Transforming Learning – Responding to an image

This academic year has been different for me due to the (ongoing) development of a permanent laptop resource in my classroom. We currently have 8 machines available to us and when we double up from both Year 5 classes we have a possible 16 machines that we can use. On the not too distant horizon these numbers will be doubled by the procurement of a second batch of laptops for school. With this second step towards a 1:1 model in the upper junior classrooms I am thinking more and more about the pedagogical impact of a greater technology choice.

An activity that has become one of the mainstays of our literacy work has been to respond to an image resource. In our current unit we are reading Street Child by Berlie Doherty, set in Victorian London it tells the story of a boy called Jim who, after a series of misfortunes, spends time in the workhouse as a child labourer and lives on the streets. The exemplar planning for this unit explains an opportunity to respond to an image:

Organise the children into groups of three or four and give each group an illustration showing a scene of life in the workhouse, stuck onto a large sheet of paper. See resources for images of life in the workhouse. Ask the children to talk in their groups about what they can see in the image or how it makes them feel and then ask them to make notes around the image on the paper. Share these as a class.

This is a commonly used strategy to engage the children and elicit a response from a visual resource – such an activity occurs fairly regularly in primary literacy work and I daresay other subjects and age ranges. It takes a failsafe, traditional form – of paper and pen. In this post I explore ways that this simple activity can be transformed with the use of technology. And transformative learning is what I am looking for, because replication offers no benefit to a teacher – all it produces is ostensibly a better presented piece of work and more of a headache to setup. The technology has to offer a whole new level of interaction with the image that cannot be gained from the traditional method explained above.

The learning activity has to be transformed into something that provides a greater depth of learning and interaction. There has to be a pedagogical shift.

Down to the practical stuff. This activity is something that I will be doing very regularly, so finding the easiest to use option for the kids and something that offers a new type of interaction are both key criteria. Other important questions included:

  • Why is it better than using paper and pen?
  • Do you need an account to use it?
  • How quickly can I setup 16 laptops?
  • Easy to navigate?
  • Can we share our responses?
  • Publish? Embed? What can I do with the result?

For some time now I have explored this notion of visual annotation and due to its ubiquitous nature in the primary classroom I have taken a long look at a few options. They include: using the notes tool in Flickr to annotate certain parts of the image; TwitPic – an application that combines the brevity of Twitter and image captioning/commenting and even such conferencing tools as Twiddla that offer a quick way in to sharing annotations. However none of them are like Voicethread.

As a primary teacher Voicethread is exactly the tool I need for this purpose. (Watch out switching to analogy mode) You may well be able to eat your cornflakes with a knife, although messily, but why not use the spoon that is in the draw. Voicethread is that perfect match – it functions as a media commenting tool. As they describe it on the site:

A VoiceThread is an online media album that can hold essentially any type of media (images, documents and videos) and allows people to make comments in 5 different ways – using voice (with a microphone or telephone), text, audio file, or video (with a webcam) – and share them with anyone they wish.

Now many colleagues have been using Voicethread in all manner of ways in the classroom and I know that I am not revealing some great secret. But what I would hope to reveal is a how such a tool can transform learning, and especially in the climate of a primary classroom. For it is just such an activity that peppers the new literacy framework, but how would this learning task look in a shifted school, a learning environment that offers a 1:1 choice for all that belong there? Can every activity of this sort be transformed? It only needs the right cutlery in the draw…

Needless to say I used Voicethread to transform our work on responding to an image for our Street Child work (as described above).

Do you need an account to use it?

Yes. Voicethread requires you to have an account. So there is some setup time here but well worth it – a specific benefit for a teacher is that you can setup members of your class as sort of sub-users. So one sign in, but everyone in the class has a working identity they can switch to which tags their work. Really useful and easy to setup. Voicethread has an dedicated education community now as well.

How quickly can I setup 16 laptops?

I just showed 2 children from my class how to load the site, login to our class account and fire up our Street Child resource. With me helping it took us just over five minutes to setup. The site was responsive and loaded quickly.

Easy to navigate?

With the very briefest of introduction my Year 5 class had no problems with navigating around Voicethread. One aspect to note is that when you load a Voicethread it will begin playing the various images straight away and it took a few minutes for the children to take control. My children found the overview screen – giving thumbnails of all of the screens really useful.

vthread

Can we share our responses?

This is where the true transformation of learning emerges very strongly in my opinion. The last short sentence of the Literacy strategy document is:

Share these as a class.

This is clearly meant to be some form of plenary activity or summary to the session. With Voicethread the children can see everyone else’s comments being added in real time. As soon as they have been saved they can be viewed by everyone in the class. My class were not just sharing their ideas for 5-10 minutes at the end of the session but were interacting, exploring, reflecting upon and sharing the work of their peers for the whole of the session. It is very difficult to be specific but from my observations this shared experience helped to support, encourage and inspire children to contribute further thoughts.

Publish? Embed? What can I do with the result?

A completed Voicethread can be effectively presented in situ, but it has some impressive options to embed in other online locations – the simplest is perhaps a class blog warranting further comments and reflections on the activity. You then have a great opportunity to take sharing beyond the classroom.

vthread1

Why is it better than using paper and pen?

In my experience using Voicethread to annotate images online is the ideal tool. It offers such a broad range of ways to transform the learning activity – children can record a spoken comment bringing in other literacy strands, a video response takes that on that extra step. A major benefit for mobile learning is that Voicethread is a flash based site and so seems to pressurise the wireless access point less, it performed really well for us and so reliability=big tick.

