Online education and the metaverse


An alternative to VW teaching?

This blog has been on a bit of a hiatus, as I have been going through quite a few changes, leaving my position at Ohio State, taking a long and well-deserved break, and starting out as a consultant in Virtual Worlds Education. In this post, I’ll try to get things up to date.

In my last year at Ohio State I decided, for many reasons, to give one last try at old-fashioned online teaching, based in a learning management system (OSU’s version of Desire 2 Learn). However, I just couldn’t go all the way and only use the learning management system, I find them all so distressingly regimented and controlling. I like automatic quizzes, I like automatic submission of written work, and I like posting grades there. That’s about it.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 5.24.57 PM I looked around for something that would complement my D2L site, just as I had used my Second Life classroom to provide an animated social space.  I wanted a program that encouraged exchanges between students, one they would find interesting and easy to use, and that would spark interest with a lot of colour and movement.  I did quite a lot of research, and the only thing I liked was VoiceThread.  So I plunked down my cash and gave it a try.

VoiceThread has been around for quite some time now. It’s a cloud application that requires no special software to access it, and it’s also available on tablets. I have found that fewer and fewer of my students have problems with the technical demands of Second Life, but there are always a couple, and I do spend a good deal of time at the beginning of term dealing with orientation. With VoiceThread, I had only a few problems, and one was resolved by my student submitting work using her telephone.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 5.12.32 PMThe program allows you to control a private website full of student presentations, and if you prefer, it’s pretty easy to embed them in the learning management system.  You can also make presentations public, which allows you to invite people into your classroom. Comments can be made on the presentation itself, either in text or in voice. You can set up pages with different privacy levels, allowing for group work. It’s all pretty intuitive, and it didn’t take me very long to get used to it.

I set up my VoiceThread class in much the same way as I had set up my Second Life classes. In addition to the usual quizzes and submissions in the learning management system, each student was assigned two very short presentations on a class topic (ten slides, ten minutes, no more than ten words on each slide, ending with a citation from the text that the class can discuss). As with my Second Life presentations, these strict rules made it easier for the students to assimilate the presentations, and this provoked better discussions. Discussions in VoiceThread were not as natural as in Second Life, but it didn’t take very long to get them participating.

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Clickable logos at the left of each slide make student responses easy to read/hear

The great difference between VoiceThread and VW teaching is that it is asynchronous. Students who are new to my SL classroom are often aghast at the idea they will have to participate twice a week, at the same time and on the same days. VoiceThread conforms much more to their preconceptions of online education. On the other hand, I have found that getting students to attend a twice weekly class session completely changes their attitude toward the class and strengthens their commitment to learning.

Another difference is the absence of the avatar in VoiceThread. Even though online students often don’t know each other, they are identified, and codes of behavior come into play. In my Second Life classroom, students use their own names if they wish, but they may also choose their identity, like the fondly remembered student who went through an entire semester as a giant pitcher of Kool Aid, because she wanted to have a non-gendered classroom experience.

After a semester of using VoiceThread, I would recommend it to anyone who is hesitant to use a virtual worlds classroom.  It’s easy to set up, intuitive, and the presentations my students created were colourful, interesting, and informative. It’s a flexible program that can be integrated into a LMS, and it requires very little effort for students to learn how to use it. It’s very good.  But I, however, have fallen deeply, madly in love with teaching in a virtual space. My semester with quasi-traditional technology hasn’t cured that.