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Editor’s Note: This article defines active learning before explaining the theory and practice of VoiceThread technology. It is a provocative, persuasive presentation of VoiceThread technology in action including available resources and how to produce it.

Inspiring Active Learning with
VoiceThread Technology

Janet Holland

Keywords: active learning, interactive learning, experiential learning, constructivist learning, engaged learning, motivated learning, hands-on learning, authentic learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, group learning, team-based learning, collaborative learning, cooperative learning, simulation, game-based learning, discussion learning, production-based learning.

Active Learning

As the instructor looking into the eyes of the learners and watching their body language, are they sitting there as passive listeners drifting off into other activities? Are they checking cell phones, social networking sites, text messaging, or talking to their neighbor? Do you get the feeling the body is there but the mind is somewhere else? Then, it is time to consider active learning strategies to get students more deeply and actively engaged with the content. It involves putting the learners’ mental, physical, and social capital into active applications for learning. It is a matter of capitalizing on students’ strengths and interests in digital age technologies.

It seems like everyone in education today uses the term active learning to describe a whole host of classroom activities. When pinned down on what it really means, the responses tend to lack clarity and consistency. If educators are not sure what active learning really is, how can we effectively implement it into the instructional design of a course to inspire deep, memorable, high-level learning? In order to better understand the active learning conceptual beast, a literature review and classroom pilot was conducted to examine the implications for new and emerging online technologies.

As a college professor observing pre-service teachers, it is easy to see they have a strong interest in implementing active learning in the classroom as motivation for student learning. One way we, as instructors, can grab student interest is through the use of social technologies to foster dialogue for sharing and constructing new understandings.

With the current tight economic times and due to the cost associated with many current online learning management systems, many schools are unable to implement new hardware or software updates to improve audio instructional components. In addition, many tools are one-dimensional with respect to offering only one function at a time, such as audio as a stand-alone feature. This has led to a search for alternatives with respect to more open source, low to no cost solutions, with multiple interaction options for linking or embedding audio capabilities into instructional websites. Resulting from this search, VoiceThread ® was discovered to be an exciting way to use audio-based chat with the added capabilities it provides to show images at the same time, draw on the image, and attach messages for a personal, authentic, actively engaged teaching and learning experience for students.

Two of my synchronous on campus pre-service teacher courses became perfect candidates for classroom test piloting using VoiceThread technology to increase active learning. Most of the pre-service teachers in the course plan to work in elementary level classrooms upon completion of their degree programs. A primary course goal focused on preparing these future instructors to implement technology effectively into their curriculum while meeting learning standards. One of the unique features of the classroom demographic selected was related to the unique challenges facing pre-service elementary teachers when working with very young students, who have not yet developed a mastery of text-based communications. Therefore, audio interactions served as a bridge to close communication gaps by providing a voice and a window to students’ intellectual thinking and social interactions. 

VoiceThread Technology

VoiceThread is an audio-based technology solution for sharing images, text, video, drawing, and personal voice messages and responses. With VoiceThread, instructors and students have access to an innovative active learning platform taking advantage of both visual and auditory narratives. VoiceThread offers students a dynamic and engaging way to research, reflect, deliver content, and interact with the instructor and classmates. Through a web of social networks, learners build a community, locally, regionally, nationally, even globally if desired. In this article, you will learn more about VoiceThread and see how it can be used for active online group conversations for teaching and learning.

When working with new technologies such as VoiceThread, a browser based program with a limited prior research and reporting base, one is basically at the forefront using trial and error to determine if a new tool is a viable option for learning. Part of the process is determining: 1. whether or not the tool can assist in facilitating teaching and learning by assessing the strengths and weaknesses related to conveying the desired content; and 2. Whether or not the tool aligns well with the promotion of active engaged student learning.

