual anonymity (and textual predictability) associated with discussion groups in large lecture classes. Students generally liked the discussion forum, with 41% of them reporting on the final survey that they preferred VoiceThread to other online class-based discussion forums that they had participated in. Because 26% of the students opted out of answering this question due to the fact that they had never participated in an online discussion forum before, 41% is not insignificant. Students commented specifically on the feeling of intimacy mentioned above: “It gave our class an easy way to interact around our homework assignment and made the class much smaller and closer”; “It was so much more informative and interesting, and much faster, being able to see opinions from the whole class, as opposed to just raising hands in discussion as used to be the only option”; “It’s more interactive than D2L”; “It was an engaging forum with a much more interactive feel than the typical online coursework”; “It was cool to be able to see what my classmates had to say and then build my ideas on theirs”; “Being able to see peer responses and understandings helped contextualize the material a lot more.” Still, it’s worth noting that another 26% of the students voiced that they did not prefer this forum to others they had used, citing technological difficulties. Many found the automatic zooming feature especially annoying (as did I), which makes it difficult to pinpoint, click on, and access URL links included in uploaded documents. Several students additionally mentioned that some of their text comments were deleted or cut off by the system, without any warning. PC users in particular complained about the technology, finding it “slow” and “unfriendly.” Only 30% of the students felt that the technological apparatus of VoiceThread met all of their expectations; 70% of them claimed that technical complications with VoiceThread impacted their ability to complete class assignments. (2) Class-organized “debates” on topics related to language and society When I organized the course syllabus, I expected that the VoiceThread medium would lend itself well to group debates on specific linguistic issues. In the large lecture courses that I teach during the regular academic year, my TAs organize small student groups to debate sociolinguistic topics over the course of the semester: Should schools accommodate to non-standard dialects of English? Are new forms of communication media ruining the English language? Should English be the official language of the United States? I anticipated that students would appreciate being able to prepare and produce their comments in advance, as well as enjoy viewing the debate in its entirety on the “big screen.” This turned out to be the students’ least favorite application of VoiceThread, however, with 59% of them specifying on the final survey that they liked this requirement the least. Part of their concern was technological. The debates took place during the second week of class, due to the accelerated tempo of Maymester, and the students were not yet competent in the medium. They found it difficult to create, collect, and organize the debate contributions into a time line (so that, for instance, the rebuttals referred back to the introductory comments). Many students were still having trouble with the webcam technology and uploaded video recordings that could not be synced with the VoiceThread timeline. In the end, group leaders managed to bring the debate comments together after the fact by making use of the URL links supplied by VoiceThread, but the debates could not be viewed independently as a cohesive slide show. The student’s larger concern, however, seemed to be that they missed the traditional face-toface debate format. Students appeared to be equally divided on this point in their survey responses, but since their evaluations of VoiceThread in the other two domains were extremely positive, this response stands out as comparatively unenthusiastic:


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  Here we have an important reminder that educational technologies like VoiceThread have their place. As long as they contribute something beyond what can be accomplished in the usual course format, such as fostering a more intimate discursive exchange in a large lecture class, the medium works well. But as a substitute for a tried-and-true face-to-face format, such as an inclass debate, it is less effective. As one student succinctly put it on the online survey: “I would have rather just gone in front of the class and debated.” That said, as course instructor, I enjoyed viewing the debates in their entirety with the students. Non-native speakers of English who were nervous about recording their own voices instead chose to create and upload image-driven powerpoint presentations. Other students produced highly creative (and often funny) videos of themselves arguing particular points. The originality voiced in their arguments, along with the “polished” nature of their presentations, far surpassed what I have seen in the more traditional debate format, even if it sacrifices face-to-face spontaneity. (3) Student-initiated final projects involving the collection and analysis of language data VoiceThread’s most significant contribution came in the area of student-initiated final projects. 73% of the students chose to create their final projects in the VoiceThread format. While I value the written essay and would not want to use technology as a full replacement for it, I also see the potential of a medium that enables students to coordinate audio, visual, and textual domains when producing an analysis of talk. In brief, I was amazed by what the students were able to produce in this format during three short weeks in Maymester. There were many options to pursue for the final project, but all of them involved the original analysis of language data, whether collected from friends or an online server like YouTube. VoiceThread enabled students to upload short excerpts of the data they had collected, organize the excerpts into themes, and then provide a voiceover or text commentary to explain them. With students constrained by the time limitations of Maymester, VoiceThread made possible the creation of a more “professional” audio-visual product. Their final presentation was limited to five minutes (though three students asked for additional minutes, which I granted). Even students who were not at all versed in video editing found a voice in this medium, creating innovative slide shows that brought together and displayed the language data they had collected. Their survey responses affirmed the medium’s potential, with 74% of them reporting that VoiceThread had a positive impact on their ability to present original research.


