April – 2018 – St. Thomas E-Learning And Research
Monthly Archives

April 2018

Technology Tools

Using VoiceThread to Enhance Instruction for All Learners

Many faculty at the University of St. Thomas are already using VoiceThread as a way to actively engage learners and promote social presence in their online classes.

VoiceThread is a tool that allows students and instructors to use their voice and video as a part of  asynchronous discussions and presentations. From the ground up, the philosophy behind the VoiceThread technology has been to enhance the online UX (user experience) for all learners. To accomplish this, VoiceThread goes beyond the requirements for making things accessible under the American Disabilities Act. VoiceThread also does a really good job at targeting the principles of UDL Universal Design for Learning (UDL). DesigninUDL Principlesg online experiences with the lens of UDL, using a tool like VoiceThread, is a better way to plan for accessibility because it’s a holistic approach that supports all learners.

I recently attended a VoiceThread training on UDL and was amazed at how the tool’s features and functions address the major principles of UDL. If you’re not familiar with VoiceThread’s capabilities, I invite you to explore more at VoiceThread.com.

First, and most obvious, VoiceThread supports “Multiple Means of Expression” because participants can choose to write text comments or leave voice comments with a microphone, or video comments with a web camera. This make it a great tool for language learners. Instructors can see and hear how pronunciations are formed.  One example showed students interacting around a topic using ASL (American Sign Language).

Second, VoiceThread supports “Multiple means of Representation” because instructors can display information through images, Word docs, PDFs, or PowerPoint.  They can use the built-in annotation tools to highlight and call out certain information or focus the learner’s attention. In addition, each VoiceThread participant can choose  to display menus and tools in their own language.

The third way VoiceThread supports UDL is through “Multiple Means of Engagement.” Instructors can have students simply view a presentation (passive), post comments on any part of the presentation (more active). Or, they can have students create their own VoiceThread (highest level of engagement) and share it with others. It’s a great way to encourage student-led presentations in an online setting. Students can narrate their presentation and have other participants provide feedback.

Of course, for learners that have specific accessibility needs, VoiceThread does have features that are specially designed to meet their needs too.  This includes VoiceThread Universal, a specific app that helps vision impaired students; the ability to close-caption audio comments to assist with auditory needs; and VoiceThread Mobile, increasing access to all learners regardless of the platform and giving the option for ‘anywhere-anytime’ access.

While the folks at VoiceThread have specific solutions for accessibility, the VoiceThread philosophy grew over time to recognize that everyone deserves better access and a user experience that promotes learning instead of getting in the way of it. This philosophy is highlighted in an article for FLTMAG, the free magazine on technology integration in language teaching and learning. Read about the VoiceThread journey and how they moved away from a ‘check-list’ approach to meeting specific accessibility issues and more toward a human-centric view of how they design a robust user experience for all learners.

This post was written by Michael Wilder, an Instructional Designer for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.
To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at www.stthomas.edu/stelar or email us at stelar@stthomas.edu.


Johnnie Bennie Media Visits STELAR Studios

TommieMedia and Johnnie Bennie Media teams discuss studio productions

Student leadership from St. John’s / St. Ben’s “Johnnie Bennie Media” and their staff advisor visited the OEC multi-camera studio facilities April 23.  St. Thomas TommieMedia production students Cory Spawn (Engineer), Natalie Koerbitz (Senior Producer), TommieMedia Director Noah Brown, COJO professor and TommieMedia faculty advisor Dr. Peter Gregg, and STELAR Engineer Dan Lamatsch were all on hand to share knowledge with the Johnnie Bennie Media team.

Johnnie Bennie Media is in its third year of production and is in a unique position to benefit from the shared knowledge that St. Thomas students, faculty, and staff have acquired over their years of supporting TommieMedia.  It was a great afternoon of collaborative efforts between the two teams!

Discussing finer points of media production

Future of Higher Education

Does the Future of College look like the Future of Retail?

Photo of students sitting in comfy chairs working on laptops with the title, The Future of College Looks Like the Future of Retail

This morning I was reading in the Star Tribune about the new Amazon/Best Buy alliance to sell televisions. Then, I was alerted to this article in The Atlantic just recently published. Finding middle ground between the digital and physical spaces seems to be an emerging trend in teaching and learning.


This post was written by Peter Weinhold, Director of Academic Technology for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at www.stthomas.edu/stelar or email us at stelar@stthomas.edu.

