Success with VoiceThread in the Pain Research, Education and Policy Program

Pamela Ressler, Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor in the Pain Research, Education and Policy Program (PREP) incorporated VoiceThread into her course as part of the 2016-2017 Instructional Technology Exploration Program (ITEP).

I teach in the Pain Research, Education and Policy Program, a unique interprofessional graduate program in the School of Medicine. Our students range from mid-career professionals to younger graduate students who recently completed their undergraduate degrees, so we have a mix of technical comfort levels with use of digital tools for learning. Some of our students attend class in person on the Boston campus and a smaller number attend class via synchronous WebEx videoconferencing. My colleagues and I in the Pain Research, Education and Policy Program (PREP) are committed to providing a robust, interactive, collaborative learning experience for our students, whether they are onsite or distance learners. The creation of vibrant, interactive online spaces for students to reflect and collaborate between class meetings is our goal but is often elusive.

This has been especially challenging in a course I co-direct with my colleague, Professor Maureen Strafford. The course, Mindfulness and its Application to the Experience of Pain is an elective that we have offered for four years. Our students are a mix of graduate students from within our program and several disciplines outside of our program. The course focuses on the history, neuroscience and current research of mindfulness as it relates to the pain experience. But equally important, the course also includes an experiential, participatory aspect of building a mindfulness practice. Our students are required to share their insights and challenges of beginning a meditation practice through frequent reflections and comments with classmates. Creating a space online for reflection and collaboration that would be easily accessible for all students has proved difficult. To help us address this problem, we reached out to the expertise of the specialists in Education Technology Services. David Grogan served as our mentor and after listening to our challenges suggested Maureen and I try to incorporate VoiceThread as our interactive forum. In our previous course, we had used Box as a way for students to share their reflections with their peers.  Although we felt this was successful and adaptable to mobile devices, it limited the ability for students to be spontaneous, collaborative and creative because it is a text based platform. We found that students posted written reflections that lacked openings for discussion or conversation with classmates. With VoiceThread we observed the discussion qualities of face to face interactions returning, by allowing students to post comments and reflections using audio, video or text. We found the students used this new platform with very little angst or need for instruction. The majority of our students preferred using audio or video posts instead of text in both their own entries as well as in commenting on other posts. While initially Maureen and I found shift from text surprising, we realized that it was a much more spontaneous and immediate way of expressing the insights and challenges that came up with their mindfulness practice during the week.

Another area that we were interested in observing was whether VoiceThread could be utilized as a way to practice, receive feedback and refine on the oral presentations we ask students to prepare and deliver as a final project. The assignment is called One Slide/Five Minutes. We ask the students to develop a topic of interest to research for their final paper and then to distill the topic to its essential take away points — what can fit on one PowerPoint or Keynote slide and clearly introduced in 5 minutes. This is similar to a technique often used in business and design environments called Ignite or Lightening talks. By the introduction of VoiceThread, our hope was that the students would rehearse, receive feedback, refine and ultimately strengthen the power of their presentation. Unfortunately, the students did not utilize this option as we had hoped. Our plan for future courses will be to demo the capabilities of VoiceThread for this assignment more robustly to the students in the beginning of the course.

Overall, we are very happy with the introduction of VoiceThread into our course, Mindfulness and its Application to the Experience of Pain and we see many ways that we could further utilize its many features. Both Maureen and I look forward to diving deeper into advanced VoiceThread training to more fully enhance our course with collaborative learning.