Category Archives: Apple

How I make screencasts: Lecture capture, part 1

Image via Wikipedia

Sorry for the time in between posts lately. It’s been an odd mix of attending conferences, getting ready to attend conferences, and spending time in the hospital being treated for skin infections picked up at those conferences for the last couple of weeks. Long story. Let’s talk about something more pleasant than cellulitis, namely screencasting.

So far I’ve posted about the general idea of screencasting and what I do with screencasts, and I’ve posted about the all-important planning phase of screencasating. Now I’m ready to start getting to the nuts and bolts. Of the three kinds of screencasts I do, probably the simplest is the lecture capture. In a lecture capture I am simply recording a slide presentation or a Prezi with a voiceover. Here’s an example, which is an overview of the first test being given to a freshman calculus class:

All this screencast is, is a Keynote slide deck that I prepared with a voiceover. Sometimes this is all you need for the task you want to accomplish. For those non-Mac people out there, Keynote is Apple’s version of PowerPoint — a presentation software tool that comes with the iWork office suite. If you have a Mac and don’t use iWork, it’s well worth looking into. Many people find Keynote to be much better designed and easier to use than PowerPoint or any of the other presentation tools out there.

The basic gist behind a lecture capture is that you are just using a presentation tool to give a normal presentation, and capturing the audio and the video that goes with it. This does not include any sort of writing on the board; I’ll deal with that in the next post in this series on “whiteboard” screencasts. But everyone should note well that the lecture capture approach is often part of my screencasts but rarely the entire thing. Many of my MATLAB screencasts are set up by brief, 1- to 2-minute long lecture captures before cutting away to a live screencast straight out of MATLAB. So even if lecture capture doesn’t sound like your thing, it’s worth thinking about.

With Keynote, doing a lecture capture screencasts is very easy. After planning it out, you just make the slide deck exactly as you would if you were to present it live. Then, instead of clicking the “Play” button to do the slideshow, click on Play > Record Slideshow:

This put the slideshow into presentation mode on your screen but also record audio from the microphone at the same time. From here, you just go through your slideshow as you would normally, and whatever goes into the mic gets recorded. When you’re done recording, go to Share > Export…:

There’s an option on the screen that comes up next to export to Quicktime, and that’s what to select. (I use the default video/audio options; you can tweak these.) And presto — you have a nice, high-quality Quicktime movie of your lecture that’s suitable for sharing online or burning to a disc.

PowerPoint (at least the version I have, which is PowerPoint 2008 for the Mac) has all of these capabilities as well. In PowerPoint, you would make up your slide deck as usual and then go to Slide Show > Record Narration…:

What happens next is a bit different from Keynote. PowerPoint does what it says: It attaches an audio narration to each slide as you click through it in presentation mode. There is the option — but not a requirement — to record the timing of the slide transitions as well. In Keynote, the transitions are automatically timed. To turn this voiceover-plus-presentation into a movie, just go to File > Save as Movie… and there are plenty of options to choose from.

I should mention that as for a microphone, I just use the built-in microphone on my Macbook Pro. I have used a USB headset microphone before and I think it did improve the audio quality noticeably, but to be honest with you: I’m really cheap. If I can get good audio quality that nobody complains about using the built-in mic, why spend \$50 to get very good audio quality with a USB mic? One of these days I’ll break down and buy one, I’m sure. Until then I pinch my pennies.

There are a couple of issues to think about at this point regarding lecture captures.

• What if you want to use some other presentation tool besides Keynote or PowerPoint, for example the Beamer package for $\LaTeX$, or Prezi?
• What if you wanted to record portions of a lecture at a time and stitch them all together later, or conversely what if you wanted/needed to edit out or enhance portions of a lecture capture you created with Keynote or PowerPoint?

For those kinds of tasks, I would turn to my #1, go-to tool for almost all my screencasting needs: Camtasia for Mac. Camtasia is an all-purpose video and screencasting tool that does an outstanding job with just about anything I could possibly want to do with a basic screencast. There’s so much to Camtasia, and we are going to need to refer to it so much in later posts about whiteboard and demo screencasts, that I’m going to deal with Camtasia (and its alternatives) in a separate post.

Meanwhile, if you have other tricks and tips about lecture capture screencasting, please share in the comments.

Filed under Apple, Camtasia, Screencasts, Technology

One month with the iPhone 4

Image by griffintech via Flickr

Longtime readers will remember that I’ve owned an iPod Touch for a couple of years now, and it’s a marvelous device. The only things that kept it from being the perfect handheld, for me, were the lack of a camera and the lack of a microphone for taking voice memos. For a couple of months, though, other issues came forward. I began to think about how having 3G connectivity to the internet would be nice. I realized that my ages-old Samsung phone was way past its prime. And most seriously, iOS 4 was slowing my iPod Touch down to a crawl. All these things, plus the fact that my college has a discount deal with AT&T, finally pushed me over the edge into iPhone territory.

My wife and I both ordered iPhone 4‘s, mine a 32 GB model (to match the capacity of my iPod Touch) and hers a 16 GB model. The 16 GB model is apparently more popular, because it was put on indefinite backorder; so my wife, who lacks my techno-lust, opted to cancel her order and get a 32 GB iPhone 3GS instead. But my 4 got here in about a week, and I’ve been using more or less nonstop since then.

Yes, I know Apple has become the new Microsoft in terms of monopolistic, closed-system approaches to hardware and software. Yes, I know Android is the platform that all the cool geeks are flocking to. Yes, I know AT&T is supposed to be horrible and that if I would just wait a few months, the fabled Verizon iPhone will appear. However, these did not deter my purchase in the slightest. While I did my homework on Android vs. iOS devices, I never got very close to going Android. I’m an Apple guy the whole way, for better or for worse.

So, how’s the experience been?

• I have not had any experience whatsoever with the much-publicized antenna and reception issues. In fact, the quality of the reception and voice clarity on the iPhone 4 is probably better than that of any phone I’ve ever had. (Which isn’t saying much, since I think this is only the third cell phone I’ve owned, but still.) We live supposedly in an AT&T dead zone, if you go by AT&T’s coverage map, but right here at my desk I get 3 out of 5 bars. And the reception is crystal-clear, and I have had no dropped calls at all (so far). For the record, I am using a case — I got a free case from the AT&T store for signing up, and now I’m using the free bumper I got from Apple. (I prefer the bumper because it maintains the phone’s slim profile.)
• I signed up for the basic 200 MB per month data plan. At first this seemed like a sure bet for overages. On my laptop, there are sometimes single files that I download that are bigger than that. But I was surprised to find that by the end of the month I had only used up about 50 MB of that allowance, and that was not because I was stingy with my 3G internet usage. Indeed, it seemed like I was using the 3G for connecting to the internet a lot more often than I thought I would. I was way under my limit because 90% of the time, I am connected to a WiFi network. I just don’t need 3G that often — when I’m in the car or waiting in the dentist’s office, maybe, but these are not typical situations. Others may find themselves in more frequent need of 3G, though.
• The retina display is very impressive, especially on apps that are optimized for the iPhone 4. (My current addiction is Real Racing.) It does a particularly good job of rendering text (for example, in ebooks or PDF’s) to be very crisp and clear.
• The camera’s impressive too. It doesn’t have the megapixels of our point-and-shoot camera, but it’s also faster on the draw than that camera, and I like being able to take a photo or video and then send it directly to Facebook, Twitter, or to an email or MMS recipient. So I can really see the iPhone taking the place of both our still and video cameras.
• The hardware is very fast, very nice and crisp. It’s pretty clear to me that iOS 4 simply wasn’t intended to operate on hardware less than the iPad or iPhone 3GS, and the 3GS is pushing it.
• Most of the other features of the iPhone are identical to those of my iPod Touch, which is fine by me.