Upcoming Technologies

Canvas and the Winter Olympics

This February, the STELAR Technology Showcases featured Winter Olympics viewing sessions in virtual reality (VR), and we were excited by the number of faculty who made time to visit STELAR and try it out.  Since we are also in the midst of our Blackboard to Canvas conversion, this has led to a mental game…if the migration to Canvas was an Olympic sport, which one would it be?  For some faculty, we thought Curling.  It’s strategic, deliberate, planful and detail-oriented, with slow and steady work that leads to the desired outcome.  For other faculty, Figure Skating – these faculty are creating beautiful Canvas courses that have a central theme with a beginning, middle, and end, and are entirely charming.  Then we have the ski jumpers… those who see the move to Canvas as a great leap into the unknown (and we have a few skiers still in the air as of April).  One thing we know for sure: the closer we get to summer, the closer we all get to bobsled, as we approach the hard deadline for shutting down Blackboard this June.

Black Male undergraduate student wearing a virtual reality headset

Dan Hoisington, Eric Tornoe, and the whole STELAR team did a great job of putting the VR viewing sessions together, and they turned out to be useful and instructive for two reasons.  First, we had some great conversations about practical applications for VR technology this year, not in some far-off future.  The question we want to ask about VR this semester is, “What does it mean to be somewhere?”  Or put another way, “What is presence?”  In the STELAR online teaching certificate program, students learn about the three elements of presence in the Community of Inquiry Model of teaching:  Teaching PresenceCognitive Presence, and Social Presence, with the central point being that high-quality online courses are designed to address each of these elements.  Virtual Reality gives us an entirely new tool – and possibly an entirely new set of expectations – for what ‘presence’ can mean in the context of teaching and learning.

Ideas we discussed with faculty members included:

  • Education students using VR to experience their own students’ living conditions as a way to increase empathy;
  • Geology students using VR to travel up and down rock strata;
  • Business students using VR to practice employee coaching and initiating difficult conversations at work; and
  • Psychology students using VR to explore new ways to conduct exposure therapy.

Second, the VR experience was instructive thanks to NBC, which of course was responsible for creating all these VR experiences that we shared. One thing that struck us was that NBC had an opportunity to bring essentially unlimited resources and decades of professional video expertise to bear, in order to create unrivaled, amazing VR experiences.  But instead they kind of botched it.  In STELAR we are guessing that those decades of professional experience were as much a hindrance as a help because of the way they shot the VR.  (And it’s not just us. See, for example, MIT’s review of Winter Olympics programming.)

In broadcast video you have establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, and cutaways.  And in many instances this is how NBC shot the VR experiences, presumably using their years of video production as a guide.  However, the best VR, we think, is about having an immersive experience and so changing shots and adding cutaways becomes disorienting to the viewer,  as they try to re-discover their location in virtual space.  In short, it ruins the illusion of presence.  It seems to us that NBC did not take a step back to think about what is best about VR and how they could leverage that to create truly unique and effective experiences.

This is a great example of how a new technology can require us leave behind our experiences and expectations.  It also demonstrates in a real way something we say a lot down here in STELAR – that the smart use of technology isn’t about learning the tech itself, but rather about understanding  what you’re trying to accomplish and then using the technology the way it is best suited to reach those ends.  We saw it here on NBC’s virtual reality, and it’s equally true for teaching online or in an active learning classroom.

Learning to use Canvas is one thing – you can learn all the right clicks to upload a PowerPoint slide deck or a video of yourself lecturing, but without stepping back to ask yourself what kind of experience you want your students to have, you might inadvertently wind up with some NBC VR.  This can lead to the disappointing online course experiences that many of us have had over the years, when instructors merely update the technology without updating old ways of working and thinking.

We have an opportunity here at St. Thomas to become a leader in the effective use of VR in our courses, and STELAR is ready to partner with you to accomplish that goal.   As we move through the VR learning curve together, we’ll discover what works and what doesn’t, and we’ll find new ways to bring this increased sense of presence to your classes and your students.  Experimenting with this technology is an important step towards St. Thomas becoming the digitally-enabled university that students have increasingly come to expect.  It will help us to continue to deliver high-quality educational experiences that help define our future.

This post was written by Brett Coup, the AVP for Academic Technology for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research  (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.  To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at www.stthomas.edu/stelar or email us at stelar@stthomas.edu.