Voice vs. Text: Improving Online Discourse with Voicethread and Google Hangouts

Recently some of my colleagues were asking me about ways to help improve online student discussions. From speaking with different faculty across campus, online discussions appear to be the primary use of Blackboard in both hybrid and online courses. This makes sense to me, as we all tend to value lively discussion of course content as the main indicator that students are engaged and learning.

However as I have posted before, and keep hearing from colleagues, most of the time online “discussions” do not really occur, at least not to the extent we wish to see. In trying to make the online discourse more robust, some are turning to using web-based tools outside of Blackboard that do not rely solely on text postings. These include two tools:

1) Voicethread – http://voicethread.com/products/highered/instructor/

Voicethread allows you to put up a variety of media (images, videos, slides) and then have students record their voice comments as well as type them in; you can even allow video commenting. This can make the discourse feel a bit more personal, but still asynchronous. It is especially useful for students who struggle to express themselves in writing or for courses where the content is more about the verbal recollection and presentation of what the student is learning. The video is from Michelle Pacansky-Brook, who is the author of a book, How to Humanize Your Online Class with VoiceThread.

Learning Out Loud: Is it the Missing Link in Online Classes? from VoiceThread on Vimeo.

2) Google Hangouts: http://plus.google.com

This video shows many ways Google+ Hangouts can be used in higher education – but more importantly it shows how Hangouts works for a presentation and discussion

If you want the synchronous connection of having several students together all at once, and want to be able to see them as well as hear them, then you might want to try Google Hangouts. This is a free video conferencing platform that works with groups of less than 10 participants. Similar to Blackboard Collaborate but the added feature is that you can see everyone in the group (provided they have a webcam active) as well as hear them. In the case of online discussions, it allows for more give and take since it is synchronous with everyone together at the same time, in the same space, having the conversation at the same time. Another use is that you can stream your Hangout feed – meaning that it is sort of like having your own personal TV show – students can view the streaming broadcast online via YouTube, and using the chat function ask questions as they watch if they are not among the 9 lucky video participants. Here are some examples of professors who have used this approach:

Jeremy Floyd, University of Tennessee

Ari Kohen, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This link has a list of 18 examples of Google Hangouts for educational contexts. Nothing against Blackboard Collaborate, but if you are looking for different was to get discussion going in your classes, either of these technologies may serve you well. If you want to discuss or try them out, let’s chat – we could even use a Google Hangout if you can not make it to campus!



Serious Games? Seriously!

836With holiday shopping season hard upon us already, I know I am being inundated by the youngsters in my life (and to be honest, by some of the adults) with pleas to give them the gift of the latest hot video game. Whether for tablets, computers, or a console like the Xbox One, no question that games have become serious business.

Yet surely these things are mere distractions from learning for students – who ever heard of learning from a video game? Well actually, I have. There is even an entire sub-field of academics called Serious Gaming that researches how games can go beyond entertainment and help people learn.

Let me share some of the projects this field has created:

1) Researchers at the University of Rome in Italy found positive effects from using Nintendo Wii games for medical students learning laparoscopic surgery techniques.

2) The Postgraduate School at the Naval Academy created a game called CyberCIEGE “to teach computer and network security concepts”.

3) Peacemaker was designed by Carnegie-Mellon researchers to teach the Israel – Palestinian conflict via a game in which the player takes the role of either the Palestinian President or the Israeli Prime Minister and “wins” if they are able to “bring peace to the region before your term in office ends”.

4) INNOV8 from IBM is an online game “that gives both IT and business players a better understanding of how effective BPM [Business Process Management] impacts an entire business ecosystem”.

5) Climbing Everest is a game that you can get on several platforms, including as an iPad app. It teaches team-building skills by

There are games available for all platforms and levels, and do not think these are only for the professional fields. A search at the website for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) returns a number of hits about both video games as a topic but also as a learning tool for the humanities.

Pox1Here at Stockton we have two faculty who have taken a turn at being video game designers, Laura Zucconi and Lisa Rosner, who worked with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create Pox and the City, an interactive game on the history of medicine set in the 1800s. I am impressed by the game, especially in terms of the depth of the content. It also shows that not only can you use games created by others, but you may even try your hand at making them yourself. If you are interested in learning more topics related to technology in the humanities, why not register for the THATCamp Digital Pedagogy unconference being sponsored by the digital humanities center here at Stockton, run by Adelaine Koh? I am not sure how much space is left, but if you can get in , it promises to be worthwhile!

Improving online discussions

A few faculty have approached me with ideas for this blog – thank you! I am willing to take on any topics related to technology in teaching in which my colleagues have interest, so feel free to email me at harveyd@stockton.edu or catch me around campus.

online_discussion Recently I was asked about online discussions in BlackBoard, and how to improve student engagement in that format. This is always a tricky question, as the answer depends on the outcomes you want. I will start by saying I am not a fan of suggesting that students post a certain amount of times, as that tends to send the “discussion” into superficial realms, with posts that are essentially “I agree” dressed up with lots of superflous wording that restates “I agree”. That said, I do use that to at least let students know I expect them to not only weigh in but also that they will read each other’s posts.

