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I attended a webinar today about the pros and cons of flipped classrooms (i.e. information gathering such as video lectures or textbook-reading happen at home; experimenting, exploring, and inquiring happen in class).  There was lots of great discussion and food for thought.  Several presenters brought up this important point: A video lecture is still a lecture.  Sure, it has some advantages.  But why are we (video) lecturing at all?  Lectures were born in the days when only one person owned a copy of the book.  If you wanted to know what was in it, they would read it to you.  In medieval Latin (the language of European scholars pre-Gutenburg), lecture means “to read.”

This alone is not sufficient evidence to either keep or get rid of lectures.  Nowadays, the word “lecture” doesn’t always mean “reading the book at you.” Sometimes it means “storytelling,”  sometimes it means “asking short questions of one student at a time,” sometimes it means “direct instruction,” sometimes it means “modelling my work or my thinking,” sometimes it means “teacher talking, broken occasionally by outbursts of student discussion.”  I’m not interested in “are these useful tools.”  Of course they are.  My question is, “are these the best tools for my purpose.”  The answer to that is more difficult, also more dependent on my purposes and my students.

There are a few topics where I don’t think lecturing is the best tool for my purpose, but I do it anyway (the inner workings of a P-N junction, for example).  If I’m going to lecture, a 5-min video buys me at least an hour, considering that it would take me 15-20 min in class, plus repetition for students who were absent or needed to go over it again.  The reason I do it, just as Jerrid Kruse mentions, isn’t that I think it’s ideal; it’s that I haven’t found a suitable collection of examples or a good way to guide a discovery process.  So ultimately, the PD I need isn’t a lecture about why I should move away from lectures; it’s a guided exploration where I can explore my intractable problems with some guidance (inquiry-discover-model-constructivist-project-engaging-self-directedness: not just for students anymore).  Somehow, we need to create that course.

Joss Ives left this thought-provoking comment about the differences between assigning reading or screencasts in preparation for upcoming class meetings, and what to do with the questions they generate.  We had been discussing “just-in-time teaching”:

… they advocate agile teaching where you plan your lesson/lecture period based on the things that the students had the most trouble with from the reading.

Joss has students read, then answer “multiple-choice with explain your reasoning” type of questions.  That “seems to get the most coherent answers from them and the least “I have no idea” answers.”

I assign screencasts, and have students complete what I call a “Topic sheet”:

My criteria for goodness here are the same as Joss’s: a completion rate comparable to conventional assignments, and the fewest possible “I have no idea” answers.

I ask students to bring these to the next class, and use them as the agenda. Our process so far: students dictate from their sheets and I write on the board, grouping things into themes.  I don’t answer their questions.  Students can add more questions but there is no answering allowed at this stage (which means they phrase their answers in the form of questions).  Maybe in the future I’ll have groups collate their own comments onto whiteboards?  Anyway, it’s not exactly “just-in-time teaching,” because I haven’t planned a session directly based on students’ questions.  But so far I have been able to predict the general gist of student questions and prepare some relevant exercises.  I set them to work answering a question that I pose — hopefully tweaked so that students will stumble across the answers to their own questions (or better questions) while they work.

In the last 15 minutes, we revisit the questions and answer as many  as possible.  If there’s a central concept, or a tangle of questions that are all related, I’ll make up an “exit ticket” question about it.  The other thing that has worked well so far is to spend the last 5 minutes having each student update their topic sheet.  They can cross things off, add things, answer questions, or elaborate — just update it so it shows the current state of their understanding.  Then I collect them.

At the beginning of the semester, when I removed all homework completion points from the grading scheme, the homework completion rate went way down.  But because of my “write-your-test-twice” system, my students don’t get a copy of their test back from me.  So I think they’re a bit hungry for feedback.  Consequently, they now seem pretty motivated to pass these things in and get them back with comments.  For the last few months I’ve found that I got a better homework completion rate if I picked it up in class instead of asking students to drop it in my mailbox.  But this week I’ve had a couple of good showings where I asked them to finish something by the end of the day.  Incidentally, I also get a better completion rate if I actually hand them a topic sheet than if I ask the students to write the same three prompts on a piece of loose-leaf.  *shrug*  The completion rate is about 75% — roughly what it was when homework was “worth points.”  (Note to self: would be a good idea to track this, rather than estimating). Joss makes a good point about it:

Between personally responding to their submissions and explicitly bringing up their clarification question in class I managed to generate enough buy-in to get a 78% completion rate over the term which is comparable to a regular homework completion rate.