The iPod Touch has been turned into a gaming device and handed off to my giddy 6-year old, who can’t believe that after two years of telling her to get her hands off my iPod, she gets to use it all she wants (within certain parenting parameters).

I’m looking forward to more uses of the iPhone, especially as classes start soon and I can use apps like Attendance that really benefit from the camera and other iPhone features. The more I use it, the more I realize just how much of a game-changing device the thing really is.

1 Comment

Filed under Apple, iPhone, Technology

Is the iPad really what students need?

Dave Caolo believes that students are one of the four groups of people who will make the iPad huge, because:

Students are on a fixed budget, and e-books are typically cheaper than their paper-based counterparts. Also, consider all of the money publishers lose when students buy used books from the campus bookstores. Additionally, Apple can distribute textbooks through iTunes U — an established and proven system that students, faculty and staff already know how to use.

Suddenly the iPad is a device that follows a student from his/her freshman year of high school all the way through graduate school. Why buy a laptop when every student has a device that can be a textbook, reference tool, Internet appliance and whatever else the imaginations of developers can dream up?

I do believe that the iPad’s success will be closely tied to its success in the EDU sector, but Caolo’s analysis misses some important points about students and their educational computing needs.

1. The argument about used books explains precisely why students, and conscientious faculty, will resist textbooks on an iPad. Already textbook companies charge full (and overly high) price for products that are speciously “revised” every couple of years, even though the revisions are virtually identical to the prior versions. If using the iPad as a sort of universal textbook locks students in to using only the most recent version at the highest possible price, then how is this a step forward? Students would be better off purchasing used versions of textbooks.  (One way to ameliorate this problem is for textbook companies to take my advice and give away previous versions of their textbooks whenever a new revision comes out.)
2. Students need more from their computers than just email clients, ebook readers, and web access. They need to be able to run spreadsheets and word processors simultaneously. They need to be able to run sophisticated scientific computing software. They need to be able to install and run legacy software that their universities may have purchased — or even developed in-house — decades ago. (For example, in our math courses alone at my college, we use Minitab, Winplot, and even Derive. The chances of these being ported to the iPad are basically zero.) They need to be able to do video chats with Skype. These are just a few of the things that the iPad cannot do right now.
3. The above argument assumes that textbooks are the center of a student’s education. I would argue that the best thing about an iPad in education is that it provides a great platform for getting away from textbooks as the center and focusing on existing, web-based information sources instead. Why invent a whole new class of technology only to have it perpetuate a rapidly-outmoded means of instruction?

I think the iPad is a neat-looking device, and it does have the capacity to change the entire landscape of computing from a user interface point of view. The next time I’m up for an upgrade to my work machine (in 2014, sadly) I fully expect to be getting an Apple device that has all the guts and power of my new Macbook Pro but with a sleek form factor and intuitive touch interface like the iPad (apparently) has. This kind of device is probably what students need. The first-generation iPad, not so much, not right now at least. Although I am sure students will buy it.

A simple idea for publishers to help students (and themselves)

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I’m doing some research, if you can call it that, right now that involves looking at past editions of popular and/or influential calculus books to track the evolution of how certain concepts are developed and presented. I’ll have a lot to say on this if I ever get anywhere with it. But in the course of reading, I have been struck with how little some books change over the course of several editions. For example, the classic Stewart text has retained the exact wording and presentation in its section on concavity in every edition since the first, which was released in the mid-80’s. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with a particular way of doing things, if it works; but you have to ask yourself, does it really work? And if so, why are we now on the sixth edition of the book? I know that books need refreshing from time to time, but five times in 15 years?

Anyhow, it occurred to me that there’s something really simple that textbook companies could do that would both help out students who have a hard time affording textbooks (which is a lot of students) and give themselves an incentive not to update book editions for merely superficial reasons. That simple thing is: When a textbook undergoes a change in edition, post the old edition to the web as a free download. That could be a plain PDF, or it could be a  Kindle or iBooks version. Whatever the format, make it free, and make it easy to get.

