VoiceThread: Enhanced Community, Increased Social Presence and Improved Visual Learning

Award Winner: 
2010 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Author Information
Michelle Pacansky-Brock
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Multiple insitutions
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

VoiceThread is used in a community college online art appreciation class to supplement a course designed primarily in Blackboard.  The visually-centric environment of a VoiceThread, utilized as a formative assessment that remains available to students for continued review and learning after a due date, increases the students' ability to understand visual concepts, while the video and voice comments increase community, as well as the students' perception of the instructor's social presence. 

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Blackboard lacks a tool for fostering learning activities around images, an essential pedagogy for achieving visual literacy and visual analysis skills in art appreciation at a distance.  VoiceThread provides a visually-centric, participatory learning environment in which students enter and apply new ideas from the learning unit. View an illustration of the VoiceThread interface here.

Students comment on a specified number of slides in a VoiceThread.  This formative assessment experience encourages all levels of learning, meaning mistakes are ok, expected and part of the learning development experience.  Students work together, at all levels of understanding, to apply new key terms to images and discuss personal interpretations in voice, video or text.  The instructor enters each VT at mid-week, responding in video to those who have participated.  The students who have participated receive individualized video feedback about their responses, while students who have yet to participate have the enriched experiece of learning from the previous students' and the instructor's guided responses.


Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

View a presentation of this VoiceThread practice including instructional samples and additional student feedback here.

101 students surveyed, 87 responses (88% response rate)

98% strongly agreed or agreed that seeing and hearing their instructor through video comments increased the sense that she was more actively present in their learning experience.

94% strongly agreed or agreed that hearing their instructor's voice through audio comments increased the sense that she was more actively present in their learning experience.

88% strongly agreed or agreed that VoiceThread enhanced their ability to understand visual concepts (vs. learning in Blackboard alone).

80% strongly agreed or agreed that VoiceThread contributed to establishing a sense of community in the class.





How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

The use of VoiceThread effectively increases the sense of the instructor's presence in the online environment, reducing the sense of isolation that has been cited as a contributing factor in lower retention rates online.  Retention is directly tied to learning effectiveness.

The text-based and textual hierarchy leveraged to design the tools in Blackboard and other CMSs is an inferior learning environment for visual disciplines.  Visual disciplines in face-to-face environments rely upon large, projected images to facilitate learning.  In a classroom, when a professor is left image-less, student learning is paralyzed.  However, in online environments, the textual tools suggest that we should simply make do with what we're given.  Web 2.0 tools, like VoiceThread, provide enhanced opportunities for visual learning, as well as participatory, peer-to-peer learning experiences, around visual media.

Community enriches students learning experiences through the fostering of safe, trustworthy environment in which students are more comfortable sharing personal thoughts, as well as making mistakes (which is an inherently important element in the formative assessment model employed here).  Community college courses, moreover, are comprised of a vast range of learning disabilities, styles and levels.  Fostering a learning environment that embraces all learning as important, ok, and integral to the overall goal, relies upon the foundational construction of community.  VoiceThread's inclusion of student avatars, the extension of "choice" to students in how they comment, and the ability for students to listen to, see, and read each others' thoughts contributed to the development of online community.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

An internet connected computer with a microphone and webcam.  A PRO VoiceThread account for the instructor.  Each student is required to create a free VoiceThread account (which requires an email address and a name).


Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Aside from computer ownership, $60/year for the instructor.  Students were given the choice to comment in text, audio or webcam so additional equipment was not required of them.

References, supporting documents: 

Community as an effective element of online learning has been supported by many including Palloff and Pratt (1999, 2005), Swan and Shea (2005), Yuen (2003).

An online student's sense of isolation as a contributing factor in decreased retention is supported by the work of Soles & Moller, (2001), Hara & Khling (1999), Kubala, (1998), Galusha (1997).

Ice, P., Swan, K., Kupczynski, L. & Richardson, J. (2008). The Impact of Asynchronous Audio Feedback on Teaching and Social Presence: A Survey of Current Research. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2008 (pp. 5646-5649). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Other Comments: 

It should also be noted that VoiceThread does present accessibility concerns for blind students, as it is flash-based and not compatible with screenreaders.  The use of webcam and audio comments are not easily captioned/transcribed.  I have been partnering with VoiceThread on these concerns and the founders have indicated that they're working to develop an accessible interface, but no clear timeframe is available.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Michelle Pacansky-Brock
Email this contact: 


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