Student buy-in is definitely the key here.  Now that the students are back in the habit of passing in homework, maybe it’s time that I start asking for the homework to be passed in before class.  It would make sense to lesson plan based on their questions.

Then we got into screencasts vs. textbooks.  I can’t help wondering if I’m de-skilling my students by protecting them from the need to read the textbook.  Joss writes:

I agree with your point about, for long-term behaviors, the reading assignment are probably better than the screencasts, but I view the reading assignments as something that is meant to get them familiar with the terminology and lowest-level concepts, anything beyond that is what I want to work on in class. With that in mind, there is really a lot of overhead in a textbook reading and the screencasting will allow me to focus on what I had wanted them to get out of the reading in a way that is a more efficient use of their time, which would hopefully help generate a bit more student buy-in.

I like Joss’s term “textbook overhead” and link to student buy-in.  It’s crazy to expect a single book to be both a reference for the pro and an introduction for the novice.  Screencasts are an answer, but maybe better textbooks are a better answer.  Still, it helped to remind me of my purpose in making screencasts: to introduce low-level concepts.  Maybe screencasts vs. textbooks doesn’t matter as long as the rest of the learning process has a good home.

Screencasting has been a lifesaver.  Assigning screencasts for students to watch at home means more time in class for problem-solving, less time repeating information to students who were out sick, and better-organized lessons.   Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that might be useful to other beginning screencasters.

I use Jing as a recording environment

It’s free and easy to use.  It limits files to 5 minutes (which I appreciate) and creates .SWF files.  My 20/20 hindsight:

  • Wait for 2 seconds after hitting the Jing record button — it often hiccups there and misses a second of audio, just as you’re introducing your topic.  On the other hand, if Jing looks like the clock is hung up in the middle of recording, keep talking — it’s probably fine.
  • I keep my hand on the F8 key — the pause hotkey.  That way I can stop recording when I need to write, copy/paste, or otherwise do things that would slow down the presentation.
  • Watch out for the F7 key — it stops the recording and you can’t start it again.
  • Don’t let the mouse pointer hover in the middle of the document while I’m  talking.  It’s distracting and looks like I’m pointing to something when I’m not.  Move the pointer off-screen if I’m not using it.
  • Definitely move the pointer off-screen before unpausing recording.  Otherwise, every pause-unpause action causes the mouse pointer to materialize in a different part of the screen (especially distracting if it’s fairly close to its previous position, a sort of “jump-cut” effect)
  • Jing doesn’t track very well while scrolling.  I like to scroll “on-camera” so that viewers can see the spatial relationship of the elements — but it comes out jumpy in the video.  Oh well.
  • If there’s any serious information density, I need a script.  Otherwise I fumble my words too much.  But writing a script from scratch takes forever.  So my workflow is: do a trial run while recording.  It will be terrible, but it will make me think of every visual element I wish I had and every unfortunate turn of phrase I wish I had avoided. Don’t delete it you gutless coward. Remind myself that I’m getting better.  Play back the trial run and type up a script based on it.  Fix everything that irritated me.  Do another recording with the script.  Often, that’s enough.  Time: 20-30 minutes per 5-minute screencast, from planning to product.  The result is a shorter screencast that’s much more pleasant to watch repeatedly, since there’s less “um.. ah” filler when I’m reading from a script.

Bluebeam Revu is whiteboard software and PDF annotator all in one.

I love this software.  The educational license is $75 and I find it completely worth it.

  • It’s easy to copy and paste from various formats and drop things on the PDF
  • The tools are one or two mouse clicks away
  • Every tool has a hotkey
  • It integrates well with the tablet I’m using for annotation (even including pressure-sensitivity, which is a big plus in the legibility-of-my-handwriting department)
  • Handwriting recognition is easy to integrate
  • Subscripts!  Polylines!
  • You can group objects and store them as a unit in a “toolbox”, which becomes a library of your custom visual elements.  I’m actually using it for simple schematic drafting because it’s faster to use than my schematic package
  • Objects can be aligned to each other, which really helps when sticking text boxes and formulas all over the screen
  • Just because I use a quad-paper pad for my daily note-taking does not mean I want quad paper as a background for all my screencasts… this is something I will change in the future.  Since objects can easily be aligned to each other, it’s not necessary to align to grid lines.  The quad background just makes it look overly busy.

