VoiceThread for collaborative learning and teaching

I read this review article today on Educ@conTIC (Spanish only) about a web-based service for creating collaborative, multimedia conversations. VoiceThread is "a powerful new way to talk about and share your images, documents, and videos".
With VoiceThread, group conversations are collected and shared in one place from anywhere in the world. All with no software to install.

A VoiceThread is a collaborative, multimedia slide show that holds images, documents, and videos and allows people to navigate pages and leave comments in 5 ways - using voice (with a mic or telephone), text, audio file, or video (via a webcam). Share a VoiceThread with friends, students, and colleagues for them to record comments too.

Users can doodle while commenting, use multiple identities, and pick which comments are shown through moderation. VoiceThreads can even be embedded to show and receive comments on other websites and exported to MP3 players or DVDs to play as archival movies.

Aimed at all levels of learning and types of educational environments, it was ranked 18 in the recently published Top 100 Tools for Learning 2009 ahead of Gmail, Wikipedia, Diigo, Keynote, Dropbox and Scribd.

I've had a brief look around the site and it is fairly easy to navigate as well as surprisingly fast in loading the page elements (@2.5MB/sec, WinXP, Firefox 3).

The steps for getting a VoiceThread up and running are straightforward: Simply sign up/register, click on "create" and upload the image, document or multimedia you wish to include in the interactive slideshow, repeating the process for as many slides as you like. It also supports importing content from Facebook and Flickr. Once the slideshow has been created, selecting "Publishing Options" will provide a number of ways to customize accessibility (private, public, invitation only) and comment moderation. Once you save the changes, a unique URL is generated so you that can share and/or embed the final product. There is no software to install and all the editing and viewing take place directly in the browser window.

After some minutes of examination, I'm not overwhelmed by the diversity of publicly available slideshows, but once comments have been added and interactivity becomes evident, the benefits of VoiceThread are much clearer. Its main potential is for creating streamlined, easy-to-view, shareable, interactive pages to evaluate or compare specific documents, texts, images or videos. What makes VoiceThread interesting are the ways in which users can interact with the media. Comments can be added by voice (microphone or telephone), text, webcam or MP3/WAV file upload. New comments are automatically stacked around the sides of the main slideshow item, displaying user icons which viewers can click on to hear/read the comments. It is also possible to doodle on the displayed image while recording the comment to illustrate specific points or thought processes. (Phone-in comments are restricted to domestic US origination only, rendering them useless in Europe at the moment). In essence, the comment functions combine typical slideshows and text input with doodle/tagging (as on Flickr, whiteboard), video response (as on YouTube) and voice recording.

The slight catch is that there are limits to free accounts, so although each VoiceThread can host up to 50 slides, you are only allowed 3 VoiceTreads per account. There are also time limits to comments, only 75MB file storage and a measly 25MB file size limit. Archiving, audio comments, creating and managing groups are all restricted to paid Pro accounts, as well as the facility to export a VoiceThread and all its related media (comments, doodles, etc) for playing and storing offline or on external displays, TVs, DVD players, phones, etc. VoiceThread Pro accounts include 30 exports as part of the package. More on pricing and comparisons here and here for Higher Education accounts.

Probably the two most significant ways I can see using this tool in learning and teaching are by allowing students to create their own interactive presentations aimed at an academic community of their teachers and peers, and for hosting e-seminars, book/article reviews or analyses where the comments can be archived to supplement other full-text websites or transcripts of events. Of course, the slideshows can also be embedded on other pages, such as personal blogs or, for instance, the OAC. There are a few anthropology-related VoiceThreads publicly available on the site, but all with limited audio and few comments, leaving plenty of room to host more content in this field.

My interest in VoiceThread largely comes from the potential for improving learning/teaching in terms of interactive class assignments and "social learning". Here are two of the best examples I've seen on the site so far: Teachers discussing Web 2.0 and "What does the network mean to you?"

Have experience using VoiceThread? How does it compare to other online collaboration services?

You can find VoiceThread tutorials here and here.


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