Sunday, 26 January 2014

MyBrainshark: the incredible value of voice-over

This week at Warwick we had the unique privilege of being taught by Russell Stannard, who probably needs no introduction!

In the first of two sessions we were introduced to a number of important tools, several of which have considerable potential in terms of podcasting/vodcasting. They all have their uses and it was great to be shown!

Today, however, I'd like to focus on one in particular - MyBrainshark - as I believe it has huge potential: not just in terms of getting students to practise speaking (Russell is certainly right about that), but also in terms of facilitating constructivist learning in blended or "flipped classroom" contexts.

To illustrate what I mean, here is a short presentation I prepared earlier on the subject of "Learning Styles", a topic that aroused a great deal of interest during this week's EVO2014 Business English Teachers course (something I've been participating in online in parallel to my MA studies). In so doing, I'd like to thank the webinar presenter, Marjorie Rosenberg for getting me so interested in the topic.

I've used the tool in conjunction with PowerPoint in this instance, but MyBrainshark in fact works equally well with Word documents, PDF files and even pictures/videos…it compresses all the information and makes it available on the web. And in its basic form, it's free!

[Russell Stannard provides an excellent, step-by-step guide to the tool at]

Relevance and rationale
As such, it permits the easy distribution of mini-lectures like the one I've embedded above. These can be viewed by learners ahead of class, meaning they turn up briefed on the subject that's to be studied. 

As pioneers of the "flipped classroom" idea have previously pointed out, this saves a huge amount of classroom time and paves the way for students to concentrate on applying, rather than simply receiving ideas in class. Meanwhile, the teacher is better able to position himself/herself as a facilitator of learning during contact hours, and can better differentiate between individual learner needs as they have more time to spend with the students.

This "flipped classroom" approach will work provided that teachers from the outset get students to see  that the online and physical learning environments are connected, as Pete Sharma wisely points out in another post.

Propensity to foster language learning
Meanwhile, as Russell Stannard has pointed out, this tool can also offer students the opportunity digitally to reflect on their learning and practise their speaking without necessarily feeling under pressure of assessment. In business school contexts - where formal presentation skills are often highly emphasized and repeatedly assessed, but actual introductory training may be lacking - I'd suggest this offers two good ways forward.

First, teachers can demonstrate good presentation technique simply by showing a presentation they've prepared earlier and asking students to analyze it. In my experience, demonstrating communication skills (e.g. introducing the talk; signposting language) beats simply telling students to do things they're unfamiliar with any day!

But secondly, Russell's right when it comes to giving students more confidence to speak up. By allowing students a "dry run" (even if it's rehearsed) with their presentations - and giving personalized feedback - teachers can encourage students and help them feel a lot less stressed when they have to present to the class under test conditions.

Alternatively - within a different set-up, perhaps - students can be invited to create a number of reflective podcasts and submit those they're happiest with for assessment. MyBrainshark may not be the only tool worth using for this purpose, but it's certainly a good option for many students.

Potential limitations
Admittedly, (another great tool) offers one thing MyBrainshark does not - it permits viewers to watch both presentation slides and a presenter simultaneously, in a manner not unlike a webinar (minus the backchannel element).

However, one can argue that a) this isn't always necessary for a presentation to be considered successful, and b) some learners would rather opt for audio only if offered the choice over how to create content. So if it were up to me, I'd ask learners to decide for themselves which tool to go for.

All in all, I think MyBrainshark is a superb tool and well worth using for instructional purposes in E-learning/blended learning contexts. It can also be very motivating for students to use it and receive personalized feedback from their teacher online. I would recommend it to fellow teachers without hesitation.


  1. Thanks you for this post, another tool where I registered once but I've never really got to use it:))
    For the flipped elements and student generated content I usually use the iOS app ExplainEverything, always in a rush, you know. But the 'add a question' facility of MyBrainshark wins:
    Thanks again :)

  2. Hi Philip,
    I would submit that given the choice, a learner would probably much prefer seeing your face as you tell him or her what you've just told us in your slide show. I find that a slide show with a read-off text tends to lose the heart and soul of teaching, and of show-and-tell. I wouldn't want to learn anything that way. WSo why have students commit Online Death-by-Powerpoint?
    Certainly having students practice speeches by recording them is valuable, but I have prefer them simply using a voice recorder like Vocaroo, giving them a strict time limit to make them focus.
    I'll grant you that Slideshark is a good drill instrument for practicing presentation phrases as they move from slide to slide, but that has all the engagement and drama of doing gapfills. And haven't we learned from all the good folks on TED that less is more, that too much signposting kills a good presentation?
    Overall, to me, MyBrainshark is one of those tools that actually narrows down the dimensions of how we perceive and experience and enjoy the many facets of our world.
    Take care,

  3. PS; Considering I've been a long-time promoter of online tools, perhaps my antipathy towards MyBrainshark comes from those highly enjoyable MOOCs. I say, if it is to be multimedia, have students film themselves telling and showing us how they do things. I recently experimented with mini-whiteboards for ad-hoc presentations. Students could film themselves showing a chart they've drawn. That makes language like "And over here you can see..." come much more naturally.

  4. Anne, that's certainly an interesting point of view!

    Concerning the use of MyBrainshark generally: you may have a point where "flipped instruction" is concerned. Perhaps Present.Me or another tool with a visual element is better for demonstration purposes. I promise I'll think it over!

    However, where getting students to do extra speaking practice is concerned (along the lines of Russell Stannard's "Connected Classroom") it's been observed here at Warwick that given the choice, students (many of whom are from Asia, as it happens) opt for MyBrainshark in preference to Present.Me every time. So learners - myself included, in the sense this was my first use of the tools - have a different perspective, it seems.

    I still reckon podcasting is great, though! Let's keep the dialogue going, it's a fertile area for exploration, of this I have no doubt.

  5. Ok, Philip, and I'll try Present.Me out (which I haven't used) and try to figure out why students might actually prefer MyBrainshark.
    Have you tried Photobabble with your students? I really like that, both for storytelling and for explaining concepts and experiments in greater depth, because it gets them away from bullet points and they can focus more deeply on one visual.

    1. Anne, Russell has (admittedly briefly, during a wide-ranging session) showcased Photobabble to us.

      I'm quite prepared to admit a "mini presentation" involving the tool could get students focused more on storytelling - which is often what gets remembered from grander-scale presentations. I imagine it could serve quite well as a homework task.

  6. I think I know why
    1. students may be a bit embarrassed to watch themselves speak
    2. when you are speaking on video you cannot read off prepared text, so the assignment is harder
    Perhaps showing students the two versions - slides, video and speaking freely vs. slides and read of lines - and asking them for their impression might be conducive to convincing them to go the extra mile. Seeing another person in the video clearly increases the level of engagement with the information for the viewer, I'd say. And if we're teaching them to reach their audience, I'd try to raise their level of motivation. So overall, I do like Present.Me with the video option.

    1. You may well be right, Anne. However, if Present.Me represents the ultimate goal, MyBrainshark might still work well as an intermediate "stepping stone" experience. I'm all for scaffolding in ELT!

    2. Thanks very much, Philip, for posting all of this and for setting me off on this reflective journey. Hope to meet you one day!