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Engaging Learners with VoiceThread By: Brad Wilson Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC Author contact: www.21innovate.com

Author Biography: Brad Wilson has been a 4th grade teacher in southwest Michigan since 2007. Mr. Wilson’s students use a variety of tools throughout the learning process, including netbooks & iPads. Web & mobile applications allow children in his class to take control of their own learning & to contribute in unique, meaningful ways. Brad has a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology & has presented on innovative uses of technology in the classroom at several regional conferences. In 2011 he started 21 Innovate, LLC to offer consulting services. Activity Summary Many Web 2.0 tools offer features that make learning math, science or writing techniques more fun. Many allow connections to happen between users. Some help students publish and create. Very few of these tools, however, can provide a platform for ANY subject with controlled levels of collaboration & publishing while putting interactive media features in the hands of students. The VoiceThread website & accompanying mobile application go well beyond the average for digital educational platforms. In fact, VoiceThread SETS the standard for safety & security, scalable adoption, customization, & most of all- results! If you want your students to join the ranks of thousands who are easily creating meaningful, interactive content… then please read on! Class or subject area: All subjects Grade level(s): K-16 Specific learning objectives: • Understand what a VoiceThread is • Identify features of the VoiceThread website & app • Recognize the benefit of using VoiceThread with students • Discover several specific curriculum integrations for VoiceThread • Experience classroom teaching tips for VoiceThread lessons • Define a VoiceThread Mathcast and connect with classroom usage • Relate digital storytelling techniques with VoiceThread


Five years ago I was a first year teacher with 27 students in my 4th grade classroom. I had managed to get through 2/3 of the year with my head above water. Barely. I knew my students well- they had a wide range of skills and diverse needs that you cannot prepare to meet from any textbook in an undergrad methods course. I struggled to find interesting ways to get them interested in content using the prescribed curriculum, help from wonderful mentors and my own ideas. And then I learned about VoiceThread. I watched with excitement as my students created amazing projects with their writing, volunteering to stay in at recess to work in groups. They taught math problems to their peers, who used the presentations to study from before a test. They posted science research where their friends left comments, even from home. And the VoiceThread that started it all... my A-HA moment: A math tutorial from a 5th grader in New York who TAUGHT ME a little rhyme for how to round decimals that I have in-turn shared with hundreds of other teachers and students. Cameron now has 14,000+ views on that thread...talk about an authentic audience! VoiceThread is the highest quality, most dynamic, and empowering web tool available to teachers and students for learning projects. (In My Opinion) And I have tried just about every Web 2.0 site around. Here are some reasons & specific examples of why I believe investing in this tool can bring a huge return for learning and engagement. What is VoiceThread? VoiceThread is a mobile and web application that is centered on group discussions around a digital medium. It was created to capture author and participant responses with “the compassion, emotion, and expressiveness of the human voice�. Students on VoiceThread can be both producers and consumers of the content within each digital container, referred to as a thread. Each page features a picture, video, word document, PowerPoint slide, etc. Creators of a VoiceThread can act as a presenter by using recordings, called comments, which are captured on audio through a microphone or telephone, through video using a web camera, or through text. Alternately, the creator can invite other users to leave their own comments or input on the thread. A VoiceThread is navigated somewhat like an online book, where users can skip to any page of the thread and even draw or write over top of the media while leaving a comment. It may have only one page or as many as a hundred. Viewers can turn the pages manually or can passively watch and listen to the thread, similar to a slide show. Viewers also have in their control the ability to skip to any slide at any time, listen to or see any comment at any time, and zoom in on any portion of the slide. VoiceThread allows for collaboration among any number of people, who must only be registered users. Teachers can apply for a free Educator account using their school email and create up to 50 projects. To be an online viewer (without commenting), you do not need to be registered. Additionally,


