VoiceThread: An Online Counterpart to the Traditional Design Studio

This is a guest post by design instructor and VoiceThreader, Jody Lawrence.

I integrated VoiceThread into my freshman design studio to facilitate instructor and peer critiques, and to promote student dialogue and networking with practicing designers around the country. The students embraced the technology as an enhancement to their in-person studio experience, sharing that the tool introduced continuity to their learning throughout the week, and improved the quality of scheduled, in-class time. As an unexpected outcome, implementing this online tool subsequently transformed how students seek instructional and peer feedback about their design solutions. My experience suggests that VoiceThread has benefits that extend beyond its use as an effective method for design critique, and serves to complement the rigor of a traditional design studio.

If you are reading this blog, you already have an idea about the impact that VoiceThread is making to education.  VoiceThread is dissolving the walls of traditional learning environments, enhancing the educational experience for educators and learners alike.  I set out to explore VoiceThread as a change agent within my own discipline; design. The experience resulted in engaging students in unexpected and positive ways, and it expanded my beliefs about online design education.  This post shares how implementing VoiceThread as method for critique has enhanced the learning experience for my design students, and the surprising results of incorporating it into my teaching.

Design studios are unique from other classrooms as spaces where solutions manifest by students engaging an in-depth process of design, involving research, discourse, and the act of making. The studio is the core to any design program. The learning that happens in studio often unfolds within the walls of the studio environment. Design studios are typically centered around in-person model of interactive scaffolding, discourse, and critiques between student and instructor.  Local professionals often enter this model as visitors. Technology within this model have surfaced primarily as a means for production; presentation layout and printing, digital rendering, and modeling (physical and computer-based).

VoiceThread initially captured my interest as an online method to enhance this model, and to promote the dynamic and frequent exchange of ideas needed for design education. The program supports uploading a variety of visual media used by designers, and the built-in tools of a “thread” allow you to discuss the media in a way that mimics being present. Providing descriptive, verbal feedback about design development while drawing on images of the work is compatible with the formative assessment activities that occur in studio.  These attributes make the benefits of the activity almost indistinguishable from in-person design discourse.

I first integrated VoiceThread as an online method to connect students from two sections of an interior design studio.  I set up randomized, small-group threads and invited the students to voluntarily critique each other outside of class. The program readily engaged students and resulted in a high level of participation.  Administering the threads allowed me to monitor and mediate the process.  Controlling the activity in this way took time, but it was worth it; the initial setup proved to be a one time affair, it yielded a guided platform to introduce the technology to students, and allowed me to gain trust in VoiceThread as a critiquing platform.  The critiques that ensued were meaningful, productive, and richly descriptive discussions.  The students enjoyed that they could accomplish all this on their own time and gave them a virtual space to share the development of their ideas.  Also, they liked having an alternative way to participate in the formative assessment of their projects. As an added benefit, monitoring the discussions allowed me to assess the application of knowledge and vocabulary of the student critics.

The experience of using VoiceThread was so positive that I extended its use to broader formative assessment with outsider visitors.  These are often time consuming and difficult to organize because they traditionally occur on-site and in-person.  The asynchronous attributes of VoiceThread made it easy to connect with professionals from all over the world. Rather than having to be present at a specific time and location to contribute, critics could comment at their own convenience and students could review feedback privately and repeatedly.  Post-critique surveys revealed that the critiques were convenient, effective, and enjoyable.  The professionals shared that VoiceThread allowed them to participate despite their geographical and scheduling constraints.  The students shared a desire to have more VoiceThread critiques with professionals because it made them feel connected to industry and because the conversations were not isolated to a single afternoon.

The accretive nature of VoiceThread was an unexpected benefit to using the program.  Students, instructors, and/or critics can upload additional developments of work and continue discussions as long as the thread is active. An idle thread can either be simply disregarded or exhausted by archiving it as digital video file. This longitudinal model of formative assessment to a design studio is powerful, and is useful for any project-based course.  The ability to revisit any past critique is informative to both instructors and students, and promotes post-project reflection. One professional who participated in the outside critiques commented on this in the post-critique survey:

“The advantage of VoiceThread is that everyone can have a record of the development process as it happened, allowing for further study and review as well as allowing access to such information anywhere and anytime. The fact that multiple reviews from many individuals are recorded is a benefit to everyone involved in the exchange of information.”

Perhaps the most surprising benefit of implementing VoiceThread into my studio has been the after effects of introducing it to the students.  I observed a decline in email communication from students shortly after the initial introductory activity, which was synchronous to an increase in student-generated VoiceThreads.  Students organically adopted the tool as a primary way to solicit feedback outside of studio.  One student praised the tool by sharing, “This online program allows us to view the work of other students across different sections and is allowing us to get feedback out of class without wasting valuable class time.”  For design studios that meet twice a week with intervening gaps of time, the autonomy of this feedback has been a significant improvement to the fluidity of their learning.  The verbal method results in far more descriptive feedback than in written form, and mimics dialogue that happens naturally in person. I believe that this is an attractive aspect to my design students. In subsequent design studios, my VoiceThread-experienced students have continued to use it as a resource that enhances their learning. I find this to be an exceptional metric.

My interest in VoiceThread started with a hunch and resulted in an instructional learning experience that allowed me to discover and witness the benefits to the traditional model of design education.  VoiceThread is an effective resource for reinforcing continual and descriptive discourse during the design process, facilitating design critique, improving communication, and for broadening student exposure to industry professionals. This illustrates how design educators can readily integrate online sources into design education to enhance teaching and learning. As an area for further study, I postulate that the VoiceThread critique is comparable to its traditional, in-person counterpart; equally able to facilitate the growth of learning designers.

About the author

Jody Lawrence is a Doctoral Student at the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. Jody is an experienced design studio instructor with Master’s degrees in Architecture and Teaching. Jody’s scholarly interests stem from a diverse integration of disciplines, including teaching and learning, architecture and design, and the integration of online platforms. She is currently developing research that examines school contexts that foster creative instruction. She is also collaborating on several projects that explore online technology as a catalyst for extending the traditional design studio.