Video Killed The Audio Lecture?

So as part of our summer initiatives, I had the brilliant idea to replicate something that we used to do at another institution where I had worked before: video tutorials for the LMS. I know full well that this may be a futile experience. There’s no possible way to keep up however many videos we do produce, there’s no way to put out the super high quality work I feel is required because we just can’t afford that kind of production time. However, I just couldn’t figure out the quickest way to make sure there’s no technical reason for this initiative to fail other than to crank out several videos, and post them to YouTube so that 20,000 students have some sort of access to information that they can use.

For those of you who haven’t done some sort of screen capture demonstration, here’s what I do. It may not make sense for you, or it may be downright wrong. It works for me – feel free to comment if you have ways that I can improve.

Write the script. 

The script is really the most important thing. It’s what makes you sound professional – you can’t just wing this (unless you’re brilliant). Write the script for what you’re going to say, then record it into your computer. Listen to it. Does it make sense? Good. Is it too long? Do you stumble over phrases? Fix them. Do this months in advance. About two weeks before you actually record, figure out if you can read/recite the script while doing something else. The something else can be typing on the computer, watching a movie… almost anything (I wouldn’t suggest brushing your teeth or having a meal). Can you get through without major issues? Good. It’s good enough to say out loud. Rewrite if you need to. Remember to say why anyone would want to do whatever it is you’re demonstrating. A script, even if it’s simple, will help guide you when you actually do the video. If you think you can skip this step, go ahead. However, I used to feel this way too, and would skip the script – until I was forced to work with one and it made the actual recording process simple.

Know how to do whatever you’re demonstrating.

Really, this is insulting, but it’s amazing how many videos I’ve seen stumble around what they were trying to show. Admittedly, I’m not 100% perfect, I have to often align my mouse up with the things I’m clicking (as my attentions on reading the script). If you happen to say “uhhh, how do I do that again?” stop recording, shut off whatever software you have running and practice the steps. Then practice them again. Make sure you know them inside and out. Do them instinctually.

Decide on what you’re going to record with.

The simplest setup for the best quality is Camtasia. I may be biased because I like the tool a lot, but it’s not open source. I’ve used a ton of tools that do screen capture,  but I know I’ll need the ability to fix audio in post, and edit video. You may like CamStudio, which is pretty damn good – in fact any of the webcasts I did for my early online courses (in 2007/8) used that software. Of course, there’s no post editing options. EZVid also has a similar functions to Camtasia, so I’m interested to try things out.

Nobody wants to see you.

The caveat here is that, nobody wants to see me; you however may look like George Clooney and should be seen. Honestly, people are not looking for a video introduction, so don’t waste time making one. Get to the point. I used to say that there’s a place for a picture-in-picture talking head. Now? I’m not so sure. In certain Distance Education classes it maybe makes some sense, however, the time it takes to do a decent talking head, mix the audio so it matches, and add in the pressure of having to do whatever it is you’re demonstrating in one take, is well, a lot. Cut the extraneous stuff out. Make your video simple and to the point.

Get it done.

I like to record using Camtasia, with a USB Snowball microphone. It’s not a wonderful super duper mic, but it is a good USB microphone at a decent price point. I place the microphone as if I were to speak into it, and then move it to the right of my mouth, so I’m not speaking directly into the mic. It’s a cheap trick to reduce smacking lips, pops and other annoying audio things. You can also make a DIY windscreen if it suits your needs to MacGuyver something. I test audio, and then hit record. Inevitably the first take is usually the one with the most energy, and usually also useless. Listen to it before moving on. Be critical of your performance. Slow down.

One other thing I like to do is take a bit of a break while recording, not like a 2o minute break but 15 seconds or so – don’t move the mouse, don’t do anything in fact. Let your mind reset. Get a bit of a breather and then go on. You can always easily cut out segments of no movement and no audio, as long as you don’t move the mouse no one will be the wiser. Make sure your voice is enthusiastic. As soon as you can’t convince yourself this is important or fun, stop for the day. Go do something else.

Did you go off script? Chances are you did. Make notes where you left the script (you’ll need to transcribe it for captioning if you care about accessibility). YouTube’s captioning ability is pretty amazing.

