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Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I've been pondering VoiceThread for some time. What on earth can you use this for?

Bill Ferriter at the Tempered Radical has set up a demo VoiceThread on overcoming cultural divisions in schools. I've been checking it out and, well, things may be worse than I thought.

Some points:

1. The beauty of online text conversations is largely lost. Speech is far more difficult to search through and has no title, so instead of being able to quickly hone in on what you are interested in, you have to listen through whole texts.

2. The speed of reading is lost. One is quickly reminded of how fast the average netizen can read, compared to speaking speed. It just takes so long to listen to all this stuff. Combined with point 1, this quickly makes VoiceThreads unbearable.

3. The quality of writing is lost. Most of us write far more sloppily online, but still, there is a moment of editing, at least. Modern tools make it quick for us to rearrange, edit, root out that sentence that on second thought made no sense, etc. Modern recording techniques (even just Audacity) can do the same for the spoken word, but VoiceThread seems to encourage spontaneous speech: poorly structured, wandering, low information density. The quality of the contributions on the Transforming School Culture thread, for example, is far below what one would expect on an equivalent forum or blog comment roll.

4. The power of the spoken word is lost. If speech is so slow compared to reading, why do we so often get information through speech? Well, speech is easier because it requires no medium. Formal settings like lectures can compete with reading because we like the connection to a living person. The speaker's body language, movement, presence and so on can underline the message and help impress it on us. All this is lost in VoiceThread, so we have the disadvantages of speech without the advantages.

5. VoiceThread has some real multimedia potential.

  • One clue seems to be to avoid recording your voice unless there is some special reason for it, but simply writing comments. Faster for the viewer, and easier to judge relevance. The combination makes for a richer feel, also.

  • Slides with writing can be fine, but don't add voice explaining it, as this feels both insulting and bores the viewer before we get started.

  • Pictures and videos make excellent centrepieces and starting points for conversations.

In this particular example, Bill Ferriter has included a recording interpreting each video or quote. It's quite the turn-off as it is unnecessary (everyone could just read the quote or watch the video) and takes up space. These are always first, as well. No insult if you're reading this, Bill, it's just this sort of public trail-and-error that we need to learn from each other. Thanks.

The good thing about VoiceThread of course, is that once you have got the picture, you can simply skip Mr. Ferriter's comments and dig deeper into the conversation.

So, next year, I'm going to take three similar topics and set up one as a text-only conversation, one as text with links and pictures and one as a VoiceThread. Afterwards, I'll get the students to compare. How do content and format interact?

Tips on conversations from Bill Ferriter.


...and, well, you can google the rest...


  1. Interesting points, Simon...and I'm never offended when someone critiques my work. Instead, I see it as a form of reflection.

    Now a bit of pushback:

    First, while you find the audio comments in Voicethread to be a hindrance to your participation, the vast majority of teachers new to digital conversations see audio comments as more personal and engaging than text comments.

    That makes perfect sense in a profession where people are driven by relationships. Text comments just don't resonate with educators who are new to the digital waters.

    While they may be comfortable to you, I suspect that (like me) you don't come to digital conversations for relationships, you come for ideas. That's not bad---it's just different. And it's a "different" that doesn't sit well with most educators---the audience for my Voicethread conversations.

    Second---and this is something that you noted---any participant can choose the comments that they want to listen to (or not listen to) in Voicethread. You seem to spend a lot of time in your critique emphasizing how slow a Voicethread conversation is or how rambling comments are distracting. That's only the case when you choose to sit passively and listen to every comment without filtering your participation.

    The flip side of that critique is that Voicethread allows you to control which strands of conversation you choose to engage in. For example, if you aren't interested in the conversation developing on the first slide, you can ignore it completely---and if you're deeply passionate about the conversation developing on slide 3, you can revisit it as often as you'd like.

    That's not an opportunity that is available in any synchronous forum.

    Finally, you mention that you don't like any kind of introduction to the "prompt," whether that be video, image or text. Again, I suspect that you're unique (in a good way) in this sense---you want to take an idea and run with it, and you're confident enough in your digital presence to jump into a conversation and to set a direction.

    As a moderator, though, I realize that the average teacher isn't like you. The average teacher is new to digital conversations and may not be confident in their own "voice" to begin a dialogue without a prompt. As a result, the average teacher may choose to sit on the sidelines completely unless they're given a sense of direction to run in.

    I think the place that you and I agree is that Voicethread needs to incorporate some form of search for their conversations. This isn't possible in any way---even if you required text comments in a dialogue---and it makes sifting through information difficult in the long run.

    But for digital novices, Voicethread remains the most approachable and engaging tool out there---and considering that the vast majority of teachers are digital novices, it's the best tool for trying to facilitate an asynchronous digital conversation between educators.

    Any of this make sense?

  2. Thanks for stopping by the digital backwaters, Bill.

    The spoken word is far more personal and engaging than text, but VoiceThread strips the spoken word of much of its power.

    As far as control over your own participation in a conversation goes, a collection of voice recordings is far more difficult to navigate through than a collection of texts comments. As stated, no titles, no search.

    It is possible to search sound recordings for specific words. OneNote does it, for example. I think this may be more common in the future, but I guess too much to expect from free, online resources. In the meantime, VoiceThread pacifies listeners far more than text conversations pacify readers.

    So I'm not sure about uses for bringing teachers together. I'm seeing lots of new teacher faces in the blogosphere lately - teachers are mostly very comfortable with text. Many pupils, however, may find a 'voice-heavy' asynchronous form to be right up their alley.