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

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Is a new flavor of social constructivism coming? (Or is it already here?)

Here's a paper I wrote up last week in one of my GWU courses...

It is useful that this week’s discussions opened with a “nuts and bolts” focus on a taxonomy of educational computing. The taxonomy proposed by Taylor (1980), and expanded upon by Knezek, Rachlin, and Scanell (1988), offers a practical set of “buckets” into which to categorize educational computing solutions: tutor, tool, tutee, and telecommunication. When dealing with a broad array of technological solutions, it is vital to have a simple means of mentally organizing them, so that when it comes time to engage with an institution’s teachers to investigate technology integration options, the tools are readily retrievable.

But beyond the utility of a taxonomy in helping me to organize my “tool box” of technologies, I question its role in shaping my overall philosophy of educational computing. For philosophical questions, I continue to look to “old standards”, such as behavioralism and constructivism, to inform and shape my personal ideologies. At this point in my (relatively new) teaching career, I am most drawn to social-constructivist concepts, and find myself superimposing them upon this semester’s technologically-oriented conversations. However, I begin to question whether some aspects of the 21st century landscape might require an expansion beyond “old school” thinking, leading me to my central question: Will the rapidly-evolving nature of networked computing technology force an evolution and expansion of the educational philosophy of social constructivism?

The two classic pillars of social constructivism are those erected by Piaget and Vygotsky. While both saw a socially-based co-construction of knowledge as being the center-point of the learning process, Piaget favored peer-to-peer learning, whereas Vygotsky thought that the most powerful co-constructions take place when a less-experienced person interacts with a person with greater expertise (Woolfolk, 2008).

From the standpoint of these two classical theorists, it is clear that Internet-based social-networking technologies that have risen to the fore over the last few years offer powerful new platforms for both Piagetian peer-to-peer co-constructive learning and Vygotskyesque neophyte-to-expert co-constructions. As Larry Lessig said in a recent interview (2008), Web 2.0 technologies are making the Internet into an increasingly “read/write” medium, in which learners not only receive information, but they synthesize it, transform it, and then inject new knowledge back into the Internet – social constructivism on steroids.

Against this shifting socio-technological landscape, I hold up my personally synthesized version of Stager’s (2008) triangular paradigm of educational computing, in which I bring Piaget and Vygotsky clearly into the picture, each of them associated with one corner of the triangle. The big question mark for me lies in the third corner of the triangle, the corner associated with the ideas of Alfred Bork, who saw the potential for computers to replace teachers. While the present “read/write” Web 2.0 world (of social-networking sites, blogs, wikis, etc.) seems to be bringing Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s ideas to vivid new life, I intend to keep a lookout for areas in which the computer (or the computer network) itself takes up a more potently central role in the co-construction of knowledge. The network currently plays an obvious supporting role in modern social constructivist processes. Will there be a point in the not-too-distant future when I as a learner will consider my computer itself (or the networks to which it gives me access) to constitute a fully-fledged partner in the co-construction of knowledge, in a peer-to-peer, or even student-teacher relationship? Or has that point already arrived, and I am simply not yet fully aware of it?


Knezek, G. & others (1988, January 1). A Taxonomy for Educational Computing. Educational Technology, 28(3), 15-19.

Lessig L. (2008, November). Interview with Charlie Rose. Retrieved, February 13, 2009 from

Stager, G. (2008). What’s a computer for? It all depends on your educational philosophy. Retrieved February 12, 2009 from

Taylor, R. P. (1980). The computer in the school: Tutor, tool, tutee. New York: Teachers College Press.

Woolfolk, Anita (2008). Educational Psychology. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Piaget = Scientist?

Before proceeding, let me first say that I have high regard for the work of Jean Piaget, who, along with Lev Vygotsky, laid the groundwork of social constructivism. In fact, I probably cite their work to an obnoxious extent in my academic writings. However, I think it reasonable and healthy to question the extent to which their work should be regarded as scientific, in the strictest sense. If we draw a firm distinction between social science and the "harder" natural (or physical) sciences, then we can take social scientific research (such as Piaget's) for what it is truly worth. Social science does not tend to lend itself to strict application of the scientific method, as the following excerpt from a recent child study of mine anecdotally confirms.

