Enhancing Tradition: Using Voicethread to Increase the Fluidity and Diversity of Design Discourse
Jody Nyboer, Ph.D. | Syracuse University
Overview: While online modalities of critique are essential when in-person design instruction is interrupted or not possible, these modalities are valuable beyond remote use and are uniquely capable of enhancing traditional design courses. This paper presents strategic uses of VoiceThread for providing online feedback to in-person design students. Shared experiences suggest that the asynchronous application is suitable for facilitating meaningful critiques when instruction is limited by time and challenged by geographical constraints. The application makes discourse more fluid and allows a global pool of industry professionals to participate in the critiquing process. These enhancements optimize and diversify the feedback that students receive about their work and should become a mainstay of traditional studio instruction.
Level: Appropriate for all levels.
Duration: N/A (asynchronous).
- Facilitate remote design critiques that mimic in-person discourse.
- Improve the fluidity of and diversity of discourse for traditional design studios.
- Engage a global pool of industry professionals in the design critique process.
Design education traditionally transpires within the walls of the physical studio environment, organized around interactive scaffolding and in-person discourse between student and mentors. When this model is interrupted or not possible, design courses rely on remote modalities for sustaining these essential exchanges. Using online technology to educate and prepare future designers for industry is new and challenging territory for many instructors. Faced with forced remote instruction, most are eager to return to the traditional model. When this happens, however, remote models should not be completely dismissed.
Prior to mandates for remote instruction, attending a review online was neither a popular nor default option. But when strategically implemented, online tools can enhance design discourse in ways that are unusual to residential instruction. Working remotely enhances the frequency of feedback because discourse easily expands beyond the restrictions of scheduled classes. Many instructors can relate to the challenge of connecting with each student equally during studio time and the impact that several days between intermittent sessions can have on the development of design work. Working remotely, rather than serving as on-site, visiting critics, also makes it more convenient for industry professionals to review student work.
Contemporary design instructors have a myriad of online applications to choose from for navigating remote modalities of instruction. Each educator must determine which applications are compatible with their teaching style and, more importantly the appropriateness of these applications for meeting their instructional goals. Educators must weigh not only the impact of such tools on the authenticity of design learning experiences (Roman et al., 2020), but how well they support “media which most closely replicate the direct and unfiltered connection of the studio” (Hokanson, 2012, p. 81). Arguably, some applications are more suitable than others for facilitating the essential practice of critiquing design work.
This paper presents strategic uses of VoiceThread for providing online feedback to students enrolled in an in-person design studio. VoiceThread’s suitability for design instruction is validated by the experiences shared by students and outside critics after using the application for various critiquing activities. These experiences suggest that unique attributes of the application facilitate fluid exchanges about design work and enhance the participation of outsiders.
Critiques in a design studio typically unfold as back-and-forth exchanges concerning visual and physical artifacts of student work. Because a design critique experience is tactile, it is challenging to fully replicate this experience in a virtual space. It is possible, however, to accomplish meaningful critiques online with the right application(s). VoiceThread is one of many that are suitable for reviewing design work, featuring tools that support the rich exchanges of information that students need to develop their projects.
VoiceThread is an asynchronous application that mimics in-person exchanges about visual content. The application allows users to post visual content to a digital presentation space—called a “thread”—and invite others to review and comment on the content. A wide variety of visual files can be uploaded into a thread, and additional content can be added over time. Any file loaded into a thread can be singled out as the focus of a review activity, or multiple files in a thread can be reviewed as a series (similar to a presentation of slides or turning the page of a book). The application is equipped with various tools to facilitate discussions about the content, such as a tool to add simple text-based messages to a particular slide. It also features tools for recording verbalized comments and drawing directly onto the visual content (see Figure 1). One powerful feature allows verbalized comments to be used simultaneously with the drawing tool to record messages that are rich and multisensory (audio feedback enhanced by concurrent sketching).
