July 23, 2024

Stop the VoiceThread! Please!

Wes Fryer spends a great deal of time and effort on his blog and in workshops touting VoiceThread as an important new educational tool. VoiceThread (and similar products) may in fact be interesting technical achievements, but a heathy dose of candor and critical reflection is needed.

I know that if I dare criticize Wes’ examples I’ll be called a big meanie and told that the examples presented are just quick vignettes not intended to be exemplars. However, lots of educators are being led to believe that such web-based software tools represent sophisticated practice and new learning opportunities. Such a conclusion would be wrong.

The VoiceThread examples I have seen are little more than digital book reports with images not owned or created by the student (author) and with narrations suffering from too little planning and editing. The audience for such “productions” eludes me.

Some of these multimedia collages are about as entertaining as a slideshow of someone else’s vacation photos.

In case you think I’m wrong, too harsh or making a rash judgement, please watch and listen to the VoiceThread video here.

I have been disappointed by how hard it is to engage the educational blogosphere in issues of social justice and civil rights as demonstrated in the following recent blogs:

Twittering While America Burns
The State of Race Relations
I’m Worried About America
Oh! The Humanity!
What’s the Difference Between School and Prison?
Observations from the NSBA Conference…

In this blog, Wes Fryer shares a VoiceThread project he created about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Dream” speech.

It is unclear as to whether the voices you hear are a mixture of students and teachers or just teachers alone. (there are no credits) The “educational objective” of the activity seem to have to do with evaluating audio quality more than understanding Dr. King. However, the enormity of Dr. King’s contributions and sacrifice deserve more than a soundcheck.

The following are some questions and observations that arise from the King VoiceThread video published by Wes Fryer:

Did the students (or their teachers) listen to the entire March on Washington speech? (few classrooms ever do) Did they discuss the purpose of the 1963 speech or read the speeches of others present that day?

Did they consider (re: READ) other work by King or his contemporaries?

Do the students (or their teachers) think that the nation healed immediately after that speech?

Do the students (or their teachers) know that the Supreme Court just made voluntary school desegregation illegal?

One speaker says something like, “one speech by one man with one dream change everyone’s life even if you don’t think about it?” This is the filibuster of an unprepared student and then you used your platform to share such nonsense with the world.

Why should we be impressed by a web-based slideshow of what kids or teachers) think/feel/believe based on exposure to a few sentences uttered by a prolific political leader? This dangerously equates the teacher who rambles on about how American life is consumed by the “almighty dollar” with the Nobel Laureate. This is a display of egocentrism, narcissism and ignorance.

If the VoiceThread I watched and listened to is just an early draft, then why publish it? Respect your audience by keeping drafts private. Can someone please point me to the good VoiceThreads?

I wrote about the miseducative way in which Dr. King is taught in “If You Really Want to Honor Dr. King…” I hope some of you will read this article and “The Truth Shall Set You Free!

11 thoughts on “Stop the VoiceThread! Please!

  1. Gary, I agree with your contention that folks are spending a lot of time being excited about VoiceThread.

    Being able to publish text, images, and sound to a global audience is intoxicating. It is fantastic that folks from around the world can communicate by leaving the equivalent of multimedia post-it notes on a presentation.

    For children–and teachers–unfamiliar to communicating with anyone outside their classroom, a reality you must admit is all too prevalent, “first contact” is a heady experience and worthy of celebration.

    Jumping up and down celebrating it does wear on those of us who have been out here, and are participating. But for those who are just learning that technology can extend communication and collaboration, learning beyond the classroom walls, first contact is a critical first step.

    If VoiceThread activities never move beyond the initial introductory presentations you refer to, well, then, you’re right. But everyone starts at somewhere, and when everyone means people who have been locked in their classrooms around the world…

    I would expect more of those presentations. We need more highlighting of what constitutes awesome presentations. Better, why don’t you contribute quality VoiceThreads so that we can all see how to better communicate with the language of images and sound?


    If I’d had more time, this would have been a much shorter comment.