VoiceThreads can be exported to offline files that are viewed as a movie in a more traditional presentation format. A Classroom account on VoiceThread is a paid subscription for an educator that gives them the ability to set up a network where each student has their own account and can create as many threads as they desire. In this environment, students can be content creators for a meaningful audience while the educator has the ability to review what is published. Groups can be formed within the teacher account for different classes or projects and comment moderation allows supervision over the content. The level of visibility is also easily managed- threads can be viewed by only the teacher, only the class, or any number of outside viewers as deemed appropriate in a specific context. District-wide accounts are also offered for widespread adoption & allow further collaborative options between members of the same organization. The implications of VoiceThread for 21st Century learning are great. It is dynamic in its ability to work with various digital mediums such as photos, word documents and video clips. It is unique in that it offers web or mobile-based collaboration on projects involving a partnership, a small group, a class, an entire district, or students and teachers from around the world. According to its creators, VoiceThread has a “simple interface with complicated underlying design”. Its simplicity (only 3 tabs to choose from on the web version) allows a user with little prior knowledge and of just about any age to participate while still permitting for very specific development of a thread by experienced users. VoiceThread has straightforward sharing tools that allow the creator to send, share and publish their presentation. Internet spaces such as a blog or website are perfect hosts for an easily-embedded VoiceThread, where it remains a completely live body of work for viewers to interact with however the author intended. Sample Curriculum Integrations • DISCUSSION LESSON STARTER. Post a picture, video clip or graphic organizer to activate prior knowledge and have students log-in prior to the lesson to respond. Pose an essential question and revisit the thread at the end of the lesson to check for understanding. • CLASSROOM DEBATE. This classic critical-thinking activity becomes an asynchronous digital conversation in a no-pressure environment when it is framed using VoiceThread. Posts can be carefully thought-out and groups of students from the same viewpoint can collaborate to upload their arguments. • STUDENT REPORTS. Any subject, any length, any file! Utilize the flexibility of the VoiceThread platform to make dynamic projects and presentations. From book reports to science projects, this is a major upgrade from PowerPoint! Have students leave a page at the end designated for peer and teacher feedback, and don’t forget that VoiceThreads can be downloaded for offline use and archiving. • DIGITAL PEN PALS. In a globally connected world, teachers of all subject areas are striving to make real-life connections and help students expand their cultural horizons. Work on a shared


project with your buddy class and watch student engagement soar! • POST-LESSON REVIEW. Facilitate student reflection on what they have learned and capture that learning for future use! It will create a record for absent students and all students can use the thread as a study tool for upcoming assessments and for making connections to future material. • STUDY GUIDES. Upload your .doc or .pdf files from your curriculum and have students work individually or in small groups to solve and respond to questions. They will in turn become teachers for other students as they watch the recordings… anytime, anywhere. • STUDENT PORTFOLIOS. Students can include documents, pictures, scanned images, videos, etc. and create a narrated show which communicates their learning. For younger students this may facilitate student-led conferences and for older students it could become part of their jobseeking or college entrance materials. • NARRATED TEACHER LECTURE. Thinking of “Flipping” your classroom? Upload your lesson content onto VoiceThread slides, record yourself sharing important strategies or ideas and post for students to view outside of class. Invite participation in ways that YouTube videos cannot match. Capturing your teaching allows you more time to work with students in class, gives absent students access to the lesson and allows students to review it as many times as needed. • PUBLISH STUDENT WORK. Scan it, take a picture or video of it, upload it… however you get it there is not important. Sharing with anyone from peers to parents or other classrooms in other countries just became super easy. Students will take pride in their work from the beginning if they know that they are publishing to a global audience. Celebrate learning! Highlighted Projects Digital Storytelling: VoiceThread has an intuitive design for digital storytelling that is simple and adaptable. The mobile app can now harness the camera on phones & tablets for recording anytime/anywhere. There are hundreds of embedded threads posted on blogs, wikis and school websites which feature children as young as kindergarten age creating electronic stories. Even university students across the country are participating in narrative projects & reflections. Learners can respond to a prompt or use a self-created theme to inspire their writing. Text and illustrations can be created using software (Kidpix, etc.) or traditional paper and pencil work can be added by simply taking a photo of them. A student voiceover narrates the story, which can be turned into a “digital class book” to be shared with families through email or a classroom website. Older students can type their stories, import them and teachers can choose to have each story be a stand-alone product or have a class compilation on one thread. One thing I have repeatedly seen is that VoiceThread becomes an enriching part of the writing process. In the steps of publishing the work onto a VoiceThread and narrating it, students are required to read their writing out loud. This inevitably becomes a place where revisions take place and the writ-


