Wednesday, March 04, 2009

VoiceThread's About To Hit Some High Notes

It's no secret that I love VoiceThread. I believe in the product, I believe in what can be done with it and I believe in how the owners engage in conversations with and want to listen to their customers to make the product better. I also happen to live near Ben so it's nice to have a direct pipeline to him and Steve. (Ben and Steve are the co-owners and founders of VoiceThread.) In my district we've been using VT quite a bit and we've been banging on the product pretty well lately. As with anything, the more you use it, the more you get to know it, see what works, and see what you need to make it work better for you. It helps that I've got Ben here to be my personal VT tech support, too.

As Spider Man said, "With great power comes great responsibility." In this case, the power is the knowledge. The responsibility is to share it. So, share I do. I'm active on Mark Carl's VoiceThread NING and I incorporate VT in my conference presentations. (Full disclosure: I don't work for nor do I receive any compensation from VoiceThread. I annoy them for free.) I find that many people contact me with questions about using VT with their students. Being an educator, there's nothing I love better than to light that fire and see someone get excited about what they've just learned. I'm always happy to help.

So, I was very excited when my phone rang at lunch yesterday and it was Ben Papell. He told me about some simple additions to their site and some new features coming soon:

VoiceThread now has a print manual. The first chapter on SHARING is in there and they'll be adding about 6 more chapters. There are some OK manuals out there; I've even created one myself, but this is really nice and to the point. You'd think for a self-proclaimed Geek, I'd be ashamed to want something I can print and refer to, but I have to say that I still like to have some printed directions in front of me once in awhile. I know teachers I work with will appreciate this too.

They also updated the look of their K-12 Education pricing page and I say, "Hallelujah!" I've been asking them to do this for awhile. If you ask 15 VoiceThread-using educators what the difference between a Pro Educator, Free Educator and Regular Free VT account is, you will probably get 10 different answers. It shouldn't be so difficult to figure what you're getting. I think the new layout is much clearer. It's important to me because I've heard teachers say they are frustrated with (what they think is) the teacher account because they can only create 3 threads. So, they give up. If educators are aware of what VT is offering them, they can take advantage of the great deal that the Free Educator account offers and truly not have to spend any money if they don't want to.

Did you know if you sign up for the plain old regular-free-to-anyone VT account, you are limited to only 3 VoiceThreads and 75MB of storage? But if you sign up for the Free Educator VT account you can now create an unlimited number of VTs and have 2GB of storage? I think previously, most people didn't know that. I'm not trying to sell anything here, but the Pro-Educator account is a lot better because now you get to create groups (have you seen the new groups feature?) and up to 10GB storage! Additionally, now you can work in the EdVT environment.

What's Coming for VoiceThread?
(Remember, you read it here first!)
  1. Public cloning! You will be able to clone other people's VTs - if the original author sets permission, of course. This enables you to start from a "template" and work from there, or just take it "as is." You'll be able to take the VT with our without the comments. I think this is huge.
  2. Large upcoming partnership(s) where users can pull content for their VoiceThreads! Right now you can pull content from your own library, Flickr, FaceBook or a URL but there are lots of organizations and sites with oodles of content, just waiting to be added into our threads. I'm really looking forward to this one...or two...
  3. Ed Community - They will also be focusing on improving the Ed site. They're looking to make it more of a community for educators and students. They know they've not done a good job of that at all. Yet, we've all seen communities evolve on their own. There are tons of outstanding resources and examples to help educators use VoiceThread; yet not one of them resides on their site. They aren't looking to replace anything; they're actually looking to embrace those who have taken the time to create, communicate and share them. We can look forward to a sort of 'one stop shop' at EdVT.

How are we using VT?
In many of our schools, we are using the full class subscriptions. Our teachers have kicked it up a notch beyond what you can do with the free accounts, because all their students have legal accounts and everyone works in the EdVT environment. Running this small pilot in this manner has snatched the attention of many people who have never imagined lessons could include so much collaboration.

What's Next for Us?

The University of North Carolina has integrated VoiceThread with their teachers and students automatically authenticating into the system through their network. To be able to authenticate like that is a pretty big deal for us where we have over 170,000 students and 12,000 teachers. If we could penetrate just 10% of our teachers with a product like VT, that would be huge.

I'd love to see more of our teachers introduced to VT next year as a means for instruction during the year (rather than after testing is over - when all the good stuff comes along)? For now, I'm thrilled to see some instructional technologies, such as VT, making headway onto our radar. Our use of VT and global collaboration is starting some great conversations that will hopefully, give more of our teachers some Web 2.0 opportunities - should they want them.

What are your thoughts on all of this?


Joni said...

I am a huge fan of VoiceThread. I have used it for my library literacy lessons with students. However, I have also just put a VoiceThread together for the day and kept it on one stationary library computer and allowed my students that come in and out of the library to respond to the question after they check out books. It is a wonderful tool. I am glad that they are expanding and adding new and improved features. Our district has recently blocked VoiceThread (as of this week)--however, I am hopeful that they will change their mind. :-)

Patti Harju said...