If you have more energy, go again. You’ll probably find your rhythm. Keep mining that feeling because it is fleeting and you will find it beneficial to make up the time you lost earlier (either in setup, or some other place).

Cut yourself.

No, not with a sharp instrument, but be brutal with your performance. Find three seconds of silence and no movement on screen? Cut it. Find an awkward phrase that can be done without? Cut it. Students, your audience, don’t want to muddle through it. Is the instruction clear? No? Cut it (and in this case, do a voice over). Tighten up the overall rhythm of the video. Do your best to make it flow. Editing yourself will be painful, listening to yourself, is well up there with many uncomfortable things. I think it helps to imagine it’s someone else, but maybe that is delusional.

Small things are important.

Taking the time to get all the small things right is important. They may not mean much individually, but every removal of potential distractions from the content will help your learners. That means every “um” you remove, every breath that you can hear, every awkward pause, whenever you reduce those, you’re making a better product. I personally, like to have a 15 to 30 second introduction – which is simply a couple of pages that I build in Photoshop (you could use Gimp or Paint Shop Pro). Those pages have some sort of identifier, and the topic being covered. I also add a 30 second to a minute  bumper at the end with my institution’s logo on it. If I have time I’ll craft something quick using FruityLoops and Audacity to give the beginning some pep in the audio department. A little four note introduction can help make things seem uplifting, bouncy and set the tone for the rest of the video.

Once the video editing is done really you’re left with tying all the loose ends. Captioning is a big thing, and basically I listen and re-listen and type out the words I actually say. Make sure you export as large a file as possible – in MP4 format with the H.264 codec as a best practice.  Why MP4 and that particular codec? Well, MP4 has become a universal file format and has better compression than MPG/MPEG and has none of the compatibility issues of QuickTime or AVI. That particular codec is also widely used and will be very forgiving. If you’re uploading to YouTube or Vimeo, both sites will take files in those formats encoded in with H.264

That’s it. After the hours it takes to capture and edit, your two minute video will be seen by, well, however many people see it. If you get a year out of it until the next upgrade, you’ll be in good shape.

Technology Changes Everything (or How I Stopped Worrying About MOOCs)

Carleton University’s president Roseann O’Reilly Runte wrote an article today on the technological changes higher education face in the Globe and Mail (which may be behind a paywall for some of you). I’ve provided some out of context quotes to pick apart her argument.

“Technology brings additional information on learning styles and helps assess rapidly what has been retained, allowing lectures to be adapted to students’ needs and to be made more meaningful.”

While it can bring additional information – it takes some presumptive leaps to determine learning styles (if those even exist) based on how many times a person logs into an LMS or how long they spend on a piece of content. Also, assessing what has been retained, is well self-explanatory. Shouldn’t we be testing whether the knowledge gained is applied in a logical manner? Who cares if the student knows who the King of France is in 1560, shouldn’t we care about what is important about that person in a historical context? It’s useful to know if a student has basic knowledge, but with google, bing and wikipedia at our easy access, shouldn’t we care more about access to those tools and using that knowledge rather than the base fact that a student knows something?

And don’t get me started on making lectures able to be adapted to a student’s need… a lecture appeals to certain students – whether that’s in class, online or on Khan’s Academy or YouTube.

“Classes can combine Internet connections, Skyped conversation, video-teleconference and satellite hookups with videos and segments of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) produced around the world. Students can benefit from international online discussion groups. All of this enriches the learning experience and represents considerable up-front investment with intensive labour commitments from faculty and technical support.”

Actually, very few instructors do this because each University is stuck in their own silo, based on the last fifty years of in-fighting and competition for enrollments. Why collaborate with your enemy when they will take your students while you repackage their lectures? Yes, these things can be done, but often are not because of a myriad of factors – competition with other institutions (rather than collaboration), ego, discipline specific content, unique selling propositions of individual institutions, technical know how, and cost. Those costs don’t magically disappear after introducing the innovation – it takes continued effort and improvement, which is a continued cost. MOOCs (as EdX, Udacity, Coursera and the like) are used by many institutions as a loss-leader – a way to build a brand and maybe it serves the community (maybe it just serves itself as Coursera has found).

“MOOCