I’ve been using Voki for a couple of years now in one of my EFL courses in one particular Japanese university class. This year I decided to procure some student feedback and reflect on how things were going with the platform. The main pedagogical impetus for taking on this application was threefold:
- to expose students to one of many fun tools available online through which they could practice their speaking in a safe and secure setting (privacy controlled).
- to expose students to computer applications in general, as computer competency tends to be low, and students need confidence to adapt to an ever increasingly digital world upon graduation.
- to provide a medium though which students could record and share some clips of their speaking for evaluation purposes.
Students in this particular full-year course used Voki twice in their first semester, and will do so once again at the end of the second semester. (Japanese universities generally start the academic year in April.) The time they will have spent with the platform is therefore minimal. For their first Voki assignment, they had to record a self-introduction and paste their Voki avatar onto their blogs. This first assignment was not only to help them get used to both Voki and the WordPress blogging platform (several students were not even aware of the concept of blogging), but also to get them used to having to deal with this technology in a foreign language. It was highly intimidating for some. The second VOKI recording also had to be posted to their blogs and was part of a larger semester review activity that was assessed and weighted at 30% of the semester grade, as will be the case for the 3rd assignment next term. I have always perceived formal speaking assessments as class time wasters and have preferred to assess student L2 (second language) speaking throughout the term through monitoring in-class activities such as task-based speaking activities and discussions. Tools like Voki have added another dimension in addressing teachers’ need to get feedback on student performance while at the same time maximizing the few contact hours they have with their students on campus.
From a teacher’s perspective, Voki indeed has a lot to offer, which is why I use it. There are issues I continue to have, however, but these actually have less to do with the Voki platform itself than other issues such as language ability. The first main problem I have is that despite having in-class screen demos on how to use the platform and embed Vokis onto their blogs, students still get stuck with the technology. Instead of taking the extra time (of which I have none, so I really don’t have a choice) to help individual students troubleshoot outside of class, I make it a point to challenge students to be autonomous learners and try to figure out how things work by trial and error; to have to the curiosity to click buttons to see what happens, and to take the initiative to collaborate with their peers if stuck. Sadly, this approach to learning does not come easily to Japanese learners, who by university age are used to a teacher-centered, top-down approach to acquiring any knowledge or skill.
A second issue I have is the existence on Voki of the option to type in desired speech. Despite what I hoped were clear instructions, and despite what I thought was an obvious goal that Voki was to be used as a speaking activity, almost 20% of my students in the 2013 spring term typed in their content and had the Voki speaking machine do its magic for them. Whether this was a result of foreign language misunderstanding, poor instruction on my part, or a simple lack of common sense from students is yet to be ascertained, but it is certainly not the fault of the Voki platform, and neither is the third problem I had: In any out-of-class speech recording, teachers cannot control how students record their voice. The goal is to have students prepare their opinions about certain issues before recording their voice, and to have those recordings be completely natural and unscripted. It is easy for teachers to know when second language learners are reading from a prepared script and when they are speaking off the top of their heads. Sadly, only about half of students were doing as I had reminded them several times to do: Don’t read from a script; speak naturally! At my university, privacy-related fears have prompted a ban on online video use, so teachers have unfortunately not been able to make use of tools such as Youtube for recording student work, despite the existence of privacy settings. However, even video to some extent would not eliminate the issue of script reading. Cues could be held off camera, after all. This is the main reason why I would use Voki or any similar tool as neither a major form, nor the only form, of speaking assessment.
As I was curious to know how students perceived the Voki platform, using Survey Monkey, I questioned my 31 students after having completed their second Voki assignment at the end of the 2013 spring term. 55% of students enjoyed using Voki, 18% enjoyed it sometimes, another 18% were neutral about it, and 9% did not enjoy their Voki experience. These are the optional comments I received regarding their enjoyment:
- It is interesting to create my own character.
- Making my Voki was fun!
- To make my own picture was really fun!
- It is good for practicing my pronunciation.
- It was interesting because the picture spoke what I want to say. Also, I could listen to my own talking, so I can notice my bad point of speaking.
- It was fun to listen other’s opinion by voice instead of just reading the text.
- I enjoyed listening to some of my friends’ Vokis. I didn’t listen all of them because I wasn’t interested in other classmates’ Vokis.
- I was too nervous while recording, so I wanted to enjoy more!
- It was interesting that I can record my voice and publish on blog.
When I surveyed students about Voki’s ease of use, none replied that it was extremely easy, but almost 37% responded that it was easy enough and they had no major difficulties. 18% said it was generally OK, another 18% said is was sometimes tricky, and unfortunately over 27% reported that it was challenging to use. These are the optional comments I received, from positive to more negative:
- At first tiles, it is difficult to put voki on the blog, but once I understand how to do, it is not difficult to use voki.
- I confused a little at the first time, but it’s ok now.
- First , I had trouble, but easy to understand.
- Hard to use it.
- I didn’t like the homepage. Hard to understand.
- I thought putting Voki on my blog was a little difficult.
- I’m good at SNS tools, but it was difficult to find a microphone to record the voice. Our classroom is the only capable for record anyway…
- I could’t record my voice at home, so I had to do it at university. Also, PC at university was limited to use, so I felt little confused to search the available PC room to use it every time.
- At first, I was confused to upload Voki to the blog.
- I think it should be easier to record and upload on blogs.
- It was hard to record the voice. My Mac PC didn’t work. I could record but couldn’t save it… so I had to use school PC but the LLclass opening time was limited and also I had PTJ 6 days a week so it was really hard to make the pinpoint time for it ;( anyway, I enjoyed the system. so I wish it gonna be more smoother to save the voice.
- It had some problems, for example, most of us couldn’t record with own PC at home, I mean we couldn’t do homework at home.
The comments above indicate that students’ issues were more related to hardware access and blog embedding than using the Voki application itself. Inability to get the code to display correctly occurred often because students were pasting Voki embed code into the WYSIWYG editor as opposed to the html section of their WordPress blogs. Even though Voki has a short cut of getting them to login to their WordPress blogs directly from the platform, perhaps the additional method served to confuse students? Instruction on both methods was offered to students in class, so I can only assume that they failed to either pay attention, take good notes, or express any lack of understanding at the time. It could also be that the instruction session was either too difficult (it was indeed given in English), or given too far in advance of the homework assignments and students forgot. I imagine that most students did in fact have the necessary hardware (microphone, etc.) needed to record a Voki on their home computers, but did not make the effort to troubleshoot in English for reasons I have stated earlier.
Almost 64% of students indicated they would use Voki again on their own, and the rest said they would not. Again, here are their optional comments:
- I think recording my voice and listening my speech will help improve my pronunciation skills.
- I can record my voice and check my speaking skills.
- I want to use Voki more to train my speaking!
- It is the easy system to record my voice in English.
- No, because I don’t have a private blog where I can put Voki.
- No, because I don’t have any idea where to use.
- I don’t have an opportunity to use it.
- No, me and many people around me had trouble making a Voki.
- I already used Facebook and Twitter. It’s enough.
In my final survey question, I asked students to offer their general impressions about the Voki system in terms of how it related to their learning, and here are some examples of the feedback I received:
- It is useful to take an oral test in English.
- I think I study English while enjoying myself if I use voki
- Useful: I could learn how I am speaking to people easily.
- Not useful: hard to record!
- Voki is so fun for me because I can record my own voice and check it after that. However, I don’t think Voki is not so useful for learning English.
- It’s useful to know my speaking skill of English directly.
- It was good to record my voice and listen to it because I can’t listen my English usually.
- I could listening my own English speech and improve my English speech skill.
- At the point of speaking in English, it is useful because they can record their talking and listen to them again and again. But I think it is more important that others listen to that and comment on that.
- When I become a senior year, I didn’t have a enough opportunity to speak in English. However, Voki is a good chance to tell something another classmates. It is so nice that my friend replay me.
- Useful. We could use Voki a few times for free. This was a good service for English learner.
- I’m sorry to say but it was not useful for me.
In conclusion, overall Voki usage in my EFL class has been a positive experience. As a teacher, I perceive the platform to be extremely easy to use, but because students coming into the course in which I use it have had very limited online application experience, and because English is not their first language, there are obstacles for both teachers and students to overcome. With practice, teachers get better at explaining how to use Voki, and with practice, students will surely get over their anxiety in using the platform, and become more confident the next time they need to produce a Voki or dive into yet another English-only, online app.