Great, informative post on VT. I am thrilled to have this as a resource. I am also thrilled to have you (as you are such good friends with Ben and Steve)as an only a tweet away resource.
I love VT and know I have barely scratched the surface as to how to use it with my students. I have shared a few VT's with some fellow teachers via Twitter, and will check out the VT ning. (How many nings is too many to belong to? Will there be a Nings Anon someday?)

Mark Carls said...

Joni, I would be in the admin office first thing Monday wanting VT to be unblocked. I hope it changes there.
Lee, another great blog post, thanks for sharing these new updates. I think the Public Cloning and ED Community will be huge!
Pattie, It is nice to have people a tweet away, but I know I don't have the VT founders a phone call away!
Lee, thanks for the mention, but it is run by you and the other members who have really driven it. We're looking to connect more globally with teachers and Colette Cassinelli's VT Wiki for teachers to add to the directory at:
Thanks again Lee, you rock!


bethstill said...

I love VoiceThread. My high school students just used it as part of a class project. We are kicking around the idea of using VoiceThread as a promotional tool for our school. We are an alternative school trying to find an easy way to inform the public about what our school is all about.

I have a practical question. I had students set up their own accounts. Is this the best way to go about doing this or should they work off of my teacher account?

loonyhiker said...

I love VT too and have done some workshops in our district about it. I also will be teaching 2 grad courses this summer and will be encouraging the students (who are teachers) to use VT in their classrooms! Let Ben and Steve know it is being used in SC!!!

gail said...

Thanks for the great post Lee and you're right. Sometimes we would like to have printed instructions in front of us. I have been using VT quite a bit but only recently brought it up to a slightly higher level. I have a free educator account which the people at VT were kind enough to change for me since I had originally signed up for a regular free acct. This changed my world. I create a VT each week so students can speak about that week's special person . I just recently created a class book and had the students in my K class try to read their own work. VT has a solid place in the educator's world. It's fast; it's easy; it gives impressive results; and parents love to see it.

Lee Kolbert said...

VT showed up this week in our district as blocked too, by mistake. I found out that sometimes the blocking software we all use re-categorizes the sites. In our case, it categorized VT as "file storage." Check with IT. Assure them that VTs be made very private and assure them that your schools will establish policies for how they will be handled. It's a pretty strict way to start, but it's just that... it's a start; better than being blocked.

I strongly recommend that you let the kids work with their own accounts and DO NOT let them work off your account. The risk is, if they are logged on as you, is that they can inadvertently comment as someone else, delete another's comment, delete an entire thread, etc. They also can't have ownership of their own threads. Why not sign up for the Class Subscription. Ever have a class party and ask everyone for a dollar or two? Show VT at Open House and ask for donations. How old are your kids? If they are under 13 and they are using their own accounts... um, you might want to reconsider how you are doing that. If you have a Class Suscription, they don't need email addresses. Let me know if you want to discuss further. You can email me.

ldaughrity said...

I am so glad to see more resources for VT. We will be using it for our Green 180 Project next year and while we are finishing up planning, we still have time to add some additinal collaborative learning with it. The article is great and honestly there couldn't be a nicer set of people to work with. Living half way across the country, they treat me as if I'm a neighbor too and I have never met them. It's a great product and a great company and I look forward to seeing the additions. I hope Discovery Streaming is one of those unmentioned products. Thanks again for your great reporting!

mrspatterson said...

Great Post. Thanks so much for all the info on VT. I have really loved learning to use VT with my First graders. AND I agree sometimes I just love me a good manual. Thanks so much for sharing.

jepcke said...


I share your enthusiasm for VT. I have frequently said I think it is one of the most versatile, easy to use, and exciting Web 2.0 tools of the last 5 years. We use it K-8.

I also shared major frustration with other educators on the pricing grid. When I saw their update I said, "Finally" aloud and my officemate had to ask what I was so thrilled to see.

I would like to request some easier steps to acquiring the free educator account. As someone who works with 150+ teachers, I would love to see the process simplified. Too much clicking around and then to be bombarded with the 'pay for an education account' window every time a teacher logs in. I get emails every week from teachers in my district asking if they need to now pay for their VT account due the constant appearance of this window.

I am glad to see that VT is responding to educators and their concerns and needs. I know the education market wasn't their intention, but it is such a perfect match! I look forward to seeing their manual. Like you, I have created handouts and how-tos, but I'm sure theirs are better. I do often direct teachers to the VoiceThreads on how to use VoiceThread.

Joe said...

Thanks for the blog post. I am using VT in my high school health classes and part of a district web 2.0 project. I will be presenting VT at my state convention next fall and would like to have a hands on experience for all my peers that come to my session. I am looking for ideas...