    Take care and keep up the great work,

    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the Corner-MGuhlin.net

  2. Gary,

    As someone who spent nineteen years as a community organizer before becoming a public school teacher four years ago, I, too, am all for encouraging people to become more engaged in social justice issues.

    I guess I just have very low expectations about the role technology can have in achieving that engagement. So I have a hard time getting too concerned about the VoiceThread example. I don’t think its any more shallow than the vast majority of ways most people recognize King’s work.

    As a high school ESL teacher, though, I have to say that, in my opinion at least, VoiceThread is an excellent tool for English Language Learners.

    Once we get it unblocked in our Distict, which I hope will be soon, students will be able to make slideshows about numerous topics (including their own family), have an excellent opportunity to practice their speaking skills and listen to themselves and, most importantly, since we provide home computers and DSL service to immigrant households, their whole families will be able to help learn English from materials their children have created. In addition, it will be a tool that students in my Government class and those in our sister classes throughout the world can share information about the role of government in each country and how people in each community make social change.

    Larry Ferlazzo

  3. Hi Gary,
    I like what some math teachers are doing with VoiceThread. They are using it to assess their students’ ability to communicate math concepts. Students work through various math problems with drawings and verbal explanations of their problem solving steps. An advantage to using VoiceThread is that other students can contribute their own unique problem solving methods. Students can then see there are many different ways to approach a math problem. In my experience, students have also shown greater interest in understanding math concepts when they know they will be sharing their knowledge with others.
    Some examples:

    Looking forward to your Educon sessions. I’m a big fan of LOGO and Papert’s work.

  4. Gary,

    If all we use voicethread for is a newer version of the “death by power point” then we are guilty of adding to the amount of inadequate content that proliferates the web as it is. The goal for me is to get to the critical thinking, connections and engagement. However, I have to start somewhere with the students. My first try at voicethread was nothing more than kids creating a verbal action plan for themselves by setting goals. Why publish it? First, to encourage and motivate kids by having an audience beyond our classroom walls. Second, so that the kids in the class could benefit from all of the comments provided. This first try was not a voice thread that kids made but a voice thread kids commented on.

    My plan for our second attempt at voice thread is going to be producing different voice threads to showcase the books they are reading for independent reading. In some cases, students have chosen to read the same book and they will collaborate on the creation of the voice thread. I will provide my students with guidelines for the voice thread to scaffold their use of critical thinking skills within their product and hopefully guide them in making connections. Since we will be participating in a collaborative book talk project, I am hopeful that kids from around the world that have read the book also will comment. Collaborating on books, talking about books are all great uses in my opinion of the tool. I believe that to be adding to the amount of positive content on the web.


    Julia Osteen
    blog: http://reflectionsfromthetrenches.blogspot.com/

  5. Definitely lack of editing and planning are the big drawbacks of the easy to use tools of digital storytelling. (I know you hate that term but it stands as a marker if nothing else).

    I think we need to begin to categorize our work in different modes: draft, collaborative and perhaps published. I don’t see a problem with publishing this but yes, it needs to be explicitly posted for what is; a class discussion, reflection and not an exemplar.

    As I’ve noted many times on my own spaces, good work in this genre takes time, more time than most teachers are willing to invest and so often settling for quick, easy productions satisfy their need to incorporate multimedia and yet do nothing more than engage students a little more than traditional, non-digital tools…maybe.

    Not sure how to accomplish this because I do think that tools like VoiceThread can be used effectively and powerfully. We just need to be explicit in what constitutues, powerful, rigorous, meaningful work.

  6. This posting comes to me at a moment of what Carl Jung called Synchronicity. I am currently exploring free or inexpensive tools which will allow educators to re-purpose a commonly used media (PowerPoint) as a springboard for increased student engagement and conversation. I am also considering how the traditional “push” of information may be transformed into the starting point for two-way asynchronous exchange of ideas. My goal is not to focus on the individual technologies, but what the technologies can offer as a means for enhanced communication and learning to occur in a communal environment.

