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Gao, F. & Sun, Y. (2010). Supporting an online community of inquiry using VoiceThread. In C. Maddux et al. (Eds.

) Research Highlights in
Information Technology and Teacher Education 2010 (pp.9-18). Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education

Supporting an Online Community of Inquiry Using VoiceThread

Fei Gao

Yanling Sun

Abstract: Using the community of inquiry framework proposed by Garrison, Anderson, and
Archer (2000), this paper examines how to use a Web 2.0 tool – VoiceThread to support online
learning communities for professional development in teacher education. In this paper, we discuss
the unique features and affordances of VoiceThread, and propose possible learning activities to
enhance social, cognitive and teaching presence in online learning communities.

Fostering a collaborative online learning community with multimedia is important for online professional
development in teacher education, because "online communities provide continuous and self-generating professional
development for teachers through flexible, authentic and personalized opportunities for learning" (Lloyd & Duncan-
Howell, 2009, p. 60). Educators and researchers in teacher education have been increasing their attention on
building inquiry-based online communities for teaching in online and hybrid environments. The community of
inquiry framework proposed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) has been applied to various online and
hybrid practices to understand and improve online learning and community building. How to employ appropriate
technologies and strategies to build and support an online community of inquiry, however, is a concern. This paper
uses the community of inquiry as the theoretical framework, and explores how a multimedia presentation tool –
VoiceThread can be used to support online professional development through community building.

VoiceThread ( is a Web 2.0 tool that allows users to work collaboratively to create
multimedia presentations and to have conversations around it. With VoiceThread, a user or multiple users can create
a presentation with a combination of documents, images and videos. The presentation can later be shared with a
selected group of people, who are able to participate by posting their text, audio or video-based comments on
individual slides.

Although VoiceThread was not originally intended for classroom, educators are enthusiastic about its power
as a presentation and collaboration tool. Weir (2008) described how a 6th grade teacher, Bill Ferriter used
VoiceThread presentations to “extend” his classroom. According to Ferriter, there were more students participating
more actively in digital discussions than in the classroom. In VoiceThread library (,
examples can be found on how VoiceThread were used to teach a variety of subject matters in both K-12 and higher
education settings.

Despite the educational potential of VoiceThread, limited research has been conducted on the use of
VoiceThread for professional development in teacher education. Friedman and Lee (2009) cautioned us that
“VoiceThread does not necessarily engage students in the way we had initially envisioned” (p.23). For example,
asking learners to have debates by following the prescribed script on a VoiceThread “stifled creativity and forced ‘in
the box’ thinking” (p.23), and could be less effective than a face-to-face debate. They, therefore, called for future
research that unpacks the inherent pedagogies of VoiceThread.

Features and Affordances of VoiceThread
To design a learning experience that is educational, it is important to understand the features and
pedagogical affordances of the tools used. The following table presents the key features and affordances of
Gao, F. & Sun, Y. (2010). Supporting an online community of inquiry using VoiceThread. In C. Maddux et al. (Eds.) Research Highlights in
Information Technology and Teacher Education 2010 (pp.9-18). Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education

VoiceThread. It is developed from Burden and Atkinson’s (2008) work, and includes features and affordances that
were not specifically mentioned in their work. We focus on three categories of features: (a) presentation features, (b)
collaboration features, and (c) moderation features.

Features Affordances
I. Presentation Features
 Ability to use a combination of pictures,  Presenters are able to combine files with multiple formats to
documents, and videos to create presentations present content.
 Ability to annotate a particular slide with text,  Presenters are able to add related comments, explanations, and
audio or video-based comments interpretations to each slide.
 Presenters are able to direct readers’ attention to specific parts of
a slide to increase concentration or to stress on important
 Ability to draw or write while commenting on a information
 Presenters are able to demonstrate or explain procedures, steps
and so on by drawing or writing on the slides.
 Presenters are able to present for real audience.
 Ability to share a presentation online with others
 Presenters are able to get feedback easily from others.