ing grows and gets better. In addition, peers comment on the piece, giving the author feedback about their favorite part or a part that needs editing. Elementary classrooms might use a common framework like “Stars and Wishes” to create a respectful dialogue. If modeled correctly, this electronic teamwork can result in very honest & constructive criticism, moving beyond the typical “good job” or “nice work”. Literacy Lessons to Consider: • Progressive story: Each student, group or class adds their own page or recording, creating a unique & perhaps unpredictable tale. • Poetry: Students post & read their work for a specific genre- maybe a collection of the class’ best Cinquains. • Journaling: One simple slide could host the thoughts of an entire class responding to a common topic. Students can rotate to a computer or mobile device to take turns recording what they have written. 21st Century Skill: • If students aren’t able to use their own photos, demonstrate and provide resources to search Creative Commons images online. Sources can be cited by linking and/or by using a dedicated page at the end of the presentation. Mathcasts: Years before Salman Kahn started creating his now famous YouTube collection of tutorial videos (Khan Academy), Tim Falhberg defined a Mathcast as “thinking, reasoning and working mathematically outloud.” VoiceThread can be used to capture a Mathcast using any combination of voice/video recordings and written/visual explanations. For example, an instructor can upload a document that displays the math work from their class onto a thread and publish it on their website, blog or Edmodo page. The thread then becomes a collaborative effort to solve the problems and share the strategies used. Taking advantage of the features from Ed.VoiceThread will allow the author to evoke participation from students in their class, from students anywhere else in the world, or between students and teachers alike. Alan November calls the students who are creating a recorded response to a problem a “tutorial designer,” a role that requires critical thinking, communication skills & true mastery of content. The VoiceThread Mobile application also facilitates simple recording of these tutorials on a device such as an iPad. Import or snap a photo of a problem to be solved and have individuals or groups of students explain and annotate on the screen how they work through it. Ownership & engagement of learning shifts to the students’ hands & the products can also be used as an alternative assessment.


Teaching Tips: • START SMALL. Your first VoiceThread project should be something easy and quick, not a 10 slide research presentation. Logging in and leaving comments on other VoiceThreads can be a good jumping off point. • PARTICIPATE. There are amazing projects related to just about every subject & topic in K-16 education already residing in the VoiceThread library. Use the Browse tab to find content for your students to interact with & critique. • SET THE TONE. Prior to using the website or the app, play for the class a few quality VoiceThreads created by other students to demonstrate high expectations for participation and review digital publishing guidelines. Make a point of how silly or pointless comments can ruin a presentation. • ALLOW EXPLORATION. Show students how to use the Search tab to find VoiceThreads on a specific topic. Make and share with students a “sandbox” thread where they can explore the interactive features like creating their own avatar/logo. • SHOW ME, DON’T TELL ME. Demonstrate each activity before having students log-in. Leave time in your plans to use a projector to briefly show the steps for the day’s project. Post log-in directions (usernames, etc) and have students copy them down somewhere they can access later, like at home. • TEACH AND PRACTICE COMMENTING. Leaving feedback for peers online may be a new skill for many students. Play several examples and then let students practice with you as a whole group. Cover things like how long a comment should be, what words to avoid, and how to be specific. • FAIL TO PLAN, PLAN TO FAIL. Brainstorming, drafting, storyboarding… whatever method is most appropriate for your subject, make sure students have thought through the creation process and have all the necessary materials ready before logging in. There are templates available to help with this or you can create your own for a specific need. The quality of the thread will likely be determined by how much work was put in ahead of the actual design & recording. • STUDENTS AS TEACHERS. A teacher can only help one student at a time. If every student who “gets it” is able to share with a few other students, your sanity will remain intact. Designate 3-5 helpers each session; students are not to ask the teacher until they have asked a helper. Share helpers with other classes or grade levels when available, this is a great opportunity to foster confidence in your learning community. • BYOD. The free VoiceThread Mobile app can be downloaded by students on their own device & become a powerful learning tool in their pocket. Use this opportunity for talking with parents and administrators about positive uses of mobile technologies. Conclusion All students deserve educational opportunities which allow them to craft learning products that will be memorable & meaningful. Whether you add this tool into an existing project or completely renovate your lessons to shift the focus to the learner, there are few limits to what VoiceThread can help them accomplish. Have fun teaching 21st Century skills and watch as engagement with curricular materials soars while students create, communicate, collaborate and share on the web.


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