As a follow up, I also think you need to understand that online “discussions” are not as similar to their face-to-face brethren as many believe. Dr. Jung Lee and I authored an article about a decade ago that touched on this, and one of the points we made was that even the icons for online “discussion” – things like pushpins and bulletin boards- conveyed the fact that in reality such activities did not really involve a de facto give and take discourse. These systems tend to support each person posting their own thoughts, but very little discussion takes place because everyone comes into the forum at different times and from different spaces.

So that is the challenge, how do you take a tool that is designed to be used independently by each student and use it to get those individuals to act like a community and discuss their thoughts and ideas? Here are some ways you can try to overcome that challenge:

1) Use small groups: The smaller the group, the more likely you will be able to promote true discussion, since everyone has to participate to make the group function. There is an interesting article on this from the ASCILITE 2002 conference that contrasts the value of small group vs. whole class discussion boards, and the findings from that project suggest that small groups lead to more sharing, while large groups provided more information. I would rephrase that to say that the smaller groups had quality posts, while the larger group had more quantity of posts.

2) Cast students in roles: Role playing has been used in certain disciplines, without technology, for some time. However, there may be value to focusing students for engagement with content by allowing them to take relevant perspectives for your field. This article from a Chinese study of online role-playing has some information that you may find useful.

3) Have students act as discussion facilitators: Some of the best learning happens when we get out of the way and students are put in roles that ask them to be responsible for their own learning. In online discussions this means making the students get their online discussions going and keep them going. Some studies show that this works best for graduate students, but it can also work for undergraduates if you are clear about expectations and model the process for them.

4) Have students categorize their posts: This can be tricky, but holds real promise if you are interested in working with ill-structured problem solving outcomes. Oh and Jonassen authored a study of scaffolding online discussions and found that students benefitted in most areas of the problem solving process when asked to categorize their posts first – for instance was the post focused on generating a hypothesis or providing supporting data. This method is not for the faint of heart, as it requires teaching students to make accurate categorizations, but I think it forces students to focus on the content of their posts, which is the key for good discussions.

5) Enforce the criteria for what makes a good discussion post: This seems straight forward but it is an important point – make it clear to students what it is you want from them in a post. There are lots of examples of online discussion rubrics, but I suggest you create your own based on what you feel makes for a good discussion in your field. Then make sure you apply it to grade posts or perhaps to a series of posts.

That last item brings me to another word of advice – if you don’t have the time (or an extra pair of eyes to help you) to grade each and every student posting, consider assessing students not on each post but on multiple posts. This example of a rubric for grading overall contribution to an online community focuses not on the content or structure of each post, but rather looks at the overall engagement of the student with the course forum. I’m personally partial to this because I find that when I focus students on say posting 3 times a week, I tend to spend all my time policing that they are posting, when what I truly care about is do they make valuable contributions when they post.

This article from a group of Florida State researchers does an excellent job of looking at a variety of the strategies I have listed, and comparing them – I suggest you check it out as you develop your own ideas. As always, feel free to contact me if you want to talk more about any of these strategies.




Flipping the Classroom

Flipping the Classroom: Simply Speaking

Thanks to my friends at Penn State for doing such a fine job of explaining flipped classrooms.

I have been hearing the term “flipping the classroom” thrown around more often at my college, so I decided to dig more into it. I am going to start by telling you not to keep reading, but go to the COETAIL Education Journey blog first – a fantastic post by Sanne Bloemarts who also shared the following graphic in a very cogent practical explanation of the term (I’ll wait while you read the blog…)


Welcome back! Flipping is not new – the idea began in the late 1990s based on the Peer Instruction work of Harvard’s Eric Mazur, and the Khan Academy videos which began in 2004 are a famous example. So why the sudden explosion of interest? The key is the ease of screencasting and video recording. Until recently, recording a lecture and adding things like slides,interactive whiteboard writings, notes, or websites you wanted to show as part of your content delivery was prohibitive. It would take:

1) having someone videotape the presentation, then

2) edit in the other materials which would also have to be digitized by scanning them or figuring out how to output them as video and

3) output the whole thing with a file size small enough to be streamed when

4) you finally posted it online

Honestly, who has time for that? Not many professors or teachers I know do not – the process simply can’t take so long or entail so many other people with specific expertise if we are going to see the benefits of using it in all but the largest classes.

Luckily, times have changed! Now I am able to use a simple tool such as Google Hangouts, Jing, Camtasia, or Screencastomatic.com and do the whole thing yourself in about an hour or two in front of your computer once you figure it out. This means that in a week you could get 5 or 6 class meetings worth of material recorded and posted easily, more if you really get cooking.

I admit it is a stretch to break out of our comfort zones and embrace this flipping of roles – not because of the technical side, but because it changes what you do in the classroom – it makes the classroom the space where what we used to consider the homework and study groups are done, and relies on the students to spend the out of class time learning their content. It puts a great deal more responsibility on the student to engage with the content before they show up, and what if they don’t come prepared? A legitimate question to ask.

However I’m more inclined to be concerned about students not participating in the discussions, activities and group work that is where they truly learn to apply material – and it makes engaging the content more important. I say that because nothing is more motivating than the grief you get from classmates and teachers when you don’t show up prepared! There is no way to hide that you have not done the  reading (and in this case viewing) as you can when you can sit through class not paying attention or being confused, then outside of class hide from your lack of knowledge and understanding by failing to do the out of class work away from the eyes of your instructor and just avoid your group members.

In the end the thing I like most about the flipped classroom is that if done correctly, it empowers the learner to learn, and that is the ultimate goal is it not?