 Ability (for viewers) to pause the presentation at  Viewers are able to control the pace of learning.
any point, and jump to a particular slide at any  Viewers are able to view a portion of the presentation for
time multiple times.
II. Collaboration Features
 Ability for a group of users to co-create or co-  Learners are able to work on and present a project
edit a presentation collaboratively.
 Learners can provide feedback or ask questions about a slide.
 Ability to allow a group of users to leave text,
audio or video-based comments on each slide  Instructors are able to provide formative feedback on learner
 Ability for a group of users to draw or write  Learners and instructors can identify specific parts of a slide and
while commenting on a slide make targeted comments.
 Ability to view all the comments or discussions  The entire learning conversation can be visually represented in
on one single slide around the slide one diagram rather than a long text thread.
III. Moderation Features
 Ability to invite a selected group of users, and  The learning conversation can be managed to ensure it is open to
keep the thread private or public the appropriate audience.
 Instructors can delete inappropriate comments before they are
 Ability to moderate comments (i.e. Creators can shown.
pick which comments are shown to others)  Instructors are able to decide whether and when to let learners see
(and possibly be influenced by) others’ comments.

Table 1: Features and Affordances of VoiceThread

Supporting an Online Community of Inquiry Using VoiceThread
To conceptualize how VoiceThread can be used to support online learning and professional development,
we use the community of inquiry framework proposed by Garrison et al. (2000). It is a framework that captures the
Gao, F. & Sun, Y. (2010). Supporting an online community of inquiry using VoiceThread. In C. Maddux et al. (Eds.) Research Highlights in
Information Technology and Teacher Education 2010 (pp.9-18). Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education

complexities of online learning from the perspective of collaborative learning occurring in online communities. This
model has been widely cited (Meyer, 2004; Shea & Bidjerano, 2009; Swan, 2003), and examined with promising
results by a considerable number of researchers (Conrad, 2005; Redmond & Lock, 2006; Shea, 2006). The
framework consists of three elements – social, cognitive and teaching presence, and provides categories and
indicators that define each presence (see Figure 1). Based on the analysis of the features and affordances of
VoiceThread, we discuss, in this section, why and how VoiceThread can be used to support the three types of
presence, and therefore support various stages of community building.

Figure 1: Garrison et al.’s (2000) Community of Inquiry Framework.

Social Presence

Social Presence is described as “the ability of learners to project themselves socially and emotionally,
thereby being perceived as ‘real people’ in mediated communication” (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007, p. 159). The
three categories of social presence are affective expression, open communication and group cohesion. Social
presence has been reported as positively correlated to perceived learning (Richardson & Swan, 2003; So & Brush,
2008), and it has the potential to afford learning by setting a convenient environment for critical discourse to
develop (Caspi & Blau, 2008). VoiceThread can be used in multiple ways to establish affective communication and
develop social bonds.

Using Audio and Video

The degree of social presence varies depending on the medium used for communication. Aragon (2003)
indicated that text-based communication alone may not be enough for online courses, and proposed that audio helps
to create social presence “by reflecting the emotions of instructor to the students” and it also helps “establish the
formality of the environment and the friendliness of the instructor and can encourage participation” (p. 62). This is
supported by Bente and colleagues’ (2008) study, where they found that the levels of perceived intimateness, co-
presence and emotionally-based trust were significantly lower in text chat than audio or audio-video chat.

With VoiceThread, every participant can leave an audio or video comment on a particular slide. Audio and
video can be used to replace the text-based communication when necessary. For example, at the initial stage of
building an online learning community, it is important for learners to be able to introduce themselves and get to
know each other (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). This is commonly done in a threaded discussion forum. With Voicethread,
learners can upload their own pictures and introduce themselves via video or audio.
Gao, F. & Sun, Y. (2010). Supporting an online community of inquiry using VoiceThread. In C. Maddux et al. (Eds.) Research Highlights in
Information Technology and Teacher Education 2010 (pp.9-18). Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education

Sharing Personal Stories and Experiences

Two fundamentally related concepts to social presence are intimacy and immediacy (Rice, 1993). They
refer to a sense of closeness or the psychological distance between people involved in a conversation (Wise, Chang,
Duffy, & Valle, 2004). Both focus on the feeling of knowing each other. Researchers have recommended personal
stories/experiences sharing as a way to increase social presence (Aragon, 2003; Lowenthal, 2009), probably because
it enhances the sense of intimacy and immediacy, and establishes group cohesion and social relationships.