Visual Design

It took me a while to get the font size right.  I sometimes use my screencasts in class so they have to look decent when projected.  When using an 8.5″ x 11″ workspace projected in my browser’s “full-screen mode”, 16 pitch is about right to keep the subscripts readable.  Your mileage may vary, depending on monitor/projector size and resolution.

Other results so far:

  • Landscape layout makes better use of monitor real estate, but I like using portrait layout (zoomed in a little closer) so I can have an easy “reveal” of info by scrolling down.
  • Start recording with the document zoomed to 100% and scrolled to the top.  That way if I pause recording to make changes and accidentally scroll (this happened a lot while I was getting used to the tablet) I can get back to a known size/position before resuming recording.  Again, this is about avoiding the jump-cut effect.
  • A consistent colour code is nice (formulas in black, results in red, etc).  I’ve started using it in class too.

General Organization

I always forget to mention the related section of the textbook.  I’d like to start doing this, maybe using it as the “closing credits.”

I now upload the stupid things right away.  It only took one day of showing up to class without my memory stick to teach me that lesson.


I’d really like to learn a bit of basic video editing.  I can’t help thinking it would save me time, since I could cut out mistakes instead of starting over.  Maybe this summer…


I wouldn’t have gotten started if it hadn’t been for the excellent articles by Andy Rundquist of I’m Not Watching TV and Robert Talbert of Casting Out Nines.  If this was of any help to you, check out their blogs for more depth.

Yesterday I wrote that my students have trouble reading their textbooks.  Today I started wondering how my screencasts fit into this.  My screencasts so far are often a retelling of some part of the textbook.  If I could say “read Ch. 13-4 for tomorrow and write down your questions,” screencasts would not be necessary.  Are my screencasts a lost opportunity for reading practice?

Another thing: can text-comprehension strategies also help with math comprehension?  What would happen if I taught students to read math the same way they read a sentence?  Could I help them stop assuming that “y = 2x” means “2x causes y”?   I mean, obviously, lots of times when they see this, x does cause y.  But that’s not what the equal sign means, and they end up imputing an incorrect meaning to the left/right positions (in fact, their misconception is closer to the programming language meaning of the assignment operator).  This misconception makes them see algebraic manipulation as nonsensical.  After all, if x causes y, how can it possibly also be true that y causes x? (x = y/2)

Intro to Transformers ScreencastI introduced my screencasts to the class today (if you’re wondering why I’m interested in screencasting, here’s a great post from Casting Out Nines).  I showed the first one in class (to watch, click the photo at left) and asked the students to watch the second one when they finished their shop exercise.  They didn’t seem to have a strong reaction either way — they laughed in the right places and didn’t object.  The students were able to use the presented information right away (terminology, symbols, etc.).  The length (3-4 minutes) is great.

Biggest benefit so far: it’s improving my lesson planning.  I never get the screencast right in the first take, so I end up practising my lecture a few times.  That makes me think it through in minute detail, which makes me aware of which visuals will help, how to connect to the homework, what terminology will be confusing, etc.  It also forces me to make realistic time estimates.  (Irony break: I rant to my students that reading over their notes will only make them better at reading, not at problem solving.  Then I read over my notes as a way to prepare for lecturing.  Hm.)

Using the screencast also means that I mention everything that’s in my notes.  I’m starting to remember to press pause to save the viewer from having to watch me write.   This allows me to check my notes much more frequently than I would if I was “live.”    Also, since I’m now gathering all the student questions at the end of the lecture (instead of hearing them sprinkled throughout), it gives me a better chance to hear them all, group them by topic, choose some for students to investigate, and put some of them off for later.

My delivery and organization have improved a bit compared to my first few takes.  Examples are here — the “test” folder contains my first stumbles through the process; the folder called AC Circuits contains screencasts that I actually asked the students to watch.  Production values are not high… but then, that’s true of me standing in front of the whiteboard too.

I tried Jarnal and Massiveboard for annotation.  Jarnal worked well for annotating a single document , but I wanted to cut and paste elements from various sources and have them appear at the right moment.  Its keyboard shortcuts were helpful but it has some annoying traits: you can’t choose the size of a textbox.  Textboxes default to the width of the screen.  Then you have to resize them, or they get in the way of the next textbox.  You can’t just click on the handles to drag textboxes out of the way – you have to choose a separate “selection” tool.  There’s a function that allows you to draw several straight lines in a row, but there’s no hotkey for it.  Massiveboard was what I wanted to use — it allows you to annotate anywhere on your screen, on top of any application, and switch on the fly to the underlying application (to edit something or click on a link) without losing your annotations.  It works well with the tablet I’m using, except for one thing: because MassiveBoard is designed for Wiimote input, its pen-smoothing made my (already bad) writing illegible.  Maybe a larger tablet would help.