VoiceThread’s attributes are of interest to instructors who struggle to effectively and equitably critique the work of every student during studio sessions throughout the week. Working remotely allows instructors to negotiate time constraints and dialogue gaps. While several applications on the market can be used to provide online feedback, few support exchanges that are synonymous with an in-person design critique—synchronized talking about and drawing on visual artifacts of the work. When VoiceThread is used to continue discussions beyond studio, the quality of a design critique is not sacrificed. While it may take time for the instructor to provide feedback outside of class, and while the exchanges may not be in real time, the feedback students receive through VoiceThread mimics the exchanges that happen in studio. VoiceThread seems to be unique in this regard, despite operating as an asynchronous platform. Dawson et al. (2018) agree, suggesting that technology can be enhanced to support long-term feedback designs by “adapting portfolio tools so they become repositories of not just student work, but also the feedback information related to that work.” (p. 27)
Other attributes of VoiceThread further support its suitability for design. When a series of comments populate a thread (as seen in Figure 1), it simulates a critiquing event in which multiple critics review student work. When a thread accrues the iterations of design work and its feedback over the course of a project, it archives the evolution of both the design and the feedback. While this is similar to desk crits in which instructors provide students with weekly feedback, comments on VoiceThread stay with the content unless deleted by the thread’s author, providing students with a transcription of the discourse. This is another unique attribute that is beneficial to design, but not offered by other applications.
Figure 2 illustrates the layout of a multi-page thread featuring the work of an interior design student. The comments on the left sidebar of Figure 3 illustrate the population of comments on a single slide. A thread and its comments are available for a student to review repeatedly and on their own time. Comments can continue to be reviewed until deleted by the author, or until the entire thread is expunged.
Implementing The Application
Establishing early familiarity with and comfort in using VoiceThread improves the likelihood that both students and instructors will embrace its use for critiques. Peer reviews are a useful activity for casually initiating this; they help students become familiar with hearing their own voices and outwardly expressing their opinions about design work other than their own.
Experience implementing VoiceThread for peer reviews suggests that students gravitate towards the text commenting tool rather than the recording tool to verbalize their feedback. This is problematic; it promotes a passive studio culture, and the text tool does not work in tandem with the drawing tool. It is a thus a good idea for the instructor to moderate the availability of tools on a thread and to only allow verbal comments. It is also helpful to adjust the comment moderation settings to allow the mediation of critical feedback before it is released to the design student, and to modify the playback and recording settings.
Once a cohort gains experience using VoiceThread, the application can be used to conduct summative and formative critiques both within the immediate learning community and with outside critics. Industry professionals who are invited to a review can easily access a thread through a shared URL and can immediately begin reviewing content and providing feedback. They do not need to establish an account to participate in the process.
Post-review experiences shared by visiting critics suggest appreciation for VoiceThread’s feedback tools, which align with the descriptive communication methods designers are accustomed to using in person (simultaneous talking, drawing, and pointing at visual artifacts). They also suggest that having adequate time to develop constructive comments is a major advantage, especially in contrast to the reactionary feedback commonly shared during in-person reviews. Finally, the experiences suggest that participating in remote critiques allows these visiting critics to accept more invitations to be involved. Reviews are time-consuming events that are generally scheduled during the weekdays, and typically require in-person participation. Reviews can take several hours, and it is often difficult for professionals to leave their work for great lengths of time.
Using an asynchronous application like VoiceThread allows the pool of visiting critics to extend beyond the usual backyard selection of industry professionals. This is advantageous for instructors who are new to a design program and unfamiliar with local practitioners. Despite their geographical location, instructors can invite who they know, mindfully aligning the expertise and demeanor of a critic with a particular project type or student, or using the application as a means to expose students to a diverse range of viewpoints.
