VOCAT and the Question of Openness

x-posted from cac.ophony.org

It recently occurred to me that very little has been written about the Schwartz Communication Institute’s most ambitious and potentially most promising project, our Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool, or VOCAT. I have presented on VOCAT a number of times over the years (most recently at the 2009 Computers and Writing conference in June), but have not yet written about it in any kind of real detail. So it’s high time to remedy that.

VOCAT is a teaching and assessment web application. It is the fruit of a collaboration between the Schwartz Institute and mad genius code-poets at , Cast Iron Coding, Zach Davis and Lucas Thurston. It is still very much in development (perpetually so) but is already in use in introductory speech communication and theater courses as well as a number of assessment projects. Our career center used it effectively a few semesters ago as well. To date, approximately 3200 Baruch students have used the tool.

VOCAT was developed in recognition of the principle that careful, guided review of video recordings of their oral presentations (or of any performance, for that matter) can be remarkably effective for aiding students in becoming confident, purposeful and effective speakers. It serves as a means for instructors to easily provide feedback on student presentations.  It enables students to access videos of their performances as well as instructor feedback and to respond to both. It likewise aggregates recorded presentations and instructor feedback for each user and offers an informative snapshot of a student’s work and progress over the course of a given term or even an entire academic career. Presentations can be scored live, as students perform, or asynchronously once the videos have been uploaded. (Our turnaround time at this stage is between one and seven days depending on how many sections are using the tool at once — once some of the key steps happen server-side, turnaround time will not be as much of a concern.) Built on the open source TYPO3 content management system, it is a flexible, extensible and scalable web application that can be used at once as a teaching tool and as a means of data collection for research or other assessment purposes. (Screenshots are available here. I am also happy to share demo login info with anyone who would like to take a look — please email me at mikhail [dot] gershovich [at] baruch [dot] cuny [dot] edu.)

While VOCAT is quite feature-rich at this early stage, especially when it comes to reporting, data export, and rubric creation, we are always thinking about ways in which the tool can be made more robust and flexible. Currently, we are playing around with adding a group manager feature for group presentations, tagging for non-numeric assessment, moving from QT to Flash video, video annotation, as well as server-side video processing and in-line video and audio recording. We are also considering allowing users to choose to enable social functionality to take advantage of web 2.0 tools for sharing and commenting on one another’s work. And since, at its core, VOCAT is a tool for aggregating and responding to anything that can be uploaded, we’re thinking about other uses to which it could be put. It could easily, for example, be adapted for writing assessment. And someone once suggested that it could be useful for teaching bedside manner for medical students. Adapting VOCAT for these purposes is hardly a big deal.

The platform on which VOCAT is built is open source but the tool itself is not yet open. Right now, it is Baruch’s alone. Whether it should stay that way is a question much discussed around here. Here at the Institute we face several critical issues around open education, not the least of which is conflicting views on student access of Blogs@Baruch. In regards to VOCAT, however, the one thing constantly on my mind is the tension between an internal drive to share the tool as an open-source web application and build a community around it (there are no shortage of interested parties) and the pressures (or maybe a pernicious institutional common sense) that seem to compel us to keep VOCAT proprietary and use it to generate as much revenue as possible. I have heard arguments that VOCAT should be Baruch’s alone — that we should charge for its use and seek private funding for its deployment and development. This is a business school, after all, and I’m sure promoting and marketing VOCAT could be an interesting project for an upper division Marketing course.

Yet, I am inclined to believe that VOCAT should be shared freely and widely with other institutions and that other developers should be encouraged to develop for it.  A great many more students would benefit and development would certainly be accelerated as more and more schools add features they need that could then be adopted for use here. Were VOCAT open, in other words, it would evolve quickly and probably in ways we haven’t even imagined. And that is very exiting.

In the coming months, I hope to continue to present on VOCAT and to gain insights into the roles it can play in communication intensive courses or in a communication-focused curriculum of any sort. More importantly, I would like to move towards opening it up and will work with our developers on the features and functionality that facilitate sharing. I hope also to draw upon the tremendous expertise of my friends and colleagues involved in the open education movement and learn from those who have worked with and developed various open source tools for teaching and learning. Listening to others’ ideas for VOCAT has been invaluable to thinking through what this web app could ostensibly do with the right sort of development.  could be and how to best realize its full potential as a teaching tool — both in terms of deployment, training, and development.

About mgershovich

Director of The Schwartz Institue FT
This entry was posted in Assessing Learning, Communication Skills, Student Participation, Teaching Large Classes, Using Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to VOCAT and the Question of Openness

  1. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    Hi, Mikhail,
    I’ve seen the program only briefly once. Out of curiosity, what differentiates VOCAT from the commercial speech grading programs on the market? I’ve seen some commercial programs that were excellent and very flexible in their options for instructors. Is VOCAT unique because it uses video? Can an instructor, viewing a video, click and speak comments directly onto the video at relevant places? Or can one click and insert items from a menu of comments at specific places on the video?

  2. VOCAT is a web application which means that one does not need to download or install anything to use it.

    It is also tied into the College’s student database so that classes in VOCAT are automatically populated with students from the current roster. Students can also log in using their BCTC IDs.

    I don’t know whether using video makes VOCAT unique, but it does store videos and supports a variety of formats.

    We are currently developing an audio feedback recording feature as well as prepared comments and tagging. So that stuff is on the way.

  3. Joanne Grumet says:

    How would this work in an English 2100T course, a writing course for ESL students?

    Is there tech support?

  4. VOCAT could easily be used for oral presentations in ENG 2100T or in any other course where oral presentations are assigned.

    While the tool can be used for writing assessment, that functionality has not yet been tested.

    The Schwartz Institute provides tech support as necessary, though the help desk will eventually support VOCAT.

    If you would like more information, please contact me at the email address noted in the post above.

  5. EGareis says:

    Suggestion: I think it’s difficult for someone who is not familiar with speech-grading programs to imagine how VOCAT works. Would it be possible for you to make a short video on VOCAT, showing how it works and can be used by students and professors? Maybe the Digital Media Library could provide a link to the video? Or would you be running into proprietary issues by making such a video public? By the way, my vote would be for open source.

  6. Once we make some changes to the user interface and the way videos are handled, we’ll create a demo screencast and post it on VOCAT’s login page.

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