Not only does the final product look that much better but the options to then seamlessly share that product, not just with our Year 5 class, but with a wider global community of educators is the clincher. And in my opinion the sharing that occurs during a whole class task is the most important transformation that goes on. Children picking up on and reading others work not just writing their own ideas down.

How would I rewrite the activity from the Primary Strategy for Literacy? How should such an activity be explained to a classroom that has taken that pedagogical leap, a school that is shifting to a 1:1 choice?

Here is their version again:

Organise the children into groups of three or four and give each group an illustration showing a scene of life in the workhouse, stuck onto a large sheet of paper. See resources for images of life in the workhouse. Ask the children to talk in their groups about what they can see in the image or how it makes them feel and then ask them to make notes around the image on the paper. Share these as a class.

Here is my version:

Organise the children into their laptop buddies (pairs) and ask each pair to take a look at the Voicethread showing scenes of life in the workhouse. Ask the children to talk in their pairs about what they can see in the image or how it makes them feel and then ask them to add a text, video or audio comment to the appropriate image – remembering to take advantage of the onscreen doodling to help clarify what they refer to. Encourage children to take a few moments to read and explore the work of their peers as it appears. Do they have similar thoughts? Are they thinking anything different to you? Embed the completed Voicethread on the class blog.

Does it sound transformed? I don’t know…

This for me is the nuts and bolts of what we do in the classroom and it is in this very act of transforming one small activity that I think I will uncover what this pedagogical shift will be like in my school. Perhaps the quilted tapestry of these smaller shifted learning activities will reveal a bigger picture. What do you think? I think Voicethread is a good example of how learning can be transformed with the correct tool, but what else is there that needs to be explored? What other daily activities in the primary classroom can be transformed? I know that not everything can be 2.0ed but what will form part of that shifted tapestry?

(Unfortunately for us the audio and video options for commenting are blocked due to our proxy settings, it is a bit of a pain as I want to be making the most of this resource – Voicethread did promise a little while back “We’ll be developing a more comprehensive networking guide.” but nothing yet. Any help for fixing this would be most useful? I have run the http tests and most of them don’t work!)

9 Comments

  1. Good stuff! I've had a few problems with the audio on Voicethread, but it may well be a problem at our end.
    I've done this activity using Norman Rockwell images (Tim Rylands inspired) but guess I'm not supposed to publish the Voicethreads – don't think it comes under Fair Use – have also done it with student created images.

  2. Good stuff! I've had a few problems with the audio on Voicethread, but it may well be a problem at our end.
    I've done this activity using Norman Rockwell images (Tim Rylands inspired) but guess I'm not supposed to publish the Voicethreads – don't think it comes under Fair Use – have also done it with student created images.

  3. Tom, while I do agree that Voice Thread is a good tool for students I think it still has to be seen as a tool. I strongly believe that in order for technology to help transform a lesson you really need to begin with the lesson itself. What is the guiding or essential question for the lesson? What kind of thinking are you requiring the students to engage in? What do the kids have to DO with the information once they complete their research? Is the tool being used to support higher levels of learning or just something that will make the final product look better? Sometimes technology is used to do the “same old, same old”.

  4. We enjoy using voicethread as well. It has been used for various collaborative projects across the globe and students are able to hear the differenct accents and gain a hint of the different cultures. I have also found that the backup service from Voicethread is second to none, and they deserve to have a wide following from educatonalists.

  5. This is a great and clear justification for using Voicethread- thanks for taking the time to get it all down! I am just starting to use Voicethread in my local Primary school and I have been looking for examples of good practice- do you know of others engaged with it? I have been hard pressed to find any UK Primary examples.

  6. I agree totally with your post Tom, Voicethread in Primary is surely a ‘must’ and needs to be promtoed to a wider audience, as it not only allows your pupils to post their views and ideas, but also allows others in the global education community to leave comments on your pupils work.
    Look out also for the Animoto in education offer allowing you to make longer video presentations.
    Thanks for the post.

  7. Thanks for this great post. I’ve been ‘tinkering’ with Voicethread for awhile now. I even posted about it a couple of times on my blog. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out as well as I hoped, for a variety of different reasons. But, I am ‘collecting’ ideas for how best to use it when I get my head back in the game. This is a great idea.

    Thanks.

    Kris

  8. Hi!

    I love Voicethread and would use it much more with classes if the audio was more reliable – sometimes it records, sometimes it doesn’t. But I can see from the above – not exactly rocket science – that even without audio, it makes sense to persevere!

    Another brilliant post! You’re on a roll!
    Lisa xx

  9. When I first started reading your post the Flickr notes did come to mind over VoiceThread, but after reading on, I hope you can figure out how to get the audio comments working. I do know you can comment over the phone, but I think the time they allow is very limited and I’m not sure if it’s available outside of the US.

    Luckily for my class we are able to audio comment on our VoiceThreads and have used it quite a bit this year. I think that the part of your lesson that is transformed the most is the ability to have a global audience. Sure you could accomplish your objectives using pencil and paper, but what happens to the product once your finished? In my classroom they might end up on the wall for awhile, possibly displayed somewhere at home, but overall I’d assume they all end up in the garbage somewhere. Using VoiceThread you can bring in other viewers (and commenter’s if you allow it) and you have a digital copy of your students work to use for online portfolios or even just something to email to grandma.

    Most of the tasks we’ve used VoiceThread to accomplish have started out as pencil and paper products and then put online. I think that storyboarding and writing “scripts” of what students are going to say about the photo have been very helpful.

    Right now we’re working on a VoiceThread with our Reading Buddies. I teach 6th grade (12 yr olds) and our buddies are kindergarteners (5-6yr olds). We should finish it up tomorrow. The kinders have really enjoyed working on it.
    http://voicethread.com/share/105462/

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