When time zones and location are not an issue, participation is limited only by a critic’s willingness to view and comment on student work within a reasonable turnaround time, and their ability to successfully connect to a network that supports access to the application. Several critics utilize the VoiceThread smartphone app to complete this process while riding a light rail or sitting in a waiting room or airport. And the diversity of the critics is limited only by the social and professional networks of the instructor.
For one exemplary critiquing event for interior design, industry professionals were scattered across the globe, from Alaska to Puerto Rico to the United Arab Emirates (see Figure 4). Each student benefited from the reviews of two to three critics, each from extremely different geographical locations. It was a month-long event which allowed students to share their work with a consistent set of industry professionals on a weekly basis. As students developed their designs, they uploaded new images to the thread to share their progress. Working in this way fostered unique conversations that ranged from culturally significant perspectives to an emphasis on professional standards and practice. For several students the experience was analogous to mentorship, and many stayed in touch with the industry professionals beyond the course.
These experiences show how implementing an online application can complement a traditional studio. Interruptions to instruction, however, are inevitable and sometimes the traditional methods of in-person design education and feedback are not possible. When this happens, instructors might be faced with identifying suitable replacements that allow them to keep meeting the learning objectives of the course, and students (rather than critics) might be forced to navigate geographical and time constraints. The point of strategy is to emphasize that effective critiques are possible in an online environment despite these challenges, and that they have value to the studio experience. These are unique learning opportunities that the students may not gain otherwise.
The Perceived Value of Voicethread to Design Studio
Post-experience surveys were distributed after VoiceThread was used to provide feedback beyond studio time, coordinate peer reviews, and facilitate critiques with industry professionals. These surveys asked students and visiting critics to share their thoughts concerning the alternative approach to critique, which at the time was a novel experience for all involved.
The critics described several positive aspects of using the online method for providing feedback to the students. The most prevalent of the shared experiences was that they could participate. Many described how they’d often need to decline invitations to participate with local design programs because they just couldn’t fit a review into their busy schedule, and they were grateful for how using the alternative method granted them the opportunity to engage. One critic noted, “I found the experience engaging and rewarding. Thank you for the opportunity!” Another shared, “Over the last 14 years, I have not had any opportunities.” And another said,
I have been wanting to do this with the [local] design program for years and never have the time and always have to say no. But I want to be more involved with academia because I really enjoy it and want to see what the emerging designers are learning. So, thank you for the opportunity!
The critics also shared how distinct attributes of VoiceThread enhanced their experience. One particular feature they liked was that each slide archived the original comments, and as students added new slides and critics added new sets of feedback, the result was a transcript of design development. One critic who participated in the month-long critiquing event described how this feature uniquely bridged the communication between students, the instructor, and the critic:
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.
The critics enjoyed the VoiceThread critiques, which allowed them to participate despite location and scheduling constraints. None of the critics had ever reviewed student design work while in a different country, let alone from a different state. They described the experience of participating in a review with students and professionals who they had never met as “engaging” and “unique.”
While the critics described mostly positive experiences, when asked to describe their experience compared to in-person reviews, most were keen to emphasize the advantages of face-to-face design discourse. One critic shared that in-person critiques were better because it eliminated “idle time between discussion exchanges.” Another expressed that the online method seemed “more rushed than the in-person events” and that in-person review events seemed to feel more casual and relaxed as a reviewer. Others mentioned that, even though they had extra time to think about and leave comments, it felt like a larger time commitment. One said, “In-person critiques commit you to a set amount of time… [they have] a distinct end-time and then it’s over.” Finally, some expressed concerns for not knowing if the students really understood their feedback because they could not see their in-person reactions as they reviewed their comments. One critic described this when they shared,
I can’t really tell if they are seeing what I see in terms of my critiques and their understanding; maybe the role of online critique requires a confirmation… at least “over” like walkie talkies.