The pilot video and online examples clearly demonstrated how instructors could use VoiceThread in the classroom for actively engaged, authentic inquiry-based learner critiques, explanations, analysis, interpretations, demonstrations, reports, presentations, debates, collaborative interactions, practice, and motivation. Learners can create digital narratives and documentaries while developing their personal voice and creating their own work portfolio. It is an ideal environment for differentiated instruction and inquiry-based learning applied to any content area of interest. Instructors can also post lectures, podcasts, slides, notes, demonstrations, and learning challenges for students who have the ability to ask additional questions and post responses.

My pre-service teachers used VoiceThread to create lesson examples for their future students, to then share with one another for critiquing, since they did not yet have their own classrooms within which to assign student projects. VoiceThread was found to be a great way for instructors to model the concepts to be taught using images, text, voice, and the drawing board directed towards the desired learning standards. The teachers worked to make the lessons more interactive for the students by asking probing questions and posing learning challenges to extend content learning even further. The topics the pre-service elementary teachers selected for presentations included; states, animals, holidays, art, music, literature, poems, maps, seasons, historical landmarks, famous states persons, symmetrical and asymmetrical, descriptive perspective, science processes, and historical events. The subsequent lessons were specifically designed to meet standards while combining the use of KidPix ® a digital elementary level software program for the illustrations and VoiceThread for sharing the examples, demonstrations, and communications. One secondary pre-service teacher in my course substituted the KidPix ® program for Adobe Photoshop ® for the image editing to align well with older students. Based on the initial pilot test it was easy to see that any content area could be integrated. With more knowledge of possible applications and more time and experience, teachers will be able to create an even wider variety of learning opportunities.

Pre-Service Teacher Examples: Combining VoiceThread and KidPix
States Research http://voicethread.com/share/792209/ 
Animal Research
Poems about the Seasons
Little Red Riding Hood
Kansas Historical Landmarks – Matching by Drawing – Embedded into Website
French Impressionist Art
Famous Kansan – Amelia Earhart
Literature – Book Holes
Van Gogh
Literature Review - The Very Hungry Caterpillar
State Fact Postcard
Seedfolks – Create Your Own Garden
Art Landscapes
Animals in the Atlantic Ocean
Symmetry (used the drawing tool)
Descriptive Perspective
Colors of the Rainbow
Impressionist Painting
Musical Instruments
Life Cycle of a Star
The Battle of Lexington and Concord (multiple slides)

Some additional resources are provided through the VoiceThread website or they may be obtained from an Internet search to further support the implementation of VoiceThread into your own setting. From the VoiceThread site one of the tabs along the top links to their “Library” containing numerous examples applied to different content areas to help in brainstorming classroom application examples, located at http://voicethread.com/library/. Also, while viewing the VoiceThread site, look along the top tabs, select “Press” link to gain access to additional articles at http://voicethread.com/press/. One external site, with many good resources for planning classroom implementation, can be found at Digitally Speaking at http://digitallyspeaking.pbworks.com/Voicethread. An external site called VoiceThread 4 Education Wiki is a good place to find other classrooms to collaborate with and share examples at: http://voicethread4education.wikispaces.com/. When searching TeacherTube ® for potential educational applications, one video containing some great examples was found at http://www.teachertube.com/viewVideo.php?video_id=79814. Search TeacherTube for additional examples at http://www.teachertube.com or YouTube ® for many excellent tutorials at http://www.youtube.com. If you are interested in merging SlideShare ® with VoiceThread check out the PBS ® Teachers site at http://www.pbs.org/teachers/learning.now/2008/04/slideshare_and_voicethread_not_1.html. Edutopia ® has an informative article from a teacher working with VoiceThread. You may find it is a great way to extend learning beyond the traditional classroom day: http://www.edutopia.org/voicethread-interactive-multimedia-albums.

Using a combined media approach, one has the potential for adding value for even richer learning experiences. For example, in the past, teachers developed an Art lesson for their students using a digital art program to create their own artwork. The teachers could then use the lesson developed for authentic hands on learning experiences for their students while combining the project with any content area of interest to be taught. Even though the content had depth, the project itself was one-dimensional in that, when completed, the learning ended. When you take it one step further to display the students’ work on VoiceThread, it opens up a whole new dimension, with the students providing their own story and voice reflections on the learning process. In addition, the instructor, classmates, family, friends, and the global learning community are able to add comments and questions to extend the content, and support learners’ efforts.

