The Horizon Wimba Voice Tools consist of a suite of tools that can be easily integrated as PowerLinks within a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) like WebCT or Blackboard and/or used as stand-alone web tools. This review focuses on how the tools can be integrated into WebCT (with examples from both WebCT Campus 4 and Vista 4 and Horizon Wimba Voice Tools versions 4 and 5).
The four voice tools illustrated here are those that have been piloted at Coventry University since October 2005:
- Voice Board - Asynchronous audio discussions;
- Voice Email - Audio email (with added text box facility): sends voice messages to email addresses outside the VLE;
- Voice Direct - Live audio chat with turn taking;
- Voice Recorder - Audio announcements/audio recordings.
In order to add a Voice Tool to a WebCT course, the designer clicks Add Page or Tool (in WebCT Campus 4) or Add Content Link (in Vista 4) and then selects the required Voice Tool (Figure 1). All tools require the user to have a microphone and headphones connected to their computer.
Figure 1: adding the Voice Tools in WebCT Campus Edition 4 (Horizon Wimba 4)
Figure 2 illustrates how to create a Voice Board. It is important to adjust the quality of recording depending on the environment in which the Voice Board will be used. The higher the quality, the more bandwidth is required. This setting can be changed at any time but messages that have already been posted will play in their original encoding. The default setting of Standard Quality (12.8 kbits/s) works well for most situations. It is also recommended to set the maximum recording length at three minutes, even if five minutes is available as an option. There is also the option to display the messages in chronological order with the oldest messages first and to allow students to forward a message. An interesting feature of the tool is that it is possible to make discussion threads private – this could be used for oral group work online, for assessment and for one-to-one tutorials.
Figure 2: setting Up Voice Board in WebCT Campus 4 (Horizon Wimba 4)
Figure 3 illustrates how to set up Voice Email. The interesting feature here is that students will receive a voice message into their normal email inbox, not within the VLE and, if the reply box is checked, they will be able to reply with a voice message, as long as they have a headset with microphone.
Figure 3: setting up Voice Email in WebCT Campus 4 (Horizon Wimba 4.0)
At Coventry we have successfully tested Voice Board and Voice Email with both staff and students and these two tools have been well received, particularly amongst linguists.
Voice Direct allows the user to hold a conference call over the Internet (or a local network). It is possible to create as many conferences as needed. People can enter and leave each of them as they please. Moreover, all conferences can be archived for future consultation. This chat tool requires a certain ability at turn-taking and good reflexes, as the users have to be fast in spotting the window of opportunity created by the green hand on the screen and the live microphone image to contribute to the chat.
Voice Direct proved to be the least successful of the four voice tools tested. This could be due to the fact that at Coventry University it was only tried with students on the same site (not in distance learning mode); the students were not motivated in engaging in a live chat with peers that they would meet later face-to-face. Another hindrance to the interactivity of this tool could be ascribed to students’ familiarity with MSN and Skype and their preference for these types of live online interaction. Having to click on the hand to speak feels a bit artificial and makes exchanges stilted.
Figure 4: Voice Direct Interface in WebCT Vista 4 (Horizon Wimba 5)
The final voice tool, Voice Recorder (Figure 5) works like any other audio-recording tool once it is launched. The user can embed an audio recording into a webpage for playback by the student. A drawback of this tool is that the message cannot be edited, it can only be re-recorded.
Figure 5: Voice Recorder in WebCT Vista (Horizon Wimba 5.0)
At Coventry, Voice Recorder has been used for a variety of purposes, to include using the HTML script (or wav file) to create multiple choice quizzes with sound (see below) and providing audio feedback on tasks/coursework (see examples below) and/or making announcements.
Version 5 of the Voice Tools, released in February 2006, is illustrated in Figures 4 and 5. It has a more modern look and feel and includes many new features, such as:
- import/Export of audio files for students (portable voice content via spx, mp3, wav files);
- copy entire Voice Boards;
- drag-reorder messages;
- delete multiple messages with a single click;
- auto-play for Voice Boards;
- new user interface for all Voice Tools and new Voice Tools Manager;
- detachable, resizable voice boards;
- playback and recording time information;
- new Voice Presentation tool;
- usage stats;
- new Setup Wizard.
The upgrade from version 4 to version 5 was easy to implement at Coventry University and was fully supported by the Horizon Wimba technical team. It must be noted however that in terms of programming there are considerable differences between the setting up of the PowerLinks in WebCT Campus 4 and Vista 4.
Cost, user guides and support
The cost for a site licence for the four voice tools starts at around £3500 and increases depending on the number of users. This price includes support, initial training and maintenance. Additional training can be obtained at an extra cost. End users have access to technical support on a 24/7 basis. Coventry University’s one-year trial and test of both the online and the telephone support from Horizon Wimba appears to confirm that the company’s claim of an efficient support service is justified.
The Horizon Wimba Voice Tool exchanges are all hosted and managed on a server in New York. It is not recommended to host them on a local institutional server. In order to access these tools through WebCT, the Horizon Wimba PowerLink needs to be installed and configured on the WebCT server. According to Horizon Wimba the tools offer the following integration features:
- Single Sign On: students and instructors seamlessly access the Horizon Wimba tools via WebCT. They do not need to log in again or type a URL.