I ended up going back to MS Paint.  This might seem crazy, but I needed a fairly simple feature set, a highly accessible tool palette with squares and circles and straight lines and a few colours.  Ineed those things floating on my work area — not buried under 3 layers of mouse clicks.  I also want the ability to place text or clipboard contents anywhere on the screen, and an expandable canvas.  I think it worked out alright, and got me up and running within a day.  (Ok, a long day.)  When I needed to show calculations, I used the Doodler app that came with the tablet (warning: it works on my WinVista machine at home, but not on my WinXP machine at work).  Because it incorporates the pen’s touch-sensitivity feature, it made my handwriting look the least bad of anything I tried.

So far I’ve recorded explanations of new ideas and solutions to practise exercises.  I especially like the idea of screencast as answer key; it allows me to “comment” my solutions, show every trivial algebra step that anyone could ever want, and colour code the whole thing.  Students who want the nice-n-slow walk-through can watch the whole thing; students who are confident in their algebra don’t even need to press play, since the whole solution is on the opening thumbnail (see pic at right; click through to watch the video).

I love the idea of assigning lectures for homework (since listening is pretty easy to do alone) and then solving problems in class (where you have the benefit of teamwork).  Andy Rundquist of I’m Not Watching TV makes it look easy and has already done all the legwork of evaluating software/hosting.  This took away my last shred of an excuse not to do  it.

So last night I made a screencast of a 5-min lecture segment.  It was a humbling experience.

1.  It was weird talking to myself.  It took 3-4 takes before I could stop fumbling my words.  In my first attempt, I actually misused basic technical vocabulary and apparently forgot the rules of grammar.  This is partly because I was learning the software.  But mostly, the lack of student feedback disoriented me.  Whose eyes are forward?  Who’s frowning?  Pencils on paper, or poised in the air confusedly?   I guess it’s good that I’m tuned in to those cues; at the same time, being unable to work without them made me wonder if my internal compass is overly reliant on my students.

2.  I wanted my white board markers.  I experimented with lots of ways of annotating diagrams, and none were satisfying.  In the end I made a Word document, screen-copied it into Paint (stop laughing), and left another instance of Paint and Word open so I could paste new elements in as I needed them.  I kept realizing that I needed some bit of text that I hadn’t anticipated, and it threw me off that I couldn’t grab a marker and add it in.  Solution: pause the recording, go make the visual bit, then continue. If I’m going to do this I guess it’s time to buy a tablet.  I’m also thinking back to previous experiments with software like Prezi and a freeware package for Wiimote whiteboard called GiantBoard (I think — can’t find it at the moment).

3.  The 5 minute limit imposed by Jing is a great idea.  It forced me to be really clear about what point I was trying to make.

4.  I think I prefer screencasting to videocasting.  As a viewer, I admit I prefer to see the presenter’s face;  but as a presenter, it creates all kinds of problems.  What’s in the background?  Is it distracting?  If I’m prepping for class in the evening, do I really want to broadcast to my students the inside of my house?  I have to think about my clothes and appearance, since they become part of the record.  With screencasting, these things aren’t an issue, and I have more control over the focus of attention.  Plus, screencasting encourages me to type my annotations, which is an improvement over my messy handwriting!

5.  Like Andy, I will use the school’s servers for seems to work well and looks good, but I like being able to tell who watched what when.

There were a few technical issues too.  I started off using CamStudio, but found that the video gradually lagged more and more behind the audio.   Also, file sizes are huge.  The Jing recorder resolves these problems, and imposes a 5-minute limit, which I think will improve my organization.  In fact, the practise will probably improve my in-person explanations.  Also, my mic level is too high (although I love my Freetalk wireless headset — Skype sells them at a better price than Futureshop).  But if you are trying screencasting for the first time and want to make yourself feel better by watching someone else goof up, here are two of my early takes.  Even in the later take, I’m not happy with the organization (the title should reflect the change in focus of the content, etc.) but I think it’s an improvement, and I’ll keep working on it.