Security issues will need to be considered, such as whether VoiceThread will be limited to the instructor’s classroom alone or opened up to other controlled classrooms or even the larger global village. In general, the younger the students, the more controlled the environment may need to be to protect those students. The more open the learning environment, the more likely teaching Internet safety and etiquette may be beneficial. To protect students, if a more open community is desired, students may use sketches in place of actual student photos and first names only or even using nicknames. If the instructor wants a more controlled classroom environment, that option is still available. Anytime the instructor is working with minors, parent or guardian permission for working online will be needed. Often the district has a form for parents to sign at the beginning of the year to document this type of permission. Finally, the more open the environment, the more the instructor will need to monitor the learning environment.

VoiceThread Technology Issues

VoiceThread has five ways to post individual or group comments; including microphone, telephone, text, audio file (MP3/WAV), or webcam. To use visual media in VoiceThread is enticing as it supports a broad based group of software including Adobe ® PDF, Microsoft ® Word, Excel, PowerPoint ®, images, or imported images from Flickr ®, Facebook ®, or the web. VoiceThread also has a doodling feature allowing you to draw on top of the media as you record your comments. VoiceThread can be embedded into your webpage or alternatively, if you are a Moodle ® user, VoiceThread includes a download plug-in to allow embedding into the learning management system. In addition, the option for a customizable VoiceThread authenticated domain portal skinned to reflect the desired branding logo and colors is possible. VoiceThread has many export options, from burning a DVD, to downloading, to an MP3 player or other mobile device. The VoiceThread moderator can select which comments to show to everyone else. In this way, if desired, it is possible to show only the top five comments. Learners can have individual avatar identities, multiple identities, or group identities. VoiceThread allows complete security control from private to public, with a default to private. The program was built with accessibility in mind, so those with physical disabilities can still have access and participation options. VoiceThread is set up within a browser-based program with no software to download, manage, or update. The only additional requirement is to have a current version of Adobe Flash ® web browser plug-in installed on the computer; not much of an issue since most of the PC’s come with it installed.

Creating Your Own VoiceThread

To get started creating your own VoiceThreads, go to their website at http://voicethread.com/ and register for an account.  Educators can select the desired options and resulting price points, ranging from free to discounted professional educator with some feature limitations to a yearly classroom subscription with all features and options included. VoiceThread also has additional price options for use in Higher Education and business. If you are working in the K-12 setting, select the K-12 link from the main page, then from the next page select the learn more link, then the purchase options to see a feature comparison chart. For this example we selected the free account and the apply button. This takes one to a page where one can elect to complete the form and register. All one then has to do is complete the additional information form, select the submit button and you have successfully applied for an account.

To specifically create your own VoiceThread, go to the main website at http://voicethread.com to select sign in or register, then type in your email and password before selecting sign in, which will take you to a page where you can view all VoiceThreads. From this page, select the create tab along the top and it will take you to a page where you can select the upload link to bring in your images, documents, or videos from your computer, media source, or from a website address. After uploading the desired media, the next step is to select the comment link, then from the media window select the second comment link below the media to be able to edit. You will be able to record, type, or use a webcam to record a video, or make a comment by phone. To record your own voice, simply select the record button and begin talking. When you are finished, press the stop recording button. Press the save button to save the recording, or if you make an error, press cancel and you may record again. To listen to your recording, press the personal icon on the left side of the media. With your media and voice recorded, select the share button and you will see several options. If you select the publishing options along the bottom you can make the VoiceThread open to the public, if desired. Since we are using teacher recordings delivered to students, this is the option we select to allow anyone to view comments and save the setting. Another share option is the link along the bottom called “embed” to place the VoiceThread directly into a web page. From the embed window, highlight the embed code in the text box, select the copy button, and the done button. If you are embedding the VoiceThread into a web page using a web authoring program, switch to the Code view, click between the body tags and go to Edit>Paste. Then, switch to Design view and save the page. Next, go to File>Preview in Browser to test before uploading the page to the server. Alternatively, if you do not want to embed VoiceThread into a web page from the share page, select the “get a link” button and then the “copy the link” button. The classroom teachers, in the pilot, elected to allow anyone to view and comment; so, it would be open to the public for anyone to view. Before leaving the create window, select “add a title” and “description” link; then, from the tabs along the top, select “my voice” to be able to view it. Each VoiceThread has a small thumbnail and in the lower right corner you will find a menu with a wheel icon. By selecting the menu you will find additional editing options.