- Integrated creation and management of Horizon Wimba tools: Instructors can easily create and manage their tools using the WebCT interface. There is no need to access and learn a new administration interface.
- Consistent look and feel and navigation: Horizon Wimba tools look like and can be used as any other tool within WebCT. Consequently there is almost no learning curve to use it.
- WebCT calendar integration: Calendar entries can be created to enable direct access from the calendar to each tool.
- Content Push: Files stored within WebCT File Manager can easily be transferred across PowerLinks (for example to ‘Live Classroom’, a voice tool not illustrated here).
It is important to point out that the third bullet point above is slightly misleading, as there are some differences in interface and functionality between the Horizon Wimba tools and the WebCT tools. For example, one discrepancy that existed in version 4 of the Horizon Wimba voice tools, and has since been rectified in version 5, was that if the designer deleted one message in a thread in the Voice Board, all the other messages would be deleted too; this has never been the case for WebCT discussion messages.
A weakness identified is that the user documentation provides very basic information, mainly referring to installation rather than use. The User Guide, for example, only covers use by a section designer and a teaching assistant, but not a student. Both guides would be enhanced by the inclusion of screen shots illustrating the various functions. In fact, although the Horizon Wimba Tools are quite straightforward to use, it would help to have more detailed instructions at the ‘end user’ side of the interface for first use. The weakness in the help files can also be found in the online help available at the Horizon Wimba website, which only refers to the tools as self-standing, not as integrated PowerLinks within WebCT/Blackboard. Unfortunately, this is also the case within the VLE itself: in the WebCT’s help files there is no mention of how to use these PowerLinks. It is however true that it only takes a few minutes for all users to understand how to use the tools (both at designer and online classroom use level).
In terms of further support, users can register for free on the Horizon Wimba User Group (HUG) discussion board, described as "an education-centric forum created to foster the open discussion of Horizon Wimba's collaborative software and education technology in general". Unfortunately, it would appear that on this discussion board postings rare and far between. In in terms of obtaining support fast and effectively, it is probably better to email Horizon Wimba's support contact email. Each institution purchasing the tools also obtains a passworded personal management area on the Internet for each member of staff using the tools hosted by Horizon Wimba.
I would just like to finish this section by adding a few hints and tips that could be useful for the first-time end user. Academic staff and students using the Horizon Wimba voice tools must:
- download Java on their PC/laptop (version 1.5) and/or make sure they have it installed before launching the tools;
- enable pop-ups (which tend to be disabled on HE campus networks for security reasons);
- click ‘always’ or ‘run’ when they obtain the large grey dialogue box to run the voice tool they want to use after the first click to launch it;
- test headphones and microphones (cheaper ones can work better than expensive ones).
Also, academic staff using the tools with Vista 4 must remember to click the ‘teach’ tab when engaging in activities with students requiring the use of the PowerLinks. This is easily forgotten, particularly for those of us who have been used to WebCT Campus for a long time and are used to only switching between Designer view and Student view.
What can I do with the Voice Tools?
At Coventry University the Voice Tools have, so far, mainly been used in a blended learning context for:
- interactive teaching, learning and assessment in languages;
- interactive staff training, in blended learning mode;
- interactive marketing of courses and outreach initiatives with local schools.
Sample activities created with the tools are illustrated in Figure 6:
Figure 6: Horizon Wimba activities set up for the first week of an Italian module delivered in blended learning mode at Coventry University
The sample activities illustrated in Figure 6 were set for the first week of a main language module (Italian ab initio). Students were learning greetings and getting to know each other. They were also encouraged to reflect online on the tasks carried out throughout the week.
In order to incorporate the Voice Recorder audio message into the quiz, tutors can retrieve the HTML script for it from the Horizon Wimba manager area for their institution (which can be used to store all audio recordings) and paste it into the quiz and/or export the message to their PC and copy it into the quiz.
Figure 7: multiple choice quiz with audio clip created with Voice Recorder (WebCT 4 and/or Vista 4 with Horizon Wimba 5)
The tools have also been used to develop employability and enterprise skills in simulations of work situations. They have furthermore been successfully used for staff training (oral reflections on tasks to share on Voice Board/Voice Email). The following skills have been developed/practised and/or enhanced via the integration of these Voice Tools with both staff and students at Coventry University in academic year 2005-2006:
- listening and comprehension skills;
- speaking skills;
- interpreting and translating skills;
- problem-solving both in a foreign language and in English;
- summary skills;
- time management and organisational skills;
- Personal Development Planning/reflective skills.
On the whole these tools are a very welcome addition to the world of e-learning, as the integration of easy to install, easy to use and reliable interactive listening and speaking tools for online communication within a VLE was long due, and not just for language learning, teaching and assessment, but for all forms of online learning. Version 5 of the Horizon Wimba Voice Tools offers both a pleasant interface and good usability features. We have mainly tested the voice tools within a blended learning context at Coventry University, but they obviously have great potential for distance learning.
Coventry University: www.coventry.ac.uk
Horizon Wimba: www.horizonwimba.com
I would like to thank Dr Andy Syson and John Tutchings (Head of Learning Technology and Senior Analyst Programmer respectively at Coventry University) and Thomas Jepsen and Lloyd Stock (Director of Sales EMEA and Professional Service Manager respectively at Horizon Wimba UK) for the help provided with writing this review.
Coordinator, Centre for Information Technology in Language Learning (CITLL)