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Using VoiceThread for Student Presentations to Reduce Anxiety and Improve Engagement

When I moved my engineering graduate course fully online, I had to decide how to handle my students' presentations.  My course has a term-long project, that can be done individually or in pairs, that results in a portfolio that includes a technical report and a 20-minute presentation to the class on the materials characterization tool their project focused on (it's theory, working principle, operation, instrumentation, etc.).  These presentations had always been done in class before, with students required to attend and to ask (and answer) questions for each presentation.  The presentations often led to engaging discussions and sometimes debates about the best tool for a given task, arguments over theory interpretation, etc.  But I've noticed over the years that, of all the activities we did, this (and not the exam) was what caused students the most anxiety.  Students who knew their material inside and out would be so anxious that it negatively impacted their performance - their ability to answer questions, their ability to relay the information, etc.  How would I shift this to online, while maintaining the engaging aspect, but allowing them to also give a performance worthy of their portfolio?  How would I allow them to get past the anxiety and shine?  

I reviewed the tools I knew we had: Zoom, Panopto, Kaltura, VoiceThread, and even discussion boards on Canvas, where students could video themselves inside the post/response box.  I wanted something that was already supported and integrated into Canvas with the following features:

  • Students could easily do it with a webcam, with no special software outside of what was supported
  • The tool needed to be able to handle figures, slides, PowerPoint files, etc.
  • Students should be able to annotate the screen, figures, slides during their video
  • The recording should be able to be done in "chunks" without the student needing to record all at once or figure out how to edit videos on their own
  • Many people should be able to leave comments, questions, etc., whenever they wanted in the presentation they were watching - so that the video author could respond to those questions at the point of the question
Of the tools I reviewed, VoiceThread seemed like the best option.  It had a slight learning curve, but good documentation:  

And . . . the students loved it.  Their presentations were polished, well-paced, in some cases very high-tech.  The quality of their presentations was far superior to what I had seen in class.  The students reported that they liked that they could record over each slide/image - one at a time - so that if they messed up, they didn't have to do the whole thing over again.  They liked that they could film wherever they wanted and that they could record themselves (a floating head, if you will) so that the viewer sees both the slides and the presenter at the same time.  They liked that it wasn't a "one-shot" opportunity - that they could refine it until they were satisfied.  But surprisingly, they liked it because it gave them something for their CV and academic portfolio that they could share when they went on the job market.  I also noticed that yes, they engaged in long conversations on the videos by commenting and annotating on each other's presentations.  It captured the dynamics of the class, and let to some offline discussion as well.

I highly recommend VoiceThread.  It has its foibles, but it did exactly what we needed, and I could see a major difference in anxiety!  

If you are trying to compare tools, I also highly recommend: 

Choosing Lecture or Presentation Tools

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