If you need any additional assistance when you login to VoiceThread at http://voicethread.com, along the top of the window you will find a help menu in the top right corner. There you will find many tutorials and a frequently asked question (FAQ) area for additional support. YouTube also has many excellent tutorials, if needed.

The pre-service teachers believed using the VoiceThread program was would be a good way for their students to take abstract concepts and make them more concrete by creating their own images. Additional perceived benefits include having students use their own voices and thoughts to communicate concepts, ideas and feelings. This illustrates “how the child becomes a cast of one, taking on multiple roles (i.e., artist, author, director, scripter, performer and narrator) and selecting when and how to play with all the available voices offered through the multimodal media – drawing, ‘telling’, dramatization, expressive sound effects, gesture and movement” (Wright, 2007, p. 1). VoiceThread, opens up a whole new dimension with the students providing their own stories and voice reflections on the learning process. “Learners need time to make sense of new information and ideas on their own; they also need time to think aloud and exchange thoughts with others” (Nash, 2009, p. xxi). In addition, through VoiceThread the instructor, classmates, family, friends, and the global learning community are able to add comments and questions to extend the content, all to support learners’ efforts.

Student Centered Active Learning

Student centered learning means to “responsibly share power with students in the interest of positively influencing their motivation and learning” (Weimer, 2002, p. xi). “It is about what best achieves a goal that faculty endorse” (Weimer, 2002, p. xv). “It is about creating climates in classes and on campus that advance learning outcomes” (Weimer, 2002, p. xvii). It is about how “content is used to develop learning skills” (Weimer, 2002, p. xviii). It is about developing “skills necessary to sustain learning across a career and lifetime” (Weimer, 2002, p. xviii). It is about “giving students more voice in learning decisions that affect them” (Weimer, 2002, p. xxi). By actively engaging students in the learning process and sharing some power and control we can empower our students to ask questions while seeking out their own solutions to foster independent learning skills to become autonomous life-long learners. By using tools like VoiceThread, “learner-centered teachers are guides, facilitators, and designers of learning experiences” (Weimer, 2002, p. xviii). Properly structuring learning opportunities for our students assists in facilitating deep, memorable, high-level learning.

Fraser, Treagust, and Dennis (1986) developed a college level survey to measure classroom environments using seven subscales. It would be worth further study to see if the same concepts will apply to all levels of the classroom environment in regards to using current classroom collaboration tools such as VoiceThread for inspiring active student-centered learning. Based on the classroom pilot, it appears that the subscales will align nicely with the use of: 1) personalized interactions, 2) student involvement, 3) student friendly, 4) student satisfaction, 5) clear organized tasks, 6) innovation, and 7) students individualization by learners making their own decisions based on their own learning needs.

To further support the development of autonomous life-long learning skills, student self-assessment rubrics could be implemented for further reflections. The online student dialogue used through VoiceThread can also be used to increase students’ perspectives while expanding the shared knowledge base through collaborative interactions. “The active classroom is a place where students are frequently encouraged to actively reflect on and process information, skillfully practice the art of communication, purposefully move and share, and continually engage in their own learning” (Nash, 2009, xvi).