This would be a win-win-win for publishers, authors, and students:

• By charging the regular full price for the “premium” (= most up-to-date) edition of the book, the publisher wouldn’t experience any big changes in its revenue stream, provided (and this is a big “if”) the premium edition provides significant additional value over the old edition. In other words, as long as the new edition is really new, it would cost the publisher nothing to give the old version away.
• But if the premium edition is just a superficial update of the old one, it will cost the publisher big money. So publishers would have significant incentive not to update editions for no good reason, thereby costing consumers (students) money they didn’t really need to spend (and may not have had in the first place).
• All the add-ons like CD-ROMs, websites, and other items that often get bundled with textbooks would only be bundled with the premium edition. That would provide additional incentive for those who can afford to pay for the premium edition to do so. (It would also provide a litmus test for exactly how much value those add-ons really add to the book.)
• It’s a lot easier to download a PDF of a deprecated version of a book, free and legally, then to try your luck with the various torrent sites or what-have-you to get the newest edition. Therefore, pirated versions of the textbook would be less desirable, benefitting both publishers and authors.
• Schools with limited budgets (including homeschooling families) could simply agree not to use the premium version and go with the free, deprecated version instead. This would always be the case if the cost of the new edition outweighs the benefits of adopting it — which again, puts pressure on the publishers not to update editions unless there are really good reasons to do so and the differences between editions are really significant.
• The above point also holds in a big, big way for schools in developing countries or in poverty-stricken areas in this country.
• Individual students could also choose to use the old edition, and presumably accept responsibility for the differences in edition, even if their schools use the premium edition. Those who teach college know that many students do this now already, except the old editions aren’t free (unless someone gives the book to them).
• All this provides publishers and authors to take the moral high road while still preserving their means of making money and doing good business.

Some individual authors have already done this: the legendary Gil Strang and his calculus book, Thomas Judson and his abstract algebra book (which I used last semester and really liked), Fred Goodman and his algebra book. These books were all formerly published by major houses at considerable cost, but were either dropped or deprecated, and the authors made them free.

How about some of the major book publishers stepping up and doing the same?

A hostage to my OS?