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  And it did have a positive impact. Their final projects were excellent, especially given the short time period for putting everything together. For example, one of the strongest projects in the course, entitled “Engrish Prease,” focused on media representations of Asian-Accented English. The student coordinated an audio voiceover with textual commentary to explain a number of short video examples from comedy shows like South Park, all seamlessly organized on the VoiceThread timeline. Two other students jointly produced a slide show on “Valley Girl” English, analyzing short recordings they had made of older generation family members from Southern California. The assignment also worked well for students already versed in video editing, who chose to create and edit videos outside of the VoiceThread format and then upload them as a finished product. One student used this latter method to create an outstanding subtitled video on how his peer group uses the discourse marker “dude” in conversation. Another student used this method to create an excellent (and refreshingly humorous) video on slang as used by fraternity brothers. The students were excited about the medium’s potential, as exemplified in their survey comments: “It was an entirely new way to present, which was a positive impact because I wanted to do it!”; “I was able to present in a unique way”; “I can be more creative”; “The multimedia allowed for more relevant presentation and seamless integration for modern research (videos, interviews, etc)”; “It gave an easy way to record and share original speech.” This is not to say that the medium was without problems. Many students found it frustrating that they were unable to edit their videos or textual comments within VoiceThread; others complained about the slow upload time. All of the students would have welcomed the capability to overlay the videos they had uploaded with text comments, such as subtitles, but the medium does not currently allow for this. Comments can be posted only directly before or directly after an uploaded video. The success of VoiceThread in the domain of student-initiated projects brings me to a final question regarding the incorporation of new media into our classes as educational tools. I find it significant that the best students in the class, at least in terms of writing, demonstrating verbal comprehension of the material, and test-taking, opted out of VoiceThread and chose to write a traditional essay for their final project. These students, albeit a small group, were consistently critical of the technology and did not see it as appropriately academic. The obvious lesson to take away from this is that technologies like VoiceThread are best incorporated as a complement to other requirements, so that students can gravitate to the modalities that best showcase their strengths, whether textual or audio-visual. However, this too requires a final caveat. It is notable that the students who produced the two best VoiceThread projects in the course also earned the lowest grades on the final exam, with one of them receiving a 56 (F) and the other a 62 (D-). Although their VoiceThread projects revealed a strong command of the course material (or at least of the course material relevant to their own projects), their final exams indicated otherwise. I found this discrepancy difficult to reconcile when I calculated the final grades. If I had taught a traditional course constituted merely of midterm and final exam, these two students would have likely failed the course. This observation would suggest the importance of triangulating the ways that students can display course knowledge, with audio-visual technology being one of those ways. Yet at the same time,


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I am also aware that I am easily impressed by audio-visual expertise, not having mastered it as part of my own educational trajectory. Could it be that I gave these students high grades more for their competence in the technology than in the actual course ideas? I awarded even the weakest VoiceThread a B+, avoiding the more critical evaluations I regularly assign to the traditional essay. The truth is, I am easily impressed by student uses of audio-visual technology, and I don’t yet know how to assess these uses objectively. At the same time, I believe that the two students in question, along with many other mid-level students in the class, were able to display expertise with respect to the course material through VoiceThread that would not have been possible for them in the traditional essay format. This brings up a wealth of questions regarding the relationship between technology and student learning that I don’t have time to delve into here. But when 67% of students declare that they would like to use VoiceThread in another class here at CU, as my students did in the online survey, I feel highly motivated to use the medium again. I’ll leave the question of how to evaluate VoiceThread projects for another blog, after I get a better handle on how to read the interplay of form and content within an audio-visual, instead of written, realm. I fully expect that I’ll have plenty of time to do this over the course of the upcoming academic year, after I incorporate VoiceThread into my large lecture course on language and society in the fall.


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