Mix it Up (Or, Less Text Please!!)


The best online courses offer a variety of ways to interact with course content. Learners can both “take in” and “reflect on” course materials using a variety of media, e.g. audio, video, images, and other software technologies. A multi-media design strategy allows a variety of learning styles to be accommodated, e.g. visual learners, audio learners, etc.

Another benefit of “mixing it up” is that an online course becomes less text heavy. Learners aren’t just constantly reading and writing. They also have the opportunity to interact by watching, listening, and speaking. These additional interaction options may inspire learners to more actively participate in a course.

So, how can you increase the interaction options in your online course? One possible solution is a software product called VoiceThread (voicethread.com). VoiceThread allows learners to audibly hear one another as they comment on shared media files, e.g. images, documents, and slides. Learners can respond to each other using a microphone, using a webcam, or by simply adding text comments when no mic or webcam is available.


How Learners Benefit from VoiceThread:

  • Get a break from reading text in an online course
  • Can hear a classmate’s voice (inflection, tone)
  • May enjoy exploring a new technology

Practical Design Considerations:

  • Cannot easily skim a VoiceThread; must listen (or watch) entire recorded segments.
  • Learners may feel uncomfortable recording themselves.
  • Leaners need time to figure out the technology.

To successfully implement VoiceThread, consider how to maximize the benefits of this technology while offering a high level of learner support:

  • Design Consideration #1: Cannot easily skim a VoiceThread; must listen (or watch) entire segments.

Solution: Because quickly scanning a VoiceThread for information is not practical, provide a specific length for learner comments, e.g. 2-5 minutes. It is important to be respectful of learners’ time. Factor in how much time learners will need to spend listening/responding to classmates’ comments.

  • Design Consideration #2: Learners may feel uncomfortable recording themselves.

Solution: Learners will need time and practice to get comfortable. Give learners ample time to experiment with the technology in a practice module before the course starts OR during an introductory, low-stakes activity.

  • Design Consideration #3: Learners need time to figure out the technology.

Solution: Learners will need time to test VoiceThread with their computer and web browsers. Learners may encounter technical difficulties. They need to be able to reach support personnel who will quickly help resolve any issues. Again, this is why a practice module OR practice activity is key to success. This will allow learners to identify any technological glitches early on.


In another blog post, I’ll provide some examples of online course activities that use VoiceThread to increase learner engagement, while providing a high level of support.