High Tech Ideas for Low Tech Classrooms: VoiceThread

Is this what Internet access looks like at your school?

Some time back, Anita Kwiatkowska encouraged me to start a new series. I’ve actually been thinking of this idea for a few months, when OUP asked me to do a series of presentations about using technology in teaching young EFL learners.

It was a challenge for two reasons. First,  I’m not the most tech-savvy teacher in cyberspace. Second, most of the classrooms I visit don’t have access to the Internet, or even computers. A DVD player is still considered quite “high tech” in many public schools and private language schools. However, most teachers I meet want to incorporate technology tools in their teaching, and they do have Internet access at home.

So this is the challenge I’m setting for myself (and future guest authors) in this series–How can we take high tech tools and make them work in low tech classrooms? How can teachers, perhaps with a computer and Internet at home, take advantage of the tools that are available online?

Voicethread is a great example to start off this series.

If you aren’t familiar with VoiceThread, it’s advertised as a collaborative, multimedia slide show. Like most web tools, it has free and paid account levels. I’ll use two examples of student projects to show how this can be incorporated into even the most low tech classrooms.

Students in my kids’ class are learning the alphabet. After learning each set of letters, they enjoy making “human” letters. Aside from being a silly, fun break after learning shapes, names, and sounds, this activity helps them internalize the essential shapes of letters. This year, I’ve taken pictures in class and then uploaded the pictures to VoiceThread. I record their words for each letter sound using Audacity (another free tool that allows you to record and edit audio on your computer) and a microphone attached to my laptop. At home, I add their recorded voices to the alphabet book.

Because VoiceThread is collaborative, anyone can add words or comments to my students’ book. I can export a video of our book, with comments, to bring back into class so we can listen to the additions and see how the book has grown. When we reach the letter Z, I’ll burn the book onto CDs for each of my students, so they’ll have a personal copy of their project.

So, how does this VoiceThread alphabet book improve on what I can already do in class without technology?

1-Because of a generous network of teachers on Twitter, my students have a chance to hear English spoken in a lot of different accents, by people who speak English as a first language and by people for whom English is an additional language.

2-They’re learning about countries as we see where our comments come from.

3-They have an invaluable connection with a group of students in New Jersey, who are also learning their letters and sounds, thanks to the efforts of Kim George. My students are mighty impressed with how many words Kim’s students know for each letter! (In fact, you may want to fast forward through a few of the alphabet letters when you check out the project–it has really grown since our first letters!)

4-Since the book is web-based, other classes around the world can “read” our book and it can continue to grow.

My adult learners created another picture book using VoiceThread. For this project, I printed out pictures of a cat I found on Morgue File (a free photo site). I took these into class and had my students write captions for the photos. Then, they discussed and negotiated the order of the pictures to create a story. Some photos were deleted, and some captions were revised to fit their evolving ideas. I added the captions to the photos at home using Gimp (a free photo editing tool) and uploaded them to VoiceThread. I was able to export the picture book as a video so I could take it back into class. VoiceThread projects can also be downloaded to mobile phones, which is useful since that’s the way most of my adult learners access the internet.

How does this digital book improve on what I could do otherwise?

1-It gave my students a clear, real reason to use English. It also gave them a real audience to write for. They had something to show for their hard work, something they could share with their friends and grandchildren.

2-My students have a chance to interact with other students through comments. I embedded their project on My Corner of the World (my student blog). While they haven’t yet mastered the art of responding to comments (a few are still figuring out where they might find their email addresses ), they do enjoy reading comments from others.

3-Since it’s web-based, I can share a link with the parents of my young learners class, and they can read the book at home. In fact, anyone around the world can read the book.

VoiceThread is one of my favorite high tech tools for low tech classrooms. I have a few more ideas, but am more excited to hear from other teachers. How have you adapted tech tools for classrooms that don’t have much technology to work with?

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  2. I haven’t tried using VoiceThread with my students yet but the projects you carried out with your students have encouraged me to do so.
    My classroom is low-tech, we only have one computer connected to a TV set for everybody to see. I’ve created classroom blogs for my students to continue working at home.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Leahn. I’d love to hear how VoiceThread works for you!

      • thanks for the inspiration and idea , I’ll try to apply it with my students. Due to my situation and the situation in public schools around Peru are similar to yours ,even some of them d0n’t have electricity. Imagine that!

  3. Hi Barbara

    This is another fabulous series. Thank you so much for starting it. I really enjoyed reading about your work with Voicethread. I love the one about Rocco and the alphabet project is a brilliant idea. I haven’t used Voicethread with students yet, but I would like to.

  4. I am enjoying your blog! My husband Masaaki and I will be moving to his home town next summer…Kyushu-Fukuoka prefecture….I am also planning on joining AFWJ at that time…I am following your blog! Very informative!

    • Wonderful, Connie. We have a great AFWJ group here in Kyushu, and there’s always room for more!

      I’m glad you are enjoying the blog. Please stay in touch :-)

  5. Great ideas, Barb!
    Excellent pedagogical objectives and great manipulation of web tools.
    Good luck!

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  8. How does this digital book improve on what I could do otherwise?

    How great to see this question asked and answered in a post about technology and teaching. Because I live in Kazakhstan where schools often don’t have Internet, might not have a whiteboard, let along a computer, it’s often quite a bit of work to use technology in the classroom. And I’ve found that low-tech solutions often work just as well, although the kids may not think so! So it’s great to see someone justifying why I should use this tool.

    I will definitely try this with my next class of young learners.

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