Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Are Online Students Hiding Behind Text?

Today, texting is the preferred communication method for most young people. It is used to get immediate answers to questions, find out what friends are up to, send grocery lists to oneself, reply to voicemails, and even end relationships.  I've seen many educators express concerns about how texting is fragmenting writing, grammar, and spelling skills but I have another question that I'm probing.  Are online classes allowing our students to hide behind text?

Despite the prevalence of free to low cost, easy-to-use, web-based multimedia tools (which are commonly associated with the web 2.0 era), most online college classes only require students to participate with text based communications -- discussion forums and blogs.  The 2011 Sloan-C report, Going the Distance, reminds us all how quickly online learning is becoming part of the mainstream college experience. In 2011, 31% of all college students in the United States were enrolled in at least one online class.  After nearly a decade of solid growth, we now have populations of adults who earned their entire undergraduate and even graduate degrees online.  What I'd like to know is how many of those students were expected to consistently demonstrate the ability to present, inquire, analyze, summarize, and argue in the spoken word?  I realize there are undergraduate requirements for speech that integrate these outcomes but my point here is that speaking should be a skill that is integrated across the curriculum, much like writing is.

For more than four years, I've used VoiceThread as a required part of my online classes.  I treasure VoiceThread because it enhances the tools included in the two course management systems I teach with.  It provides a visual, participatory conversation space and invites my students to leave comments in text, voice or video.  Each semester, until now, I have always allowed my students the freedom to choose which commenting method they want to use.  And each semester, I sit back and watch as most of them elect to use text.

I  regularly have a small group of students who step up and embrace the voice comments and a few who use video.  I have relished giving students the option to use voice or video because I have seen it yield success for students with cognitive disorders who are challenged with writing everything.  I also frequently have some students who genuinely love to share in voice -- but the point here is that most students don't.  When I've surveyed students in the past about why they didn't use voice or video, I commonly receive comments about "feeling intimidated," or concerns that they would "sound stupid." I realize my job is to ameliorate these hesitations and create a safe, trustworthy environment for students -- and that is precisely part of my revised approach this semester.

My question to you, as an educator, is "Should all online students consistently be expected to participate using voice or video?"  And if not, why?  What have we to lose?  Sharing ideas, engaging in large and small group discussions, and doing presentations are all regular components of face-to-face learning and I'd imagine the thought of removing all of these verbal activities from offline college classes would rile up some concerns.  So, why is it that we aren't focusing more on the integration of voice into a students' online learning experience?

So, in response to these questions, this semester I have embarked on a little experiment.  I don't have all the results to share because we're only in week six of the semester but I've seem some really significant changes in my students' use of voice commenting.  Most noteworthy is the percentage of students who are voluntarily leaving voice or video comments.  Last semester, in the class's third VoiceThread activity 25% of my students used voice or video to leave their comments.  This semester, in the third VoiceThread activity, 75% of them voluntarily commented in voice or video.  How did that happen?

Here are the changes I made this semester to increase the percentage of students who voluntarily comment in voice or video: 
  • ONE:  In my syllabus, I clearly indicated that voice or video comments would be required in some of the VoiceThreads.  I also explained what VoiceThread is and how it has improved the learning of past students.  Finally, I made it clear that the way we would be using VoiceThread was fully secure and only students enrolled in our class would have access to the students' contributions.  This was stressed to ensure students felt safe and didn't perceive VoiceThread to be a public tool, like many of the popular web-based tools students use today.
  • TWO: I surveyed students in week one (using Google Docs's Form option).  I had them identify which of the following methods they would use to leave their voice or video comments.  Below, I am sharing the percentage of students that responded to each method.
    • I will use a microphone with my computer to leave voice comments.  36%
    • I will use a webcam on my computer to leave video comments. 29%
    • I have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch and will use the free VoiceThread mobile app to leave voice or video comments.  29%
    • I will use my phone to leave voice comments (if you check here, I will contact you and set you up with free phone commenting minutes).  7% 
      • You'll notice that the questions above do not provide the option to say, "I don't have the necessary technology."  Also, in Fall 2011, VoiceThread's release of their free mobile app, tremendously expanded access to voice and video commenting for college students -- a population with a soaring rate of smartphone adoption.  Next fall 2012 when they release their Android version, this will increase further.
      • Additionally, VoiceThread accounts above PRO have the option to include a bucket of phone commenting minutes that can be distributed to users who need them.  This allowed me to feel confident in my efforts to require voice comments, as nobody is excluded. I was able to easily reach out to the two students who required this option and get them set up quickly with free phone commenting minutes.
  • THREE:  I used a non-threatening, fun activity for our first use of VoiceThread.  Click here to view the activity (this is a sample copy without student comments).  Last semester, the first use of VoiceThread was a formative assessment of a long, rather complex essay students read.  And while mistakes were ok (again, it was a formative assessment), it was more nerve racking for students to hear their voice and be unsure of what they were saying.   I wanted them to proceed with confidence and embrace the sound of each others' voices, as well as their own.
  • FOUR: I required students to comment in voice or video in the first VoiceThread.  This was my attempt at 1) demonstrating to them that they could do it so they'd have confidence in their ability and 2) putting everyone on equal footing so they would all be expected to challenge themselves which, I realized, was going to make some students feel vulnerable.
  • FIVE:  After the third week of VoiceThread, I surveyed students to give them a chance to share with me how it was going and to understand their experiences using VoiceThread.  From this survey, I learned that:
    • 91% of students described their experience with VoiceThread as "Awesome" or "Good."
    • 95% of students agreed that, so far,  VoiceThread had added value to their online learning experience.
    • 71% said they prefer to comment in voice or video rather than text.
    • Most students also described their experience creating their VoiceThread account and joining their class group as easy.
Again, the qualitative analysis of their experiences commenting in voice and video will be conducted later.  From my perspective, I feel strongly that the use of student audio commenting in online classes is important for college students because it fosters verbal communication skills that the proliferation of mobile technologies is changing.  I don't want this to sound like a skeptical rant on mobile technologies though, as I would argue they hold an array of possibilities for making college learning more collaborative and participatory -- in the classroom, online, and via location-based learning treks.

I know that my students relish the opportunity to hear and see me in my comments and many remark to me that they rarely get such personalized feedback in their face-to-face classes.  And I relish hearing and seeing them.  Hearing their voices allows me to sense their confusion, their confidence, their passion, their concern, their frustration, and their joy -- which, to me, allows me to respond appropriately and be a much more effective online instructor.

What are the major obstacles that you identify for integrating voice-based participation into online classes?  And what suggestions do you have for improving these roadblocks?

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