Thursday, February 26, 2009

VoiceThread: What is it, and what is it good for?

Here's another paper that I wrote up for one of my GWU classes last week:

This software review will focus on a product called VoiceThread, a web-based offering that is described on its homepage as “a powerful new way to talk about and share your images, documents, and videos” (VoiceThread, 2009). This review fills a real-world need for assessment that was communicated to me by the second-grade teachers at an international school in China. It is important to note that the review did not in fact follow from a curriculum-driven process which would begin with identification of a need (in the context of a lesson or a unit of study) and be followed by a search and assessment of technologies that might fill or ameliorate the need. Instead, the VoiceThread product (for which the school had already paid for an institutional license) was offered to the second-grade teaching team as something that might be appropriate for use in their current unit of study called “Communications”. While one team member had been given a brief presentation on the technology at the beginning of the school year, she did not recall any of the details of what had been presented, and the teaching team had not developed for themselves an effective definition of what VoiceThread actually is. So they called on me for help.

What is it?
To allow the second-grade teaching team to determine whether usage of VoiceThread could be effectively incorporated into an already-in-progress Communications unit, I first had to establish a simple working definition of what VoiceThread is. Unfortunately, the product’s website seems to be intentionally reluctant to provide solid definitions. My guess is that the VoiceThread team wants to free people to invent their own uses for the technology unhindered by overly narrow preconceptions of what it is. So I began by obtaining a free account and browsing some VoiceThread presentations. To describe its elements in straightforward terms: The creator of a VoiceThread presentation posts an image or set of images (or video clips) to establish what resembles a Powerpoint slide show (although VoiceThread uses the term “page” instead of “slide”). The creator and other authorized participants then attach comments to some or all of the images, with a comment being in one of three formats: text, audio, or video. Once the comment is posted to an image, a small thumbnail representing the comment-maker appears next to the image. When a completed presentation is “played back”, all comments are automatically presented in the order of their creation, but the viewer is free to click on individual thumbnails to alter the play-back sequence, or to manually advance forward and backward through the pages of the presentation.

What is it good for? …conversations?
One possibility that immediately comes to mind is that VoiceThread might be a medium for conversations about a given image or set of images. In actuality though, VoiceThread only seems to allow for a single-threaded narrative, with each comment-maker “holding the floor” while their comment is presented. But there seems to be no real possibility for a structured give-and-take between two or more of the comment-makers. Certainly, looking at the screen-shot above, there is no possibility for a sub-thread (a separate conversation) to break out in an identifiable way between any two individuals represented by the thumbnails in the picture. So the prospect of VoiceThread’s effective use for hosting of ad hoc multi-party conversations is apparently quite limited.

What is it good for? …storytelling!!
At this point in my investigation, it seemed that VoiceThread’s potential for usefulness lay in the realm of “single-threaded narrative”. Googling about, I found a number of people who also identified this as a prospective use of VoiceThread, with one blog literally identifying VoiceThread’s main reason for existence as being to “support template-based digital storytelling” (Fryer, 2008). Yes, that was the answer – after all, what is a “single-threaded narrative”, if not “storytelling”?

Armed with this realization, I went back to the second-grade teaching team and reported to them that VoiceThread might be useful for single-user or collaborative storytelling. It turned out that the teaching team had been searching for ways to enhance the interactions between their second-graders and their “e-pals” at a South Carolina elementary school. The creation and intercontinental sharing of multimedia fictional or nonfictional narratives could challenge the reading, writing, sequencing, and oral presentation skills of the students within the context of the Communications unit.

Comparison of storytelling alternatives through prototyping
Now that the teaching team had confirmed that a storytelling solution might be of use to them, it was time to determine whether the product actually worked as advertised, and also to determine whether alternative storytelling solutions (already available to the school) might also be viable to use. I took some time to create three similar prototypes: one using Windows Movie Maker and YouTube, one using an alternative web-based product (available free of charge) called Flowgram, and one using VoiceThread. Using a few digital images from a recent weekend that my wife and I spent in Beijing, I constructed a brief narrative in all three storytelling environments.

The creation of the WMM/YouTube video and FlowGram presentation was accomplished without any substantial glitches, even though I had no prior experience with any of the technologies. The VoiceThread tools were no less straightforward, but I did experience recurring failures of parts of my video commentaries to be successfully recorded. As can be seen by viewing the VoiceThread prototype, there are several occasions in which the video portion of my commentary freezes up while the audio continues, and one occasion when they both freeze up. My best guess is that these failures are due to the limited upload bandwidth available to me from my home-office Internet connection.

[UPDATE March 2009: If you are viewing this from China, and the blocking of YouTube is still in effect, all you will see here is a gaping white space where an embedded YouTube video should be.]

[I had wanted to embed the Flowgram example here, but there are apparent problems, either with Flowgram's embedding technology itself, or my feeble use of it. I'll investigate as time permits and try to get things properly embedded. In the meantime, you can go to this link to see the Flowgram example.]

There is one decided advantage that puts the VoiceThread solution ahead of the other two storytelling technologies with which I worked. The others provide only for textual or audio commentary, but VoiceThread provides for “talking head” style video commentary. Not only does this feature of VoiceThread making it a more potent communication technology, it simply makes the whole product more enjoyable to work with. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, while I am recording a video commentary in VoiceThread, I can see my own image as it is being captured, and I noticed that this tangibly enhances the effusiveness with which I improvise a narration. Rather than just doing desultory recitations into a microphone, it felt a lot more like I was “putting on a show”. It would be interesting to see whether second-graders feel a similar positive effect.

I reported to the second-grade teachers that all three technologies are feasible for usage for a digital storytelling project, but that testing would need to be done with VoiceThread from the school’s computers to assure that video commentaries can be effectively recorded without the “freeze ups” that I had experienced. I personally recommended that they go with the video commentary option of VoiceThread if it proves technically feasible.

Couros, A. (2008). VoiceThread presentation: What Does the Network Mean To You? Retrieved February 21, 2009 from

Fryer, W. (2008). Personal blog, “Moving at the Speed of Creativity”, December 5, 2008 entry titled Voicethread supports template-based digital storytelling! Retrieved February 21, 2009 from

VoiceThread website homepage (2009). Retrieved February 21, 2009 from

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