Webinar Series: VoiceThread Captioning and Accessibility

In this webinar we cover VoiceThread captioning, and best-practices for making class activities involving student-generated video content accessible and inclusive.

Note: The following video should be considered an alternative to the Annotated Transcript, which contains descriptions of visual references in the media. Also, the pages listed in the Resources section are primarily text-based, and will be useful to those who do not have access to the visual content.


Annotated Transcript

>> Art Morgan: Welcome back to our webinar series.  My name is Art Morgan, and in this webinar we’re going to talk about VoiceThread, and how to use it in college and university courses in a way that is as accessible as possible.

Speaking of accessibility, before we start let me say a few words about our accessibility philosophy, particularly as it relates to the content of this webinar. As we’ve mentioned in previous webinars, at AST we’re committed to ensuring equal access for all users, and that includes users of our products, services, and training information like this webinar.

This video has both audio and visual content.  For the most part, we think we have designed the video so that you can follow along fairly well even if you only have access to the audio portion. However, keep in mind that on the page where we’ve posted the video there is a text transcript, along with several resource links that are primarily text-based. These resources complement the content in the video, and may be useful for people using assistive technologies such as screen readers.

Similarly, this video is captioned, so if you don’t have access to the audio track you should be able to follow along well using the captions.

With that let’s go through the objectives of the webinar. I’m assuming that many of you may not be familiar with VoiceThread, so first we will demonstrate how it works, and in particular how it can be used in higher education courses.

We’ll also discuss the potential benefits of VoiceThread, both from the perspective of learners, and from the perspective of instructors.

Finally, there are several aspects of VoiceThread that are quite different from traditional video captioning and video accessibility, so we’ll cover the best practices for making VoiceThread as accessible as possible. We’re hoping that this may give you some ideas on how to make other class activities and projects more accessible and inclusive, and more engaging at the same time.

The best practices we’ll discuss here were developed by faculty and staff at CSU Channel Islands, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to them for laying out these best practices in a very clear and concise way. I have a link to their guidelines at the end of this presentation.

Ok. What is VoiceThread? VoiceThread is a tool provided by a company of the same name, and they define their product as a tool for interactive, unscheduled discussions. In the higher ed context it is primarily used in online and hybrid courses, but it is also useful in many face-to-face courses.  It allows instructors and students to use their voice, not just text and visual images, to explain concepts and ask questions. Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a faculty member at CSU Channel Islands, calls it “learning out loud.”  We’ll talk about that more later.

I think the best way to understand VoiceThread is to see a few examples, so I’m going to play part of a short video from our Whiteboard Wednesday series created by Courtney Duerig that walks you through the tool. This is an animated video with several screenshots from VoiceThread, but I think Courtney does a great job of describing it. So here’s Courtney.

>> Courtney Duerig: Hi, I’m Courtney with Automatic Sync, and in this Whiteboard Wednesday I’m going to show you the VoiceThread multimedia platform. VoiceThread makes class discussions fast, easy and interactive. VoiceThread discussions are also more flexible than traditional classroom discussions. With multiple ways to communicate, students feel more comfortable and motivated to contribute.

Here’s how it works. The instructor begins the thread by posting media, in video or image formats. Next, the instructor can add voice and text comments that relate to the slide. Audio can then be captioned through the VoiceThread CaptionSync integration. Students are also able to start their own threads. They might do this, for example, if they are sharing a presentation.

Once the thread is created, students view and listen to the media and can respond by clicking the add comment button at the bottom of the screen. Here they can choose to comment by text, audio from their phone or computer’s microphone, webcam or by uploading preexisting content. While recording audio, they can draw on the slide to point out certain parts they are discussing. They can scroll down the left column to see posts from all participants. To go to the next slide, click the arrow in the bottom right corner. Audio comments from participants can also be captioned.

Now that you’ve seen how this simple VoiceThread is, think of the many benefits it offers. It can be used for valuable peer feedback and review. It allows time for students to reflect on the material before they contribute. It also makes it easy for those who rarely speak up in class to voice their opinion. You can learn about other benefits on the VoiceThread website and browse through examples. There are resources and links below. Thank you for watching this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday.

>> Art Morgan: Ok. So what are the benefits of using VoiceThread, from a learner’s perspective? Michelle Pacansky-Brock did a survey of over a hundred students who had used VoiceThread in college courses, and some of the results were a little surprising. Some weren’t surprising.  I think it’s no surprise that many younger students like being “untethered” from their computers when they are learning. Some students also like being able to study and learn outside the classroom, where they feel less pressure to perform, or to conform, and they can think through their answers without feeling like they are on the spot.

They can use their phones to go through VoiceThread conversations, and they can also “phone in” their comments in some cases. And I use that phrase in positive sense here. I think we would all agree that if we get students so engaged that they’re thinking about and talking about the subject matter even when they’re not on campus, that’s a good thing.

A couple of the results that surprised me a little: 86 percent of those surveyed reported that VoiceThread activities helped them feel more connected to their peers in the class, and 95% felt that using it helped increase their ability to reach the learning objectives of the course.

What about from an instructor’s perspective? Obviously many of the benefits that students mentioned will also be important to instructors, such as increased engagement. There are also some technical and analytics benefits. For example, VoiceThread provides various reports that show usage and engagement for each thread, and they have integrations with most of the major learning management systems, making it easier to add these activities to a course.

Alright. Let’s drill down into how to make these conversations as accessible as possible. To do that we need to look more closely at how a VoiceThread conversation is created. Typically, an instructor starts a thread by adding some media, which could be an image, or a Powerpoint slide, or a video.  Then the instructor adds voice or text or drawn annotations to the initial media, highlighting or describing certain things.  These activities, as CSU Channel Islands folks call them, are typically created and added to VoiceThread before the course even starts. Then during the course of a class, the instructor will open up a thread to students for comments and other additions to the thread. CSU-CI calls this portion of the threads conversations. Typically, students will have a week or two to complete a conversation. We’ll see why that’s important in a second.

So how do you make this as accessible as possible? The first thing is to caption all the audio and video in the activities portions of the threads.  Since this is typically done before the course starts, or right at the beginning of a course before the students get to dive in, CSU-CI uses our standard two to three business day turnaround time when requesting captions for the activities – in other words, the audio created by the instructors.

For the conversation portion, which is where the students chime in through comments or create their own threads, these are all captioned within one day. This is because any student who is relying on the captions as part of an accommodation, or really any student who benefits from the captions whether they have requested an accommodation or not, needs to be able to have access to the captions fairly soon after the comments are created in order to participate effectively in the conversation.  Two turnaround might not be fast enough to allow full participation, so CSU-CI recommends one-day turnaround for the conversations, and I’ve seen a similar strategy employed at other universities.

I’ll just note here that we are not going to go into the details of how an instructor or admin sets up the integration or requests captions in this webinar, because it’s pretty similar to other captioning workflow integrations that we offer, but there is a link to our support center article about that [ VoiceThread integration setup ] process at the end of the slide deck.

Finally, if you choose to use VoiceThread in your class you should definitely give students an overview of how the user interface works at the beginning of the course and when you do so be sure to point out both the standard user interface and the more accessible user interface, which is called VoiceThread Universal.  VoiceThread Universal is more linear, has simple, well-labeled controls, and it doesn’t use Flash at all, so it’s better both for cases where a student is using a screen reader, and also for students using VoiceThread on their phones.

So that’s it. We have a few resources here.  The guidelines that I mentioned from CSU Channel Islands, an article by Michelle Pacansky-Brock on the benefits and her research, and our support tutorials and email address for our support team.


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