Voicethread <voicethread.com> is an easy to use, free web-hosted technology for creating narrated slideshows and is a powerful educational tool that can be easily added to any language program. Students can creatively share stories and experiences while gaining valuable language and real world skills. This software is currently ranked by the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies as 23rd in its top 100 tools for learning. We use it to enrich a study abroad program introduced by our university in 2007.
Each year, our university sends up to 300 students to over 25 universities on a one-semester study abroad program. Most students study in ESL programs, but some students choose South Korea or China as their destination. We wanted a way for students coming back from this experience to productively reflect on their time abroad and to help create a sense of community around their experiences. We decided that a good way to help students reflect on their experiences would be to encourage them to share their feelings and thoughts with peers, the wider university community and family. The sharing process would result in them producing something concrete and would also serve as a good way to reintegrate them into their normal studies－the transition from a study abroad period and returning home can be difficult. Voicethread allows us to do all these things.
How does it work?
To make an account you need an email address and a password of your choice. Our students use their university email addresses to make troubleshooting easier, butaccounts are managed by the students themselves. Digital images are easy to upload from the computer desktop, flickr or Facebook accounts, and audio recording is done directly into the software via any attached or built-in microphone. This being a web-hosted resource, students can work individually or in groups, asynchronously from home, campus, or elsewhere. Once completed, the audio slideshows can be shared via links, embedded in other pages, or creators can invite people to view them at the Voicethread site. Therefore, Voicethread is easy to use and share, and a great vehicle for students to explore their reactions to their time abroad.
The students are asked to create a slideshow in English for someone at home in Japan describing their study abroad experiences. This slideshow should represent their study abroad experience and should include their reflections on their experiences.
To assist with planning and to give students a clear idea of a direction to take, we made a starting slide with a distinct theme. All slideshows start with this same slide.
We give clear guidelines for three other important considerations. Firstly, the slideshow should not be more than 4 minutes. It may be a daunting task at first, so limiting the length made the task seem more manageable. Also, viewers tend to lose interest if the slideshow is longer than 4 minutes. Secondly, there should be no more than 12 photos. Finally, students can work alone or in groups of two or three.
As an example, the students have access to our demonstration slideshows, which adhere to these guidelines.
Three stage process
Before departure: We conduct a workshop for students in which they are introduced to the online software, open accounts, and learn how to upload and manage photos. They also practice some of the features, including the recording and, importantly, the delete feature. As students are often nervous about recording their own voices, it is important to show how easy the software is to use. During this workshop the task is also outlined.
Whilst overseas: A follow up email is sent reminding students of the task and encouraging them to seek assistance with language questions, pronunciation, and vocabulary.
On return to Japan: Students submit their slideshows approximately 3 weeks after their return to Japan. During this time, students have access to the university’s computer facilities and are able to seek assistance from teachers in order to complete the task. Finally, students email the embed code to their teacher so that the slideshow can be
made public on a website.
Slideshows that students have submitted have been pleasing. Not only do they provide a documentary of the many institutions that they visited and studied at, but also they provide students with a sense of achievement and a positive closure to their study abroad experience. From a returnee point of view, these slideshows go some way to assisting students with reverse culture shock as they readjust to their Japanese surroundings and process their experiences. Teachers as mentors also open lines of communication, allowing students to share their experiences, while encouraging further language study. We found that preparing scripts, editing text, and practicing pronunciation gives students valuable language practice.
To round off the process, winning submissions are presented to the greater faculty and students at a final party where one entry is selected as an overall winner.
In our setting, awareness of Voicethread has led to several positive developments:
- Another faculty member is now conducting a photography workshop to assist students with their photographic skills and photo selection.
- A wider range of faculty members are given a real demonstration of students’ English ability, and there is a greater awareness of the challenges and joys of study abroad.
- Students are able to share these slideshows with family and friends, as they own the accounts and the online content.
- Some classes are using Voicethread at the end of the year as a class photo farewell album.
Voicethread is powerful software with many uses, and should be an enjoyable addition to any language program.
Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies (C4LPT) (2009). Top 100 Tools for Learning 2009. Retrieved July 17, 2009, from <www.c4lpt.co.uk/recommended/>.
Damon Brewster, Hans von Dietze, and Simon Hunter are members of the faculty in the English Language Program at J. F. Oberlin University, Tokyo. They combine their wide range of teaching experience with a passion for engaging media to create learning experiences for their students.