Category Archives: Educational technology

Three things I learned at ScreencastCamp

Last week, I had the chance to attend ScreencastCamp, a weekend event put on by Techsmith, Inc. just down M-6 in Okemos, Michigan. What a great experience! Techsmith develops Camtasia, my go-to software for all screencasting needs, as well as several other great products like Jing and SnagIt. I’ve been a fan of their products for a long time, and it was great to spend time getting to know the people behind them.

ScreencastCamp was an unconference, where there is no set agenda beforehand. Participants just come with an idea of what they want to learn, and then either put on a session or request one. There were about 40 of us participating, mostly from education but with a healthy contingent from the corporate (training) world as well. Amazingly, although this is a relatively small number of participants, all the session slots for Saturday and Sunday filled up almost immediately as people pencilled themselves in to give sessions. It was busy. Some of the sessions were like regular conference talks, while others ended up as discussions among four or five like-minded people sitting around on the sofas in a back area of Techsmith headquarters. The hosts were generous, the food (and the beer!) amazing, and the atmosphere of enthusiasm infectious.

I came away with a lot of great ideas about screencasting, but here are the three that stood out the most.

1. Write careful and complete scripts for your screencasts. Back in my series of “How I Do Screencasting” posts, I wrote that a rough script was the way to go. Now I’m a believer in complete, careful, tightly-written and -edited scripts. What’s so great about a complete script? First of all, I have a tendency to talk fast and speed up as I get going in a screencast. Scripting out what I’m going to say not only helps me to edit my thoughts down to just the essential ideas, it also provides a way to talk at a normal, relaxed pace. Second, having a script printed out in front of me will make it easier to caption my videos, which is something that I want to start doing and indeed may eventually have to do. If I have a script, I can copy and paste the text of my screencast into Camtasia for the captions. It’s a little more complicated than that sounds, but at least I wouldn’t have to transcribe the audio.

Techsmith gave us a copy of the template (MS Word, 66 Kb with a bunch of my own stuff on it) they use for their own screencast scripts. I’ve used this simple form for a series of Maple 15 screencasts I’m working on right now, and it’s really made things go a lot more smoothly than when I was reading from a text file, or making it up as I go.

2. Record your audio first, then your video. This was the most radical idea I heard. I had always recorded the audio and the video simultaneously using Camtasia, but that’s not how Techsmith themselves do it. After writing the script, Techsmith screencasters will read the script and record the audio using Audacity. Then the audio file gets exported into Camtasia as an audio track, and the video part is recorded on top of the audio separately. At first I was very skeptical of this (wouldn’t it be a lot more work?) but after trying it myself, I’m a convert. Recording the audio separately reduces cognitive load — you don’t have to worry about getting both the audio and the video right at the same time — and so both pieces turn out better. Audio is much easier to edit when it’s not attached at the hip to video, I think. And you can focus on the quality of the audio as well. As one Techsmith employee put it, viewers will put up with crappy video as long as the audio is good, but not vice versa.

The way I’ve made this work for me is with the following workflow. First, write a good script using the Techsmith template. Then, read the script into Audacity, putting plenty of “white space” in between each box in the template — this gives viewers a little breathing room while they are watching. Next, go back and edit out any mistakes in the audio, either in Audacity or in Camtasia after the audio has been exported. Then, to record the video, turn off all audio inputs (because you’ve already done the audio), start recording the screen, then start the playback of the audio track and just click along with whatever it is you’re saying from the script. After all, this is what your viewers are going to have to do. Once you’re finished, it’s relatively simple to sync up the audio and video (especially if you keep the whole thing short) by just moving the tracks up and down the Camtasia timeline until it looks like they work. Then trim off the beginning and end of the video to make the video and audio the same length.