My study focused on a second-grader, referred to in the study by the pseudonym "LD". I had the opportunity to replicate some of Piaget’s original experiments that he did in Switzerland almost a century ago. Note particularly my reflections on whether or not I was engaged in “scientific” research:

One of the most fundamental tenets of Piaget’s theory holds that a child of LD’s age should be somewhere near the end of their “preoperational stage” or the beginning of their “concrete operational” stage of development (Phillips, 1981; Woolfolk, 2008). To directly test this theory, I had the opportunity to perform some of Piaget’s original experiments with LD and some of his classmates, and I took the liberty of characterizing it all as a game called “Perspective Detective”.

[I then devote several paragraphs to describing the three Piagetian experiments that I engaged in with the students, ending the section with the following assessment.]

I honestly was not sure what insights, if any, would come out of performing these Piaget experiments, but I did gain at least a couple. The first is that these experiments, while potentially useful for anecdotal observations regarding individual children, are in no way, shape, or form scientific. Any hope of maintaining appropriate experimental control, dependent, or independent variables required by a valid scientific experiment goes flying right out the window the moment a second grader walks into the room, asking questions, poking, prodding, and usurping the proper orders and protocols prescribed by the would-be experiment. Perhaps all of Piaget’s subjects were proper little Swiss tykes who colored inside the lines, but LD and his classmates would absolutely not fall into line. Each instead made their own variation on the theme of the exercise in an interesting way…

References cited in the above child-study excerpt:

Phillips, J. (1981). Piaget’s Theory: A Primer. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company.
Woolfolk, Anita (2008). Educational Psychology. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

What am I doing (now)?

I have left behind a quite profitable and once-fulfilling career in the data integration niche of the computer industry: designing, developing, supporting, team-managing, marketing, training, documenting, and tutoring. But the nature of entrepreneurial software development is that you run the risk of some of your best work never effectively making its way onto the market. I was fortunate, in that some of my work did find a useful place in the world, but some of it did not. And as the years continued to tick by (here I am, pushing fifty!), I was less and less willing to accept that whole years of my life’s efforts might be wasted in very creative but ultimately unproductive work.

What then, to do? To cut right to the chase, I dropped everything and in the summer of 2008 began the pursuit of teaching certification, with the intent of joining my wife as a teacher in the international school network. This would be work that would demand much of me, but that would provide me a much closer-to-immediate feedback regarding the usefulness of my actions.

This new direction has its own frustrations. The biggest is that I will not have my teaching certification until the summer of 2010 at the earliest. To partially offset my impatience, I’m doing my certification field-work, along with volunteer and substitute teaching work, at the international school at which my wife teaches.

But the stew still wasn’t spicy enough, so I added something new to the mix this year. The landscape of education is shifting, with an increasing incorporation of technology into the learning space. Well, the world of computing technology is where I’m coming from, and a couple of international school administrators that I talked with at a Seattle job fair early last year encouraged me to consider aiming myself at technology-oriented administrative roles as well as pure teaching roles. Ultimately taking up their advice, last month I began a new endeavor in parallel to my teaching certification work, enrolling in a program that will ultimately lead to a Masters degree in educational technology.

So, that’s what I’m doing on my two-year “sabbatical”. My wife and I look forward to a 2010 in which we can offer ourselves as a teaching couple within the international school network, her with over twenty years of elementary teaching experience (over four years of that at IB-accredited international schools), and me with my twenty years of computer industry experience, an MBA, teaching certification (in both elementary teaching and at least one secondary subject), and a significant part of a new Masters degree in educational technology under my belt. (Maybe I should also mention that my wife and I both have undergraduate music degrees, but that we don’t have current plans to professionally put those to use.)

We aren’t sure where will end up, but we are on our way.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Launching the Blog

Being in the midst of a some post-graduate studies, I find myself churning out lots of essays, mostly related to my topics of study: elementary education and educational technology. My best friend (who also happens to be my wife) keeps encouraging me to "publish" these somewhere. So, here they are (or here they soon will be).

In particular I'll be posting some writings that would otherwise only be seen by one of my professors at George Mason University or George Washington University. If you find something of use here, let me know what it is, and I might be able to churn out some more in a similar vein.