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Using new technology to extend the virtual classroom

UCL SSEES explains how new technology has increased contact time outside the classroom, enabled learning to be more accessible, and improved students’ confidence.

16 May 2018

Faced with limited classroom time and cohorts with widely varying language skills levels, Maria Sibiryakova, Senior Teaching Fellow in Russian (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies - SSEES), turned to a new multimedia platform that ‘truly revolutionised the teacher-student experience and interaction outside of classroom environment’. We spoke to her about her experiences.

"Voicethread is an asynchronous multimedia platform that can be used in a variety of ways. One of its main features is that it allows users to create and share a ‘thread’. 

The thread could contain, for example, a document to be discussed, a link to watch a video or listen to an audio recording, or a PowerPoint Presentation. It allows you to selectively invite people to view the thread and discuss it using a voice recording, a dashboard (where they can type a message) or a video message: all using inbuilt features on the platform. Voicethread also has a doodling feature which allows you to highlight interesting areas on a document.

Although existing platforms used by UCL, such as Moodle and Turnitin, allow you to leave feedback on students’ work or upload documents, what makes Voicethread attractive is that you can find and use all of the above described features in one place that can be easily accessed in multiple ways, including via your phone.

Enabling discussion outside the classroom where feedback can be provided

The Voicethread platform enables everyone to engage in a discussion by leaving public comments and private comments to individual participants. If you publish a thread, you can moderate the comments, controlling the release of public comments, which can be quite handy when conducting any assessments using the platform.

The platform allows the teacher (and also students) to leave private feedback using either audio recording or text. This feature allowed me to provide prompt, private and personalised language feedback to individual students. The asynchronous feature of the platform has truly revolutionised the teacher-student experience and interaction outside the classroom environment as it has allowed us to interact with each other in a very flexible but fulfilling way.

The development of speaking and listening skills is challenging to develop within the classroom environment as the contact hours are often very limited. It is also difficult to work on your speaking skills on your own, without a partner. Two years in a row my students indicated in feedback that they would prefer more speaking practice. Increasing the amount of speaking practice is always desirable, yet we cannot spend the whole two hours of a four-skill-based class practicing only speaking. 

I could have suggested that they pair up with a partner and meet for an hour of language practice outside of the classroom. However, this option posed a lot of difficulties in terms of schedules, commitments and language ability levels. It was also quite risky as neither the students nor I would have any indication as to how well they were doing in their paired speaking practice. At this level of learning it is very important not to develop speaking skills with embedded mistakes as they are the hardest to correct or eliminate once the skills are developed. 

Using Voicethread I was able to allow my students to work on their speaking and listening skills outside the classroom in a controlled environment with guidance and feedback from me, but without the need to synchronise already busy schedules.  

Improving accessibility for all learners

The platform is user friendly and straightforward and can be used in any classroom. You can also download a free phone application which makes things a lot easier and much more accessible. 

As students get to think and prepare their responses in their own time using Voicethread, it's ideal for encouraging engagement with students who:

  • lack confidence speaking up in front of others;
  • are not native English speakers and struggle to speak in class; or
  • have specific learning difficulties (SpLD) such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. With these learners, repetition, reminders and more time are key, and the asynchronous interactive nature of the platform allows you to address these issues. 

It also allows to equally engage different styles of learners: visual, acoustic, kinaesthetic etc. 

Dr Mira Vogel, Digital Education, commented:

“Maria created a less pressurised environment for students to practice speaking and listening, and extended valuable opportunities beyond the timetabled sessions. Some students are happier not being recorded, but recognise the benefits of being able to play back the recordings and assess their own speech. Others who are less comfortable speaking spontaneously in front of others can now practise their composition until they are happy, and then submit their best work.”

More than just voices: other applications of Voicethread

Although my use of Voicethread was primarily related to the audio benefits, there are many other ways it can be of use. Voicethread can be used in any classroom, as well as to organise research focus groups, to conduct discussions, for online learning etc. It is not limited only to language teaching and learning.

It can also be used, for example:

  • to address issues or work on skills where there is not enough time in the classroom, especially with the tasks or skills where students need guidance, assistance and feedback; where students come from diverse academic backgrounds and strengths and weaknesses of a cohort vary. Voicethread allows you to address specific issues in a prompt, personalised and private manner;
  • in situations where students feel embarrassed if they are corrected in public. This can affect their ability to speak out in future. Often corrections have to wait for office hours, where it is difficult to remember what each student needed correcting due to time delays.

How I have used it to teach a language

Contact hours with students in the classroom on my MA Intermediate Plus Russian were quite limited (2 hours once a week) and every student needed personalised feedback and support due to their varied language levels and backgrounds. The use of Voicethread allowed me to establish a regular speaking routine outside the classroom were students could work on their language skills in a controlled environment. 

I could also provide near immediate language feedback and encourage them to speak more accurately. Being present as the subject expert while students interacted using the platform also meant that prompt feedback and correction prevented students from developing speaking skills with embedded mistakes, as can sometimes happen when students interact together without supervision.

I created several assignments to enhance and develop speaking skills outside the classroom environment, some examples of the tasks I set them are:

  • discuss a text and answer set questions; 
  • analyse and interpret a poem; 
  • read a poem out loud while paying attention to pronunciation and word-stress; 
  • listen to a lecture/podcast or watch a video clip and provide their opinions on various issues/topics; 
  • analyse the lyrics of the national anthems of the USSR and the Russian Federation and provide their interpretation how the lyrics fit in with past and present political events. 

The students were also divided into groups of three or four and tasked with discussing set issues or topics. These discussions were recorded onto the Voicethread platform for other groups and individuals to listen to. After listening to a discussion, students were encouraged to leave comments about the points raised. 

One of Maria’s Masters students commented:

“…with Masters students it’s hard to have more hours dedicated to one module. Voicethread felt like a good way to keep in touch, despite our different timetables. For me, it was an extra meeting but not in person – it felt like an extra class. You get inside it, you hear other people’s opinions. It was more realistic than just doing the homework.”

Maria’s advice to first-time Voicethread users

  1. Create materials and activities in advance. It can be quite overwhelming if you do it when the Term is running.  It can be time-consuming to design activities initially, but using (and re-using) them is not, and is worth the investment at the start.
  2. Although registering and using the platform is free, ask your department if they are willing to provide you with the Personal Tutor paid-for license. This allows you to create more threads and engage a higher number of participants than a free account.
  3. Write clear instructions to students and let them know your expectations and rules and state clearly what goals you are trying to achieve by using Voicethread. Some students can be embarrassed about hearing their own voice, or commenting on others, so clear guidelines about expectations helps overcome this.

A screenshot of an assignment on Voicethread