3. Get a real microphone. I’ve mentioned before that I’m too cheap to buy a USB microphone when the built-in mic on my Macbook works passably well. But after trying some of the higher-end equipment at Techsmith and hearing what it sounds like on playback, I think I might have to be, well, less cheap. When I recorded my practice screencast in the Techsmith studio, the mic captured the full range of my voice without sounding like I was at the bottom of a well, and no other sound made it into the audio. Part of that is because I was in a studio, as opposed to my office, but part of it is the microphone. It really does make a difference.

I also picked up a ton of little tricks and tips from participants — for example, buy a dog clicker to use when you make a mistake on the audio; the spike it makes in the audio waveform is really clear and it makes it easy to find where you need to edit.

ScreencastCamp was a great experience — amazingly, it was totally free too — and I learned a great deal about how to be a better screencaster. Thanks Techsmith!

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Filed under Camtasia, Educational technology, Inverted classroom, Screencasts, Technology

Helping the community with educational technology

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Many people associated with educational technology are driven by a passion for helping students learn using technology in a classroom setting. But I wonder if many ed tech people — either researchers or rank-and-file teachers who teach with technology — ever consider a slightly different role, voiced here by Seymour Papert:

Many education reforms failed because parents did not understand or could not accept what their children were doing. Remember the New Math? This time there will be many who have not had the personal experience necessary to appreciate fully the multiple ways in which digital media can augment intellectual productivity. The people who do can make a major contribution to the success of the new initiative by helping others in their communities understand the potential. And being helpful will do much more than improve the uses of the computers. The computers could be a catalyst for turning our communities into “learning communities.”

So true. So much of education falls to the immediate family, and yet often there are technological innovations in the classroom which fail to be supported at home for the simple reason that parents and other family members don’t understand the technology. Ed tech people can make a real impact by simply turning their talents toward this issue.

Question for you all in the comments: How? It seems that the ways that ed tech people use to communicate their thoughts are exactly the ones off the radar screen of the people who need the  most help — Twitter, blogs, conference talks, YouTube videos, etc. You would need to get on the level with the parent trying to help their kid in a medium that they, the parents, understand. How is that best done? Newsletters? Phone hotlines? Take-home fact and instruction sheets? Give me some ideas here.

(h/t The Daily Papert)

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Filed under Early education, Education, Educational technology, High school, Technology

How I make screencasts: Lecture capture, part 2

Now that school’s out, I’m going to pick up where I left off (two months ago!) in my series on how I make screencasts. So far I’ve made three posts in this series. In the first post we talked about what a screencast is, exactly, and why anybody would want to make one. In the second post, we saw how the elements of careful planning make screencasting a successful experience. And in the most recent post, we took a look at using Keynote (or PowerPoint) to create a lecture-capture screencast.

Before I talk about the other kinds of screencasts I make, I’m going to take this post to describe how I use my go-to tool for screencasting: Camtasia for Mac, specifically how I use it to make lecture capture videos when I’m not using Keynote. (Full disclosure: I was on the beta-testing team for Camtasia for Mac and got a free license for the software for my efforts. But I can definitely say that I’d gladly have paid the $99 for the software otherwise — it’s that useful.) There is a Windows version of Camtasia and a server-oriented variant called Camtasia Relay, and they are all very similar, so what I describe in this post can be used if lots of different situations.

Let’s suppose I have a lecture or presentation that I want to turn into a screencast, which basically means I need to record the presentation as it happens on the screen and add a voice-over. I’ve already described how to do this with Keynote or PowerPoint, but what if you’re using Prezi, Beamer, or some other presentation tool? What I need is a tool that will record stuff happening on the screen that’s separate from the presentation tool itself. That’s where Camtasia comes in.

Camtasia is software that records video of anything happening on your screen — all of it, or part of it — along with any audio you choose to add, including voiceovers. You can record multiple segments of video, edit those segments, and put it all together with transitions and effects. The interface is laid out a lot like iMovie, so Mac users will feel right at home using it.