The VoiceThread’s capability of creating stories with multimedia files has made it a powerful tool to share
personal stories. Both learners and instructors can use VoiceThread to create and share personal stories that help to
develop and maintain social presence. Such activities can take place either at the beginning of the course to help
learners and instructors get to know each other, or within a learning unit to enhance group cohesion as well as to
encourage learners to make personal connections to the learning materials. In the latter case, the activity goes
beyond “open communication” towards “purposeful academic exchange” (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007, p. 160).

Sharing Norms, Expectations, and Guidelines

Before learners in online communities can reach deep levels of interaction, they need to gain a shared sense
of expectation of learning and commitment in addition to a sense of belonging and trust (Anderson, 2004). It is
imperative to set up clear norms, expectations, and guidelines at early stages of the class to provide structure around
the communication (Beaudin, 1999; Gilbert & Dabbagh, 2005).

VoiceThread allows for easy sharing of documents of guidelines or expectations. And more importantly,
with VoiceThread, learners can highlight an item, and ask a specific question clarifying their understandings. This
allows instructors to interact with the learners, find out their needs and tailor the instruction accordingly (Chen,

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence refers to the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through
sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001). It involves a four-phase process that
includes (a) a triggering event, (b) exploration, (c) integration, and (d) resolution. Cognitive presence is crucial in
online learning because it is “reflective of the purposeful nature of collaborative knowledge construction inherent in
constructivist educational experience” (Arbaugh et al., 2008, p. 134). In this section, we explore how VoiceThread
can be used to design activities that enhance learner cognitive performance or foster deep understanding of learning

Designing Collaborative Activities

A high level of cognitive presence requires well designed learning activities (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007;
Murphy, 2004). Online learning researchers have found that emerging technologies offer new possibilities of
designing collaborative activities that engage learners in learning (Chai & Tan, 2009; Cress & Kimmerle, 2008).

VoiceThread, similar to other social software technologies, allows users to instantly edit, annotate, or create
content and share with others. Such tools support collaboration, knowledge sharing and customization, and provide
instructors with “significant opportunities for creating socially engaging tasks that require active student
participation and knowledge building instead of memorization” (Cole, 2009, p. 141).
Gao, F. & Sun, Y. (2010). Supporting an online community of inquiry using VoiceThread. In C. Maddux et al. (Eds.) Research Highlights in
Information Technology and Teacher Education 2010 (pp.9-18). Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education

Having Focused Discussions

Researchers who are interested in anchored discussion found that when learners were visually presented
with an artifact and asked to comment on it, learners are more likely to make artifact-related and focused comments
(Brush, Bargeron, Grudin, Borning, & Gupta, 2002; Gao & Putnam, 2009; Marshall & Brush, 2004).

With VoiceThread, the artifacts or content are presented on each slide at the center of the screen. Learners
can highlight a specific part of the text or a specific video segment, and make comments beside it. This allows for
“to-the-point” discussions (van der Pol, Admiraal, & Simons, 2006, p. 353). In addition, learners can concentrate
and comment on one particular slide at a time, which reduces the cognitive load involved and can be beneficial to
learning (Sweller, 1988).

Providing Peer Feedback

Peer evaluation has been identified as one of the most effective online assessment strategies (Gaytan &
McEwen, 2007). Researchers have found that peer evaluation has a positive effect on learning attitude and learning
performance, and suggested that multiple rounds of peer assessments is necessary for learner to improve their work
(Sung, Chang, Chiou, & Hou, 2005; Topping, 1998; Tseng & Tsai, 2007).