The students who participated in the month-long critiquing event also had insightful experiences to share. By the end of the course, they had used the application for peer reviews, to get feedback outside of studio time, and to connect with industry professionals. Their responses were unanimously positive, suggesting that VoiceThread was uniquely valuable and enhanced their in-person studio experience. The students indicated a strong desire to use the application in the future to get feedback from instructors outside of class, to discuss their work with fellow students, and to network with and receive feedback from outsiders. The critiques with the visiting critics made them feel more connected to industry because their conversations with the professionals were not isolated to a single afternoon. They also found it valuable to hear feedback from practitioners from locations different from their own, believing that this resulted in feedback that was more diverse and culturally insightful.
The students were also asked to share how their learning experience was impacted by receiving VoiceThread critiques from their instructor outside of studio. Comments were mostly positive, highlighting how the application increased the overall amount of feedback they received about their work, and noting that the feedback was “much quicker” than having to wait in studio for their turn in a desk crit rotation, which they described as “lost time.” They also appreciated that they could “revisit the comments over and over again,” eliminating the pressure of capturing all the information in a live review, and enjoyed having the option to be critiqued in a setting that made them “less nervous.” Finally, the students shared how this experience impacted their overall production both in and outside of studio when they wrote:
It allowed me to get feedback between class meetings, and to keep working on projects continuously.
[This made me] more productive because I already had feedback to work from, instead of waiting 2 hours or more to get feedback and wasting a whole class.
I had [fewer] questions in class and could further my in-studio process, even more, focusing less on questions and more on my design development.
The students shared constructive feedback as well. Similar to the visiting critics, they were keen to express preference for in-person feedback, despite acknowledging a value for the alternative method:
This was fine. It helped a lot when I couldn’t get any feedback, and I needed it. But I prefer to sit and talk to someone about my work.
I understand what I’m being told better when it’s in-person.
Finally, one student perceived that VoiceThread critiques benefited the instructor and critics more than the students and was actually annoyed by the experience:
I believe that it was more convenient for them rather than for me because it consumed time that I could have spent on developing some of my projects and ideas rather than sitting and waiting for a response. For desk crits, I could have easily had my questions answered in studio if the time had been used more wisely.
Feedback is believed to be critically influential to learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 102). And El-Latif et al. suggest that “critique sessions are one of the major interactive and indirect educative tools In the design studio” (2020, p. 761). However, most educators can contend that facilitating effective critique sessions for every student in a studio cohort is a common challenge because it requires regular discourse and time. Even when ample time is organized for a review, the time allotted for each student never seems to be enough, and it can be frustrating for learners and instructors. This is especially true for students in their first year, when each stage of design development feels vulnerable and dependent on feedback. Consistent feedback helps them understand how to apply learned knowledge into their work while adhering to design constraints that become more complex with each project.
Effective critiques also require clear communication. The artifacts of design work are visual and spatial. This is challenging for design students to understand initially, yet many students in undergraduate programs struggle with it during the full length of their program. Design feedback is richest when it is multi-sensory. While drawing and talking are universal attributes of design critiques, they work best in sync; students struggle to comprehend the feedback when the verbal and tactile methods of communication are isolated.
Finally, effective critiques require a diversity of perspectives. This can be accomplished by facilitating peer reviews, but also by soliciting critics who are not a part of the immediate learning community. A conscientious designer considers the greater impact of their decisions—cultural, social, and environmental implications, but also otherness and universal access. To teach students how to be successful in this way means exposing them to outside views early and often.
Online applications are essential for navigating interruptions to residential instruction and for keeping up the essential practice of critique for design courses. But these applications are also transformative as supplements to traditional, in-person design studios. Critique can be effective beyond four physical walls and can transcend the challenges of time and geography that limit student exposure to valuable design discourse. VoiceThread is especially strategic for enhancing design studio feedback in this way. The application mimics the communication that designers are accustomed to. The experiences shared in this paper illustrate how the application benefits students and gains the approval of visiting critics, increasing the fluidity and diversity of design discourse. This suggests that online applications are an enhancement to traditional design studio instruction and should become a mainstay of studio courses.
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