A comment in my last post raised a point about using Mac OS X or Windows, as opposed to using Linux, that gets raised a lot in these kinds of discussions but which simply isn’t true. The point was:
Go the Windows or Mac route and you become a hostage to monopoly pricing. A happy hostage maybe but a hostage nonetheless.
I’ve heard this before. If you commit to using proprietary systems like a Windows or OS X machine, you are locked in — you can only use Windows software and Windows-compatible hardware, and if Micro\$oft decides to jack up the price of its OS to, say, \$500 per license, then you can only say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Although the computer market is not a monopoly, your initial choice of what system to use can effectively make it into one, for your own personal purposes. You’re a “hostage” to the whims of the company that makes your hardware and software and there’s no breaking out without a considerable cost.
I’ve thought about this argument a lot in the past, in the context of the question: If for some reason I had to migrate away from using Macs, would I be able to do so and keep all my stuff? For example, suppose that next academic year, our IT department decides that everybody has to start using Tablet PC’s, or netbooks running Android, or something. What would become of all the documents I made in iWork? And so on. After my post, I decided to sit down with my Macbook Pro, look in the Applications folder, and see just how much of a “hostage” I really am to applications or data formats that work only on the Mac.
The first thing to realize is that a majority of the apps that I use on a daily basis do not lock me in to a Mac whatsoever. These are apps that either store no data, or create data that are already in a universally-interoperable format. These would include: text editors, Twitter clients, IM clients, web browsers, $\LaTeX$ editors (although I use this text editor for my $\LaTeX$ editing and not a pure $\LaTeX$ IDE), Preview (Apple’s image/PDF/etc. manipulation program), or the two computer algebra systems (Maple and MATLAB) I have installed. There are more apps that I use that are similarly un-locked. I would estimate that 70-80% of the work I do uses applications like these. I might not be able to port those apps themselves to a Windows or Linux environment, but I would certainly be able to do the things that I do with those apps in other environments.
I will admit that there are some applications that I used regularly which lock me in to some degree:
OmniGraphSketcher and OmniGraffle, used to create hand-drawn mathematical graphs and diagrams (respectively), create files in a format that cannot be ported from one OS to another since both of these are Mac-only. I can export the finished products to PDF or PNG, but not the source.
Some documents I’ve created in iWork — Apple’s office suite — are so format-rich that although iWork allows documents to be exported to their Microsoft Office equivalents (and then to OpenOffice or Google Docs if needed), the formatting would probably break in the process. Again, if I were migrating from a Mac, I’d have to export all these to PDF and just realize I’d not be able easily to edit the source in another OS.
iTunes (which I do not use on the laptop but use extensively on our iMac at home) is, of course, available for Windows, but if I had to leave iTunes behind altogether, probably 30% of the songs I have in my iTunes library did not come from my CD collection and were purchased before Apple decided to remove DRM from its songs. Those songs would be locked in.
Any source files for projects that I created in iMovie or iDVD would be un-portable.
However, I’d say that less than 10% of the files I have on my computer or archived on an external drive would fall under this category. It wouldn’t be catastrophic if I had to get away from a Mac. A much larger portion of my data are created or handled by apps which, although they do things in a Mac-specific way, allow for exporting of data to a neutral format:
OmniFocus, the software that I use for GTD (and which is therefore the lifeblood of my workday), is Mac-only but lets me export my entire GTD database to plain text, HTML, or CSV. I’d hate to stop using OmniFocus, but only because I really like how it works, not because I’d have to pay a lot of money or lose a lot of data to do it.
My wife and I have a lot of gigabytes invested in iPhoto, but if we had to, we could simply export the photos in it to their raw JPG forms to a DVD and start over with something else.
OmniOutliner is another Omni product I use a lot for crafting lecture notes, presentation or article outlines, and so on. It’s Mac-only, but again I can export the outlines to RTF, PDF, or a number of other formats.
So it’s simply not true that I’m a “hostage” to Apple products. If Apple started charging prices for its products that I simply couldn’t afford, or if Linux ever got to the point where it works just as well or better than Windows or OS X and I switched as a result, or even if I ever just got tired of using Apple products, I feel confident that I could take my data and set up shop on a new OS without any major hiccups.
But I should also point out that users have to be mindful of being locked in and work towards “future-proofing” their systems. A couple of years ago, I was making all my calculus materials in Pages with lots and lots of formatting. Then I got to thinking about these issues of being locked in and started doing all my materials in $\LaTeX$ instead. ($\LaTeX$ will almost certainly never go away.) And most of my quick notes and drafts of documents are done in a text editor using plain text files rather than Pages or another highly Mac-specific program. I’ve been intentional about not getting locked in, and so I’m not. Other users who are less intentional might find themselves with much less freedom if they had to switch.
But let’s put to rest the notion that using proprietary software locks you in to using only certain kinds of hardware and software. That is really just a canard.

A comment in my last post raised a point about using Mac OS X or Windows, as opposed to using Linux, that gets raised a lot in these kinds of discussions but which simply isn’t true. The point was:

Go the Windows or Mac route and you become a hostage to monopoly pricing. A happy hostage maybe but a hostage nonetheless.

I’ve heard this before. If you commit to using proprietary systems like a Windows or OS X machine, you are locked in — you can only use Windows software and Windows-compatible hardware, and if Micro\$oft decides to jack up the price of its OS to, say, \$500 per license, then you can only say “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Although the computer market is not a monopoly, your initial choice of what system to use can effectively make it into one, for your own personal purposes. You’re a “hostage” to the whims of the company that makes your hardware and software and there’s no breaking out without a considerable cost.

