Using VoiceThread to Engage Students In Discussions About Writing

When I walked into my first literature course at CSU Channel Islands in 2004, I remember being terrified. At the front of the classroom stood my professor, shuffling through the pages of our large Norton Anthology of Literature. I, like many of our students, was still trying to convince myself that I belonged in college. The first class went well and I began to ease into the ebb and flow of the early semester. Then, my first paper was assigned.

I want to say the essay was about Beowulf or maybe The Canterbury Tales, but the subject of the essay is not what’s important here. What is important was the, at the time, earth shattering news that my professor wanted us to come and talk about our writing with her. As in, face-to-face, one-on-one, discussion about our essays. I just wanted the red pen marks I was so accustomed to from high school. I wanted the paper screen between my professor and my questioning eyes; a buffer between my ideas and her assessment of them.

But we were to have a conversation.

That conversation was so helpful to the development of my writing, that I now require the same of all of my students in my first-year Composition courses. We actually talk about writing.

So, what does this have to with technology? Or non-English classes? Quite a bit, actually.

On the student side, I realize that having these face-to-face conversations isn’t always feasible for our students. Many of our students are working one (or more!) jobs, taking care of family, commuting on insane bus schedules, and facing other challenges that keep them from coming to our offices.

On a professor’s end, I realize that many professors feel that they don’t have the time to give feedback on their students’ writing. That taking home multiple papers and responding to them all is an extremely daunting task.

Enter VoiceThread.

I now use VoiceThread as a tool to give students feedback on their writing. VoiceThread satisfies both student and professor concerns. Students can upload their papers directly into VoiceThread slides, read the pages out loud (always a useful activity), and/or ask the professor questions through the video or voice comment features. For professors, VoiceThread then becomes not only a time-saver, but a useful tool for feedback. Leaving voice comments for a student or reading through their essay and answering their specific questions in a video comment can be done much more quickly than writing on a paper. Plus, I’m having that valuable conversation with my students. They can reply to my comments, ask for clarification, and end up turning in more effective final drafts (that become easier to grade/score!).

Of course, this tool can be used in online classes as a way to give distance-learning students more connection with their professors, but it can also be used in face-to-face classes. All of my courses this semester are face-to-face and I use VoiceThread regularly for this purpose and for peer review. Students can upload their drafts and respond to each other via video, voice, or text comment. Students have responded that it’s a wonderful way to receive feedback, have assessment be more transparent, and feel a better connection with their professor and classmates. Other students have commented how they would not have been able to receive the same feedback in office hours and were glad they had a technological tool that could foster communication and learning.

Do you not teach a writing intensive class? There are definitely ways that the tools within VoiceThread can be used to have conversations about topics, ideas, problem sets, or other activities in your class that those conversations can serve. We are challenged here at CI, in a good way, to place our students at the center of their educational experience. One way we can achieve this goal is to give our students access to their professors and classmates in ways that “catch” students who might normally drift to the sidelines or even disappear.

That first conversation about my writing changed my college trajectory for the next four years. That conversation is one of the many reasons it became my goal to come back and teach at the university that had given me so much. That first conversation began the path that led to graduate school, something I hadn’t even known was a possibility, and now we have the technological tools to get that conversation to even more students, students with perspectives and lives that the academy so desperately needs.