Any educator worth his or her salt would tell you that the secret to good education is to use the proper tool for the job – not all the tools, all the time, and not one favorite tool, in excess, to the exclusion of the others. The master teachers know which tool to use from their arsenal at any given time and are always looking to learn more. To that end, teachers have been asking us about Voki vs. BrainPOP as educational tools in the classroom, and in this short paper, I hope to provide a bit of relevant insight. I am not going to argue the merits of edTech and the pros and cons to having laptops or tablet computers at hand for the children to use. Rather I’d like to describe and enumerate the virtues of using one tool or the other, depending on the job at hand.
BrainPOP did not begin in the classroom – in fact, it was the brainchild of a doctor who wanted to teach his young patients about what happens to them when they get sick, by using animated videos. Through trial and error, it was found that the optimal amount of time a child would watch and be engaged in a little video was no more than 5 minutes. Soon parents began asking him for more specific content based on what they wanted to help their children with – and then they asked their kids’ teachers to please show these little videos in the classroom. A wonderful tool was then introduced to the realm of Education, and the rest, as they say, is history. But BrainPOP was not originally conceived as a classroom tool. To this day, BrainPOP is marketed to schools and districts – but also by subscription to parents as an educational alternative to cartoons and mind-numbing tweeny shows.
Voki likewise was not originally conceived as an educational tool. The digital avatars that can be fully personalized were originally created for use in social media, and business websites. However, clever and creative teachers began to use Voki in the classroom, letting children create their own avatars to do the talking for them. Teachers also incorporated Voki avatars into their presentations, as a maitre d’ when introducing new lessons or concepts, or as an engaging way to interact with the students during the lesson.
While BrainPOP was born as a content tool, Voki’s main focus at first was on its avatar customization ability – teachers and students could create their own avatars, and customize them richly and creatively. They could also create and share their own content. However Voki realized very quickly that they could better help teachers and students if they pre-created content that was ready-made for teaching and learning.
BrainPOP includes thousands of short animated films, with recurring characters, that follow a formula: some bantering at first, then they read a letter which encompasses the main idea of the video, then they spend the rest of the time explaining, demonstrating or clarifying the concept or answering the question. In nearly all cases, the video ends with a joke of some sort. To use BrainPOP in the classroom, a teacher can either tell students to watch things they are interested in and plan for that to be a 5 – 10 minute self-directed learning activity, or the teacher can put the video on the interactive whiteboard and use it as a teaching tool embedded in the lesson of the day. It is simple and easy to navigate the site; one just needs a paid account in order to access the offerings. The drawback is that it is a self-contained, hands off stand-in for actual teaching.
Voki content follows a different methodology. Using the Common Core Standards as a guideline, the Voki team has created presentations narrated by different Voki avatars, which follow the grade level and subject curriculum. Bundled into Units, a teacher can download lesson plans and graphic organizers or handouts that go along with the lessons, and use the Voki lesson as a springboard, pausing and controlling the pace of the presentation to suit his or her classroom’s culture and needs. In addition, a teacher can copy the lesson into their own account and then personalize it, modify it or add to it, so that it is tailor-made to their class’s learning style. Teachers can even record their own voice for the Voki to use. Using Voki as a classroom tool requires some advance planning and preparation on the part of the teacher. He or she needs to familiarize themselves with the lesson content so they know when to stop and direct the children in an activity, and they need to become familiar with the content creator tool called Voki Presenter, which allows them to freely edit or customize the lesson or build their own presentation if they choose, from the ground up. Though Voki is a little more labor intensive and requires a teacher to spend some time with it to become comfortable with all the features, the benefit is that one can build on existing content or create new content that is unique and right on target. These abilities are not available with BrainPOP.
Both tools have iconic and easily identifiable looks. BrainPOP uses an almost retro-feel in their badges, with easy to identify symbols for the lessons, and very clean and crisp images. Everything is animated or cartoon style, and the site uses theme colors that are reminiscent of “the good old days.” The badges are arranged in tiles when you go to a specific subject area, though there is no discernible order to how they are placed. It is not clear if they are in descending order from the date of creation or there is some other filter at work. When you open up a video, you are also given options as to whether you want to take a quiz on the subject, “map” the ideas that are contained in the video, go to other activities or read up some more information. Each video is a self-contained, stand-alone lesson with a clear focus. The presentations are very clear and really explain difficult subjects (for example, internal combustion engines) concisely and in language that is easy for children to parse. In terms of the UI/UX factor, though BrainPOP is easy to use – just point and click – there is no ability for a student to utilize the content in his or her own presentation, whether it is an oral report or a homework assignment.
Voki’s signature look is the bright orange speech bubble. The site allows you to sort the content by grade level and subject. There are hooks, which are short presentations that introduce a topic or prompts students to do an activity such as writing starters or short math problems. Usually they are connected to an upcoming holiday or national day. Lessons are Common Core aligned and grouped together into Units, so that a teacher can plan to cover 6 to 8 topics using Voki content within the unit of study. As was mentioned earlier, one of the coolest parts of Voki is the ability of the teacher to personalize it – to change the appearance, race, gender, voice, and especially the message – so that it has the ability to connect with students even more.
As a teacher and an administrator, I can see the benefits of both tools in the classroom. Both can be very useful to help transition between topics, can be used as a Do Now to settle students into the goal of a lesson, or when students are finished with their work or tests early and can be directed to a useful occupation. Additionally, assigning either tool as a homework component to either prepare students for the next day’s lesson (reversing the classroom) or review content covered is more likely to be successful because of the fun nature of the tools. In the UI/UX factor, Voki has more hands-on options for students, and in fact, at the end of every lesson, students are encouraged to create a Voki avatar to respond to the main theme or question of the lesson.
Thus far, we have been able to highlight some of the positive uses that both these tools offer, both in the classroom and as homework components. Though we are not comparing apples to apples, it is useful and interesting to explore how and when each tool might be used to its best advantage. When considering a Special Education setting for example, Voki becomes the stronger option. Students who struggle with social anxiety or certain behavioral issues can use Voki as a safe way to communicate, a way to represent themselves through an avatar that reflects how they want to look and interacts with their peers and teachers by proxy. People with autism can learn about how to express feelings and identify facial expressions through play as they manipulate their Voki avatar. Students who are diagnosed with selective mutism or are very shy can find a voice to communicate with so that they don’t feel disenfranchised or disconnected. From a mental health perspective, using a Voki avatar in a therapeutic setting can help students express fears or anxiety, and help them share scary experiences like bullying in a way that removes them from the immediacy of the emotional burden.
As I have previously noted, it is not really appropriate to directly compare these two tools side by side, but rather explore each one’s strengths and uses. For an educator who was wondering what these tools are and how they can best be used, I hope this has been an enlightening and useful discussion. Since we know that the key to engaging students is using the proper tool at the proper time, I hope that this information will help teachers make good choices about the use of these technologies in their classrooms.
Na’ama Y. Rosenberg is the Director of Educational Content at Voki, a division of Oddcast Inc. a NYC company. Experienced in the field of education for over 20 years, she has previously worked as a teacher and administrator in grades 4 – 12, and in Early Childhood.