Teaching Music Online with VoiceThread (part 1)

This is a guest post by music educator and VoiceThreader, Eric Lindsay.

Developing your first online course isn’t easy. You worry about engagement and retention. You’re not sure whether the online portal will be easy for students to navigate. You wonder if you’ll need to make changes to delivery formats mid-semester and whether it’ll confuse everyone. In short, it can feel like it’s your first time in the classroom again. In a way, it is.

So I considered myself fortunate this past year for having the opportunity to “soft launch” a few online units in my undergraduate Music in Multimedia course that I teach on-premise in the Jacobs School of Music. Every few weeks, I’d replace our regular weekly lecture session with an asynchronous online module, and swap out our weekly lab for a synchronous online collaboration.

The great thing about this arrangement was that I could test out a number of learning platforms and online teaching methods, compare them against our in-person discussions and projects, and iterate on the online designs using feedback I’d receive from the students. It helped clarify the differences between in-person and online learning immeasurably.

One of the most striking transformations in the class occurred when I started creating online lectures using VoiceThread. The lecture content, which felt like a series of e-readers in earlier modules, suddenly looked and felt more like a live presentation. It was easy to infuse media examples, either as video files interspersed throughout the lecture, text comments that linked out to a series of videos, or as music-plus-voiceover comments that I’d premix (in an audio editor like Audacity or Garageband) and upload to my presentation.

I’ve done a lot of work in video, and tracking down your editing session, making changes and exporting a new (often large) video file can be time-consuming. I love that I can add new slides to my presentation and record a voiceover on the fly, without an obvious dip in production quality from the more highly-produced parts of the presentation. Given that this is a course on music and media, I value how fluidly these multimedia components tie together in a VoiceThread presentation.

Most noticeable was the shift in student engagement since we started using VoiceThread. Enabled in earlier modules from periodic research-and-share discussion threads, which always felt stilted and seemed to privilege only a certain type of discourse, student engagement now seemed more authentic and spontaneous, with an average of 88% of the class offering up responses any time I posed a question. In fact, because students could leave comments at any point in the presentation, several students would add to the conversation even when I wasn’t soliciting a response.

I felt like I understood the students much better based on what they brought to the table in our VoiceThread lectures than what I’d seen in our earlier discussion forum threads. Interestingly, students started reporting that they really enjoyed taking in the other student responses in VoiceThread, even though technically this was something there were able to do the whole time in our prior online engagement activities. Something about the interface and the ability to listen, and not just read, other students’ responses seemed to heighten the value students placed in peer-to-peer learning.

When I surveyed students about their experiences with the VoiceThread modules, 77% of them thought that their learning was just as effective online as it was in person, with the remaining 23% still finding the learning effective but still missed the transactions of in-person group discussions. Several students had taken online courses before but hadn’t experienced VoiceThread before, offering up comments like “I thought the online format was so cool and SO much easier to follow than other online classes I’ve taken” and “I think I learned this material just as well online [as in person]. Sometimes I think online classes are pointless or take away from learning but not in this case.”

I’ve since gone back to my earlier online units and converted them into VoiceThreads as well, which I’ll launch this fall when the first online-only section of this course goes live. I’m looking forward to it!

Check out excerpts from the “Jingles” unit of the Music in Multimedia course:


Eric Lindsay is a composer and lecturer at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he teaches courses in digital composition and music in media. His music includes various approaches to concert music, opera, interactive electronics, sound installation, and mixed media. His music and activities can be followed at @ericcomposer or his website, www.ericlindsaymusic.com.