There are a lot — seriously, a lot — of options for working with video in Camtasia, too many to get into here. I’ll just show an example of a simple lecture capture putting Prezi and Camtasia together.

First, bring up the screen that has the Prezi in it. (For Prezis particularly, creating the lecture capture works best if you download the Prezi to your local drive and then run it in a window, rather than trying to run it on the web.)

Now launch Camtasia. When you do, a little floating pane will come up that looks like this:

The dropdown menu on the left lets you specify which part of the screen you’re going to capture. I usually just select “YouTube HD/720p”, which records essentially the entire screen. I can crop out what I don’t need later. And once I put it on YouTube (which is my usual destination for screencasts) it’ll be in glorious 720p HD.

Once you’ve selected your area, just click the Record button and start presenting, just as you would if you were giving the lecture in front of a live audience. Your lecture is being recorded behind the scenes and all you see is your screen. Warning: Presenting for a screencast feels a lot different than doing it for a live audience because, well, the audience isn’t there. There’s no body language or ambience to add to the presentation. So this will feel a little unusual at first. Also, I can’t stress enough that you should probably go from a prepared script the first few times you do this, rather than try to wing it. It’ll keep you on track and prevent lots of mistakes.

When you stop recording, you’re brought into the main editing area of Camtasia:

The bottom part of this screen is called the “timeline”. Right now, the one clip that I have in the timeline is a partial video of the presentation. It appears as a chunk of the timeline outlined in blue. Inside the timeline you can see the audio levels given as waveforms, and there’s a playhead along the top of the timeline showing you where you are in the video as well as the time.

At this point, what I usually do is check the sound levels first. A lot of times the built-in microphone on my Macbook doesn’t record very loudly. I’ll listen to a bit of the recorded video to check if that is the case. If so, I go and apply the Dynamics Processor effect to the clip I made:

You apply the clip just by dragging it from the effects area directly onto the clip in the timeline. In fact this is how all the effects, transitions, and other features of Camtasia are applied to video. The Dynamics Processor brings all audio levels up to a uniformly audible setting.

If I have the time, I will watch the whole video from start to finish to see if I’m happy with it. If there’s something I need to edit out — I goofed the script, or sneezed, or the phone rang, etc. — I can go back and edit that part out just by putting the playhead just before the mistake:

Then selecting “Split selected at playhead” from the Edit menu; this splits the video clip in two, right where the blooper is. Then move the playhead until just after the mistake, and selecting “Trim Start to Playhead”. This will crop out the blooper from the second clip. Then you can just drag the second clip over next to the first one, and with that, the blooper is edited out.

The ability to edit in such an easy way really changed screencasting for me. You will make mistakes when you screencast, no matter how good or experienced you get. But you don’t want to have to throw away an entire screencast because of one goof. If I am screencasting and I make a mistake, I just pause for a moment, and then I start again from the point of error. The pause will show up on the audio as a flat spot, and I can go back and edit the error out. You cannot do this with the voiceover features of Keynote and PowerPoint, and it makes a huge difference.

If this is just a straight lecture capture — so there’s no other video coming in from a different source — at this point I’m done. The only thing left to do is add the “credits page” that I always put at the end of my screencasts that lists my email, YouTube channel, Twitter, and so on. I have this saved as a PDF. To bring it into the timeline, I go to Import Media:

and select it from the file finder. It then appears as a clip:

I just drag it into the timeline at the end of the video:

And then, for effect, add a fade-in transition from the video to the credits, which I do by finding it in the transitions menu:

And dragging and dropping it in the little seam between the video clip and the credits page:

Now I’m ready to publish. Camtasia allows me to publish the resulting video directly to my YouTube channel using the Share menu:

As you can see, there are options for iTunes and Screencast.com as well. Or you can just choose “Export…” which exports the video to a file format of your choice, for uploading wherever you want.