The unique features of VoiceThread have made it a good tool to support multiple-round peer assessments.
The project, once created on VoiceThread, will be continuously broadcast live, allowing the authors to edit it and
others to view it at any time. Feedback and assessments can be then provided at any stages of the projects. Learners
can edit, delete, and add content based on the feedback, and instantly share revisions with peers. Therefore, it offers
an easy platform for frequent and multiple rounds of feedback. In addition, because people can leave feedback on
every slide, feedback is likely to be specific and targeted to the specific content on each slide.

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence is described as “the design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes
for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes” (Garrison &
Arbaugh, 2007, p. 163). Three components of teaching presence are: (a) instructional design and organization, (b)
facilitating discourse, and (c) direct instruction. Garrison and Arbaugh (2007) argued for the need of teaching
presence in online community because social and content-related interactions among learners are not sufficient for
effective learning. Researchers have agreed that instructors play crucial roles in supporting the learning processes in
online collaborative learning (Resta & Laferrière, 2007). We discuss below how to use VoiceThread to design
learning experiences with enhanced teaching presence.

Creating Interactive Content

As compared to the teacher-dominated, unidirectional discourse in traditional classrooms, online learning
opens up more opportunities for multi-directional conversations (Lapadat, 2002). But sometimes, when designed
inappropriately, online courses could stifle multi-directional conversations. For example, delivering the course
content with video/audio lectures or PowerPoint presentations has made the learning become a unidirectional and
passive process.

Delivering lectures using VoiceThread enables instructor-learner and learner-learner conversation at any
point of the lecture. After instructors upload the narrated presentations, learners can watch it online, posting a
question or comment at any point of the lecture. Instructors, in return, can provide feedback to learner’s questions
and comments. With the moderating function, instructors can also control whether and when to let learners see
others’ comments.
Gao, F. & Sun, Y. (2010). Supporting an online community of inquiry using VoiceThread. In C. Maddux et al. (Eds.) Research Highlights in
Information Technology and Teacher Education 2010 (pp.9-18). Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education

Engaging Different Types of Learners

Presenting content using multiple modes of representation allows learners to code and elaborate
information in multiple channels, and enhances the effectiveness of learning (Mayer & Moreno, 1998). Using
multimedia, in this sense, may offer learning opportunities for different types of learners (Gardner, 1983), which
would not be possible if instructors use text alone.

With VoiceThread, instructors can create presentations that make wise use of different media formats, and
engage learners in content learning. In addition, learners can control the pace of presentation, spending as much or
as less time as they like on a slide, which is important for effective learning (Mayer & Chandler, 2001; Mayer,
Hegarty, Mayer, & Campbell, 2005).

Providing Scaffolding and Ongoing Feedback

Swan and Shih (2005) pointed out that the perceived presence of instructors could be a more influential
factor than the perceived presence of peers in determining learner satisfaction in an online course. To enhance
learning, it is necessary to provide ongoing assessment of learner performance, immediate feedback and
individualized instruction (Swan, 2003).

When VoiceThread is used for learners to create projects, the instant sharing function of VoiceThread
would allow instructors to access and comment timely on learner’s ongoing projects, something not possible if
learners use such tools as PowerPoint.

Lieberman and Mace (2010) argued that the advent and ubiquity of new media tools and social networking
resources provide a means for professional development to "scale up" (p.77). Teachers and teacher educators should
keep up with the changing opportunities and demands created by new technologies (Borko, Whitcomb, & Liston,
2009). The problems facing us, however, are how to challenge a new technology to design and deliver a genuinely
enhanced learning experience (Laurillard, 2009). To solve the problems, it is important to understand what is
uniquely feasible with new technologies (Resta & Laferrière, 2007), and use learning theories to guide the design
and use of the technologies for effective learning (Laurillard, 2009).

By considering the affordance of VoiceThread, and its connections to educational theories and research on
online learning, the paper suggested ways of designing meaningful learning activities with VoiceThread to support
an online learning community for professional development. Used appropriately, VoiceThread could help establish a
social bond for the community, and enhance learners’ cognitive learning and instructors’ online facilitation. Future
research is needed to further examine the roles of VoiceThread in building online communities of inquiry.

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