Bonwell and Eison (1991) generally defined active learning as an instructional method used to engage students in meaningful learning activities with reflections on those activities. Active learning literature research extends the concept through the potential benefits resulting from increased student engagement, collaboration, cooperation, positive attitudes, improved study habits, enhanced critical thinking, and problem-based learning for fostering a “deeper approach to learning and helps students retain knowledge longer than traditional instruction” (Prince, 2004, p.7). Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) report that students are, subsequently, better able to understand complex material and transfer knowledge from one setting to another through practical applications, so learning is better retained. Active learning may not be the answer for all instructional design issues but it does offer important options when aligned to learner needs, content, and learning goals.

One of the most important technological advantages of using VoiceThread for active learning is how the media options are extended through the use of multiple channels at one time. Instead of pure text-based chat or whiteboards, or graphics used individually or separately, these features are combined in one place with the addition of two-way audio communications. This multi-media approach opens up the possibility of reaching more diverse student populations and learning preferences through the combined use of audio and visual communications. The audio dialogue increases the number of perspectives offered and can contribute to the students overall knowledge base. Online interactions become more immersive for student participants by fostering active engaged learning opportunities. Students benefit from the learning processes through formulating questions, researching, analyzing, solving problems, presenting, and reflecting on their own learning. By incorporating student-centered structures, learners have more autonomy and control over their own learning to become the active independent life-long learners we desire.

VoiceThread Online Resources

Digitally Speaking http://digitallyspeaking.pbworks.com/Voicethread

Edutopia: The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Educause http://www.educause.edu/ELI/7ThingsYouShouldKnowAboutVoice/173329

PBS Teachers

SlideShare http://www.slideshare.net/suziea/voicethread-examples-in-education-presentation

TeacherTube http://www.teachertube.com

VoiceThread http://voicethread.com

VoiceThread 4 Education Wiki http://voicethread4education.wikispaces.com/

YouTube http://www.youtube.com


Bonwell C. C., & Eison J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. Retrieved Feb. 11, 2010. http://www.ntlf.com/html/lib/bib/91-9dig.htm

Bransford, J. D., Brown A. L., & Cocking R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Cuseo, J. (2010). Active learning: Definition, justification, and facilitation.
Retrieved Feb. 3, 2010.

Fraser, B. J., Treagust, D. F., and Dennis, N. C. “Development of an Instrument for Assessing Classroom Psychosocial Environment at Universities and Colleges.” Studies in Higher Education, 1986, 11(1), 43-53.

Grabinger R. S. & Dunlap J. C. (1995). Rich environments for active learning: A definition. Retrieved Feb. 3, 2010.

Harmin, M. & Toth, M. (2006). Inspiring active learning: A complete handbook for today’s teachers, 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (AECS).

Mayer R. (2004). “Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction”. American Psychologies 59(1): 14-19. Doi:10.1037/0003-066X.59.1.14.

Meyer C., & Jones T. B. (1993). Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass An Imprint of Wiley.

Nash R. (2009). The active classroom: Practical strategies for involving students in the learning process. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Prince M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-237).

Silberman, M. (2006). Teaching actively: Eight steps and 32 strategies to spark learning in any classroom. New York, NY: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, John Wiley and Sons.

Wright, S. (2007). Graphic-narrative play: Young children’s authoring through drawing and telling, International Journal of Education & the Arts, 8(8).
Retrieved [Jan. 3, 2010] from


About the Author


Janet Holland completed a Ph.D. in Teaching and Leadership, Instructional Design and Technology, with a minor in Communications from the University of Kansas. Dr. Holland currently serves as an Assistant Professor at Emporia State University, teaching pre-service teachers and master degree students in Instructional Design and Technology. Research interests include improving curriculum pedagogy issues including, service learning, affective learning communities, peer mentoring, the globalization of instruction, distance learning, active, and multimodal learning. As an instructional designer, new technologies are continually examined in an effort to inspire innovative teaching and learning experiences.

Email: jholland@emporia.edu




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