After I start the process, Camtasia converts the video to Quicktime and then uploads it with the title I gave it. A 10-minute video will take several minutes to complete this process on a Macbook Pro. Your mileage will vary according to your system hardware and your internet connection. After it’s done uploading, I still have to go to YouTube and add metadata. But otherwise that’s it!

What’s nice about Camtasia is that the tool is separate from the presentation tool you’re using. So if you already have the presentation content made up, you can turn it into a screencast quite easily. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Prezi, Beamer, a text document you’re scrolling down, or anything else. And the more you do this, the easier it gets to convert existing presentation content into a mobile device-friendly screencast.

In the next post, I’ll talk about what I call “whiteboard” screencasts, where I record stuff that I am writing on the screen. This is a lot like what Salman Khan at Khan Academy does. Hopefully it won’t be another two months before I get to that.

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Thoughts on the culture of an inverted classroom

I’ve just finished up the spring semester, and with it the second iteration of the inverted classroom MATLAB course. With my upcoming move, it may be a while before I teach another course like this (although my experiments with targeted “flipping” went pretty well), so I am taking special care to unwind and document how things went both this year and last.

I asked the students in this year’s class about their impressions of the inverted classroom — how it’s worked for them, what could be improved, and so on.  The responses fell into one of two camps: Students who were unsure of, or resistant to, the inverted classroom approach at first but eventually came to appreciate its use and get a lot out of the approach (that was about 3/4 of the class), and students who maybe still learned a lot in the class but never bought in to the inverted method. No matter what the group, one thing was a common experience for the students: an initial struggle with the method. This was definitely the case last year as well, although I didn’t document it. Most students found closure to that struggle and began to see the point, and even thrived as a result, while some struggled for the whole semester. (Which, again, is not to say they struggled academically; most of the second group of students had A’s and B’s as final grades.)

So I am asking, What is the nature of that struggle? Why does it happen? How can I best lead students through it if I adopt the inverted classroom method? And, maybe most importantly, does this struggle matter? That is, are students better off as problem solvers and lifelong learners for having come to terms with the flipped classroom approach, or is adopting this approach just making students have to jump yet another unnecessary hurdle, and they’d be just as well off with a traditional approach and therefore no struggle?

I think that the nature of the struggle with the inverted classroom is mainly cultural. I am using the anthropologists’ definition of “culture” when I say that — a culture being a system whereby a group of people assign meaning and value to things.

In particular, the way culture places value on the teacher is radically different between the traditional academic culture experienced by students and the culture that is espoused by the inverted classroom. In the traditional classroom, what makes a “good teacher” is typically that teacher’s ability to lecture in a clear way and give assessments that gauge basic knowledge of the lecture. In other words, the teacher’s value hinges on his or her ability to talk.

In the inverted classroom, by contrast, what makes a “good teacher” is his or her ability to create good materials and then coach the students on the fly as they breeze through some things and get inexplicably hung up on others. In other words, the teacher’s value hinges on his or her ability to listen.

Many students who are in that other 25% who never buy into the inverted classroom think that teachers using this approach are not “real” teachers at all. As one student put it, when they pay a teacher their salary, they expect the teacher to actually teach. What is meant by “teaching” here is an all-important question. Well, on the reverse side, if there were such a thing as a group of students who had only experienced the inverted classroom their entire lives and then entered into a traditional classroom, those students would think they are experiencing the worst teacher in the history of academia. The guy never shuts up! He only talks, talks, talks! We have to fight to get a word in edgewise, we get only brief chances to work on things when he is there, and we’re always booted unceremoniously out of the lecture hall (we used to call them “classrooms”) and left to fend for ourselves on all this difficult homework!

I’m convinced that bridging this cultural gap is what takes up most of the time and effort in an inverted classroom — forget about screencasts!

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Salman Khan on the inverted classroom

Salman Khan, of the Khan Academy, sounds off on the potential of pre-recorded video lectures to change education in the video below. He calls it “flipping” the classroom, but around here we call it the inverted classroom.