    The use of any media and related technologies has always been and will always be a challenge. Not everyone is an artist or a media professional. PowerPoint is a prime example as comedian Don McMillan so hilariously exemplifies in his presentation on Death by PowerPoint. Taking bad PowerPoint presentations (or any other productions) to a new media format such as a VoiceThread or YouTube video will do little to improve anything. However, condemning PowerPoint, VoiceThreads or any specific media is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The issue here may not be the media or lack of production skills, but the context and intent of the collaboration. On the issue of many VoiceThreads, our view and critique may frequently be misguided. As I look for “good” examples of VoiceThreads, I am beginning to view them as the thread of an ongoing conversation that was created by and for a specific community, but which has been shared as open publication. Perhaps the intent is not to be a polished product but an opportunity to learn through dialog in order to produce more informed and polished works at some later date.

    William “Bud” Deihl

  7. Gary,
    Many are just starting with web 2.0 technologies and VoiceThread. Wesley’s VoiceThread you referenced did appear to be an off-the-cuff recording of the kids’ and apparently a few teachers’ views on Dr. King.

    I do have a few other “just starting” situations to consider.
    -> My youngest son (5th grade) asked me to review his book report. It appeared to be written at the fifth grade level. I told him it looked fine to me. I don't expect him to write at an adult level.
    -> Near the end of chapter 4 of Mindstorms, Papert tells us about a girl named Deborah. When first taught Logo, she was very dependent on her instructor until she decided to restrict her personal microworld of turns to “right 30” for several weeks. Given this Logo “lite”, she was able to investigate and learn independently. If I inferred correctly, Papert did not see this as a deficiency to be edited out, but as a strength.
    -> Compared to your blog and Wesley’s, my blog is weak and poorly written. Perhaps, I should not be publishing it until I’ve gotten better at blogging.

    I certainly agree that doing poor work with web 2.0 tools has no more merit than doing poor work on paper. However, one of the beliefs of the web 2.0 proponents is that writing / publishing for a global audience provides students with intrinsic motivation that help them perform better – a goal I think we can all agree on. Whether the belief is true or not, I can’t say.

    I noticed that few of your commenters have actually pointed to a VoiceThread that they thought was very good. I haven’t looked at many VoiceThreads, but this one on Second Life at the K12Online conference http://voicethread.com/#q.b8878.i69787 appears to be a good example of its capability.

  8. Yes Gary,

    I think you are so RIGHT. If teachers and or kids can not use web 2.0 tools without complete accuracy and deep levels of study and commitment to each and every topic, then they should go back to worksheets and save the engaging tools for the masters… like you! I expect that you will be publishing many new Voicethreads enlightening us all … I look forward to it!

    I also believe that Wes has no business being out there in the trenches showing teachers “snipits” that might engage students, if he is not going to fix education, teaching methods, and student knowledge levels… he should stay home and blog about it!

    I love bashing blogs and I happy to see that you do too!

  9. I really like voicethread as a teaching tool and like any teaching tool, it is all in how you use it. I think it is great to use with special ed students. They can show understanding of concepts by doing a voicethread. They can also be taught social skills this way. By looking at a possible situation, they can explain the appropriate way to behave, or give a verbal response that is appropriate. I would be happy if I could get any teachers to start using it and once they have the experience, they can adapt it better for their class needs.

  10. Thanks for breaking from the web 2.0 fanboys (and girls), Gary. We teachers in the edublogosphere can get pretty echoy.

    Good points, Dean. It seems that multimedia publishing relies heavily on the tried-and-true writing process.

    We can use web 2.0 to create and collaborate all we want, but ultimately the quality of an individual project rests in the author’s (or multiple authors’) ability to plan, write, edit and publish.

    This need for effective, efficient writing process will become increasingly apparent as more teachers incorporate multimedia and web 2.0 publishing in their classes.

    That said, I have to ask: What quality of publishing should I expect from my 11 and 12 year-olds? Who decides if their work is “good enough” for their developmental level? Can we establish a single baseline of quality for all the students at any age/grade/developmental level?

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