I’ve thought about this argument a lot in the past, in the context of the question: If for some reason I migrated away from using Macs, would I be able to do so and keep all my stuff? After my post, I decided to sit down with my Macbook Pro, look in the Applications folder, and see just how much of a “hostage” I really am to applications or data formats that work only on the Mac.

Filed under Apple, Technology

Why I am not a Linux user any more

For the last couple of days I’ve been trying to install some new software on the Ubuntu Linux machine that my kids use in their playroom. Being able to get a real computer for the kids for about \$75 (about half of which was spent on the monitor; the box itself is a castoff desktop from the college that I bought for \$10) and run all the software they could possibly want to use at their age for free has been great. But having to deal with the technical side of Linux and the usability issues in software reminds me of why I no longer use Linux in my daily life.

Back in 2001, when I started my new job at my current institution, I took the plunge and installed Red Hat Linux on my school computer rather than Windows. I had a colleague at my former work who was a Linux zealot and I figured I would take the transition period to my new job to switch operating systems. At the time, one of the driving reasons for doing so was the simple realization that, although I used computers all the time in my work and at home, I really didn’t understand how computers work. I figured running Linux would allow me a chance to learn, as well as expose me to some very good open-source software.

Filed under Apple, Linux, Technology

The iPod touch: Keeping new parents sane since 2009

With Harrison’s arrival on the 15th, I have had neither the time nor the raw material for blogging about math, education, or technology. Instead I’ve been mostly figuring out how to decrypt my new son’s little coded messages and trying to sleep when I can. But there is one tech item from my experience of the last week that I would like especially to highlight: the ongoing awesomeness of the iPod touch.

Originally I wanted an iPod touch to replace my aging third-generation Photo iPod. I figured the main purpose of an iPod is music playback, and having internet and video capability would be sort of nice too. But now I see that the iPod touch is a lot more than a music player: It’s a passport to new-parent sanity. Consider the following ways the iPod touch has been of use lately:

– I used the iPod touch to provide real-time updates of my wife’s delivery — well, at least right up to the point we went to the delivery room — for friends and family using Twitter and Facebook I was even able to make some short posts to our family blog, although blogging on the iPod screen keyboard really takes it out of you.

– I found out that while you’re in the hospital having a baby, the moments of genuine excitement are intense but sparse. Mostly there are lengthy periods when you’re just there in the hospital room with nothing to do. Fortunately before I came to the hospital with the Mrs. I stocked up the iPod with every LOST episode I owned and a whole bunch of podcasts, so when baby and mom were asleep and I wasn’t tired (ha! Remember when I wasn’t tired?) I could fend off the boredom.

– Although I have never actually done this, you could use the iPod in its originally intended mode, as a music player, to play back calming music to a newborn with one hand while holding the baby in the other.

– Perhaps the most frequent use of the iPod touch has been during my overnight shifts looking after the baby. These are usually from 8PM to midnight and involve trying to lay down in a quiet, dark room knowing that any attempted sleep is going to be interrupted by a suddenly hysterical baby. The first night we were home and I was on deck, I ended up rocking the baby in my left arm while seated and using my right hand to Twitter to the outside world. Now this has become something of a nightly live-blog of my exploits as parent-on-duty.  I use the tag #babyshift to highlight these posts.

Sometimes I report on what’s happening during my shift. Sometimes I throw out questions to the “audience” which turn in to good discussions about parenting tips and tricks. I’ve had very lively conversation threads during these times, while I Twitter one-handed in the rocking chair in our bedroom waiting for Harrison to settle into sleep. The “#babyshift show” has made what would normally be a tedious parenting task into something fun, even something to look forward to. You simply can’t overestimate the value of connecting to the outside world when your whole world is turned inward because of a new baby, no matter how wonderful that baby is. (Join me most nights between 8-9 PM by going to my Twitter page.)

So here’s to the iPod touch and the whole idea of mobile access to the Internet.