I like especially that Salman made the point that the main effect of inverting the classroom is to humanize it. Rather than delivering a one-size-fits-all lecture, the lecture is put where it will be of the most use to the greatest number of students — namely, online and outside of class — leaving the teacher free to focus on individual students during class. This was the point I made in this article — that the purpose of technology ought to be to enhance rather than replace human relationships.

I hope somewhere that he, or somebody, spends a bit more time discussing exactly how the teachers in the one school district he mentions in the talk actually implemented the inverted classroom, and what kinds of issues they ran up against. Ironically, the greatest resistance I get with the inverted classroom is from students themselves, namely a small but vocal group who believe that this sort of thing isn’t “real teaching”. I wonder if the K-12 teachers who use this model encounter that, or if it’s just a phenomenon among college-aged students.

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Filed under Camtasia, Education, Educational technology, Inverted classroom, Peer instruction, Screencasts, Teaching, Technology, Textbook-free

A binary notion of “understanding”

Another great insight from Seymour Papert, via The Daily Papert blog. I put it up on my Posterous blog this morning but I thought it could go here too:

Many children who have trouble understanding mathematics also have a hopelessly deficient model of what mathematical understanding is like. Particularly bad are models which expect understanding to come in a flash, all at once, ready made. This binary model is expressed by the fact that the child will admit the existence of only two states of knowledge often expressed by “I get it” and “I don’t get it.” They lack—and even resist—a model of understanding something through a process of additions, refinements, debugging and so on. These children’s way of thinking about learning is clearly disastrously antithetical to learning any concept that cannot be acquired in one bite.

(Papert, S. (1971) Teaching Children Thinking. In Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 5(3/4), 353-365.)

And on the higher education end of the spectrum, all of the things that really matter are those things that take patience, time, and persistence to acquire. But these are the very things excluded by this binary notion of understanding in which many children are immersed and to which most college freshmen are completely habituated.

This also makes a good argument for insisting that students — particularly those in the STEM disciplines, but I would argue anybody — should learn computer programming as part of their studies. You cannot learn to program without engaging in the non-binary notion of understanding Papert is describing. Papert knows a thing or two about that subject.

(By the way, I must give Gary Stager many thanks for running The Daily Papert. It is a great resource. The month of March is ridiculously busy for me but once it’s over I am going on a massive Papert reading spree.)

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How I make screencasts: The planning phase.

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So I said in the first post in this series that I would start in with the workflow and tool set I use for making the different kinds of screencasts I do. But there’s a “square one” to the workflow that is common to all of these and needs to be discussed first: Planning. If you dive into any project without careful planning, you might end up with a roaring success — but more likely you will come up with nothing worth sharing. Screencasts, being a kind of project, are no different. Careful work on the front end greatly simplifies the work on the back end and improves the overall results.

The planning stage of a screencast for me has five distinct parts.

1. Settle on a small number of coherent main ideas to discuss. I set a limit on the length of all my screencasts at 10 minutes. This is because my main inspiration for screencasting, Salman Khan, does this, and because there’s a 10-minute limit on YouTube uploads. But also, it’s well-known that audience attention to presentations drops off a cliff after about 10 minutes of sustained effort. Within that limit, you can only hope to address so much. So within the main body of material I am trying to teach through screencasting, I try to cluster together small clumps of topics that mutually support each other and stick ONLY to those topics. For example, this MATLAB screencast covers three MATLAB commands that are thematically related:

There was going to be a fourth topic, the FPRINTF command, included with that screencast, but it’s considerably more complicated than the other three and so I made a separate screencast just for it. My rule of thumb is to cover no more than four main ideas in a single 10-minute screencast. If you have more than that to cover, break things up into multiple screencasts of shorter length. Your audience’s attention spans will thank you, and it’ll make it easier for users to find that one part of that one video that they really need.

2. Decide on a minimal number of things to say about each main idea. By the same token, stick to just the most important things that your audience needs to know about each main idea and plan an outline accordingly. For example, in making the Input/Output Commands screencasts I linked above, I talked about three commands — INPUT, MENU, and DISP. The outline for this looked like:

INPUT: Lets users enter input; stores input as a variable; default variable type is DOUBLE; pass an option ‘s’ for string.

MENU: Creates GUI menu with title and buttons for choices; pass it string arguments for the title and button labels; returns integer values depending on the button clicked.

DISP: Displays contents of a variable; nontrivial formatting is tricky or impossible; simple but limited.

There’s more I could say about each of those commands, but these are the most important things that users should know right now. When there’s much more to say, I give suggestions for places to look for more info.

3. Try to come up with a single unifying example that connects the main ideas. This doesn’t always work, but if you choose your screencast topics so they are coherent main ideas, you should be able to find a good instantiation of those ideas that shows all of them in action and in comparison to each other. The Input/Output screencast above does this by using INPUT to gather numerical data on tests scores and then DISP to spit out the average of those scores. A single unifying example makes the main ideas easier to remember because it shows how they fit into an overall framework, rather than presenting them as discrete and disconnected topics.

4. Plan out a rough script to follow. There are differing opinions about scripts when screencasting. Some folks say you should script out every word and just read off the script. Others clearly come in with nothing more than a general idea of what they want to do and then just wing it. The former approach usually ends up with a polished, professional screencast but which can come off as cold and impersonal. The latter approach is more fun to follow but can contain false starts, dead ends, and speech artifacts (“Um… er… ah…”) that can frustrate some people.

I used to be on the “script it all out” end of the spectrum, and my earliest screencasts show it. They are tight, precise, and rarely a word out of place. But I found I was spending an hour scripting out a 5-minute screencast, and I just don’t have the time for that when I am cranking out 50 minutes of screencasts a week. So lately I’ve moved more toward a “detailed outline” model. I will take the rough outline (with a minimal number of essential things to say about a small number of main ideas) like I made above and flesh it out with specific examples that are written out and tested for correctness in advance, and maybe a few important turns of phrase I want to use — then follow the outline, but make up the words as I go. This is what I mean by a “rough script”. I will usually write up the rough script by hand on a piece of paper and have it sitting in front of me when I record. For tough passages, I will still script things completely out. For instance, in the FPRINTF screencast I am going almost entirely word-for-word off a prepared, fully written-up script because when I tried a rough script on that stuff it was coming out garbled and wrong.

I would suggest that new screencasters should still script things out completely until you are comfortable with the recording process, which we have not even started discussing yet. It’ll build your confidence because you don’t have to worry if the words are coming out right.

5. Prepare your space. Finally, before recording, prepare the space you are going to use. I usually make my screencasts in my office at work, and my ritual is:

  • Quit all noise-making computer programs, like anything that makes an alert sound — email clients especially. Your audience doesn’t want to hear you get new mail while they’re learning from you.
  • Clear off the desk in front of me so that there’s room for my rough script and mouse. Also a clean desk will give you a clear head.
  • Go fill up my water bottle, because inevitably when I screencast I will start coughing or get something caught in my throat.
  • Close the office door and hang out my special sign that says, in bright green Sharpie, DO NOT DISTURB — VIDEO RECORDING IN PROGRESS.
  • Turn the iPhone on silent mode and turn the ringer off on the office phone.
  • Get out and plug in any gear I need to use and make sure it works.
  • Set up the computer desktop — remove all unwanted stuff just as I would my physical desktop and prepare any software “props” — presentations, graphics items, etc. — I will need.

Then, when everything’s in place, you’re good to go! You have a rough script that gives you just enough scaffolding to give a human-sounding but professional screencast on the essential need-to-know items relating to a minimal number of big ideas, and all the pieces are in place. So now we record — but how? We’ll get to that next time.

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