Tracy Bartel, Chatham University
As a Technology Fellow at Chatham University, I am charged with solving pedagogical problems through the use of technology tools. Selecting the right tool to solve a pedagogical problem can often be overwhelming with the unlimited choices available (both free and paid). With a limited amount of department funding available and in order to save students additional technology fees, I focused on finding a free tool to increase online student engagement. As an online instructor, I struggle with student engagement in the virtual world. Specifically, how do I engage the students in learning if they only compose papers and respond to forum discussions in writing? I was particularly interested in replicating the educational benefits of in-class discussions and lectures. With in-class discussions and lectures students not only gain knowledge and strengthen their communication skills, but they can also gain an appreciation for a perspective that may be different from their own. After trying several different tools to simulate these educational benefits, I chose VoiceThread to simulate in-class discussions and Panopto to simulate in-class lectures.
In order to try to replicate the experiences of in-class discussions in my online teaching, I selected VoiceThread, a web-based application that facilitates asynchronous collaboration. As a Technology Fellow, I explored many different tools that would potentially address this pedagogical need, but VoiceThread seemed the most user-friendly for students of varying technological abilities. Using VoiceThread, students can engage in online forum discussions using different response methods such as by microphone, webcam, text, phone, and audio-file upload. Also, instructors have the option of presenting the topic for discussion to the students in several different formats, including documents, images, audio files, and videos.
This tool was piloted in my introductory education course with undergraduate students. I used a rubric (see below) to grade their VoiceThread responses in five categories: respect for classmate’s opinion, information, use of facts/statistics, understanding of the topic, and peer response discussion. It should be noted that this rubric was created using another free technology tool, Rubistar. The combination of the VoiceThread tool and the grading rubric assisted in refining the students’ skills in giving and receiving constructive feedback, which is an essential skill for future teachers. This was apparent when I saw an increase in the students’ rubric scores in all five categories, implying that there was also an increase in their abilities to give and receive constructive feedback. In comparison with my prior use of “text only” forum discussions in Moodle, I found student scores were higher using VoiceThread. I now use this as a tool in all my online, hybrid, and “on the ground” courses. Below is a sample assignment using VoiceThread.
The VoiceThread Forum Discussions are based on a pre-determined topic from the chapter(s) read for that week. Students provide their opinion on the issue using VoiceThread and respond to at least one peer’s post. For example, one of the topics that we have discussed in my introductory education course with undergraduate students is whether a teacher centered instructional approach is more effective over a student centered one. Below is an image of a student’s initial written response to the topic using VoiceThread. While I gave each student the option of how they respond (microphone, webcam, text, phone, and audio-file upload) this particular student was more comfortable making her initial response and her response to a peer using text only. The reason why I gave students the option of which way to respond was that I wanted them to feel comfortable using the technology tool and feel that they have some level of control.
By using the rubric (see above), I graded the student’s initial response based on if they were clear in presenting the information, use of facts/statistics and understanding of the topic. To further guide the format of student responses, they were given a list of “tips to post.” For example, avoid postings that are limited to ‘I agree’ or ‘great idea’, etc. If they agree (or disagree) with a posting then then they need to say why they agree by supporting their statement with concepts from the readings or by bringing in a related example or experience. If they do use statements from the readings, then I encourage them to use page numbers so that both their peers and I can reference the context in which the statement was taken from more easily.
The image below is the same student responding to a peer’s post. In the “tips to post” I encourage students use proper etiquette in responding to a peer’s post. In the image below the student directly names the student they are responding to and respectfully states why they agree or disagree with what has been said. Often students will create long threads of discussion just based upon the post of one student.
To replicate the experience of in-class lectures, I chose the video platform Panopto. Instructors can use a webcam to record their image in sync with PowerPoint lectures or use audio files to discuss a document that is displayed on the desktop.
I use Panopto primarily in my online courses to record lectures and review the course syllabus at the beginning of the semester. For my hybrid and “on the ground” courses, I have found this tool to be beneficial when I cannot make it to class due to an illness, inclement weather, or attendance at a conference. It can also help my students present their work. In one particular instance, a group of students was unable to present on the assigned day because one of their members needed to participate in a rescheduled athletic event. The solution we came up with was that the group members would come to my office a few days beforehand, record their presentation using my Panopto account, and upload the presentation to the Moodle course shell. On their assigned presentation day, the class was able to view the group’s presentation and give feedback by viewing the recorded presentation. For this assignment, all students gave and received feedback on their presentations through a “text only” forum discussion on our collaborative learning platform (Moodle).
One of the challenges of this tool is the ability level required to use it. I found that both undergraduate and graduate students in my courses experienced great frustration in recording, editing, and uploading with Panopto. After offering written and video tutorial on how to use Panopto and even the assistance from the Informational Technology staff over the course of several semesters, I decided I would no longer require students to use this tool to submit online presentations. However, as indicated in the example above, I still use it with students in similar circumstances. I am in the process of exploring other tools that students of varying degrees of technological ability can use for online presentations.
A pedagogical challenge that I have discovered in recording lectures for online use is that even when I record the lectures it does not guarantee that the students will watch them. In an attempt to remedy this pedagogical challenge, I now require students to view all of the Panopto lectures before taking online quizzes on Moodle. Depending upon which version of Moodle is being used, Moodle can be programmed to automatically prevent students from taking the quiz unless they have viewed the specified lectures.
An additional incentive to view all of the recorded lectures is to embed a weekly assignment within the video. This weekly assignment would require each student to discuss a topic from the video lecture with their “assignment buddy” via email, in person or over the phone. To ensure that this assignment is being done, I randomly follow up with the “assignment buddy” pairs to see how their discussion has gone that week. These “assignment buddy” pairs are randomly selected. Since this is an online course, this is another technique to stimulate discussion in addition to using VoiceThread. The teaching technique of “assignment buddies” paired with Panopto has increased student engagement and the application of course material in an entirely online course.
Overall, I think that VoiceThread and Panopto have inspired more student engagement in my online, hybrid, and “on the ground” courses. However, these technology tools have their benefits and drawbacks. VoiceThread has the benefit of giving students the time to think about their responses with the asynchronous format. However, it lacks the synchronous nature of “on the ground” courses. This skill is essential is for pre-service teachers who need to think on their feet as students in their “on the ground” classrooms are often unpredictable. Panopto has the benefit to students who need to rewatch, pause, or rewind the video for whatever reason. In the “on the ground” version of a lecture, they do not have the option to pause the lecture. In a student’s haste to take down everything that a faculty member has said, written or is contained on a the slides, they may miss vital concepts and theories. However, a drawback to Panopto tool is that students cannot ask questions about the chapter in “real time,” but would have to contact the instructor for clarification. At this point I do not think that my online courses entirely replicate the educational benefits of in-class discussions and lectures, so I am always on the lookout to bring my online courses closer to the “on the ground” experiences.
About the Author
Dr. Tracy Bartel, Assistant Professor and Technology Fellow in the Department of Education at Chatham University, teaches a variety of courses online, on-the-ground and hybrid classroom formats. She has recently co-designed a fully online undergraduate degree (Infant Toddler Development) at Chatham for early childhood professionals who have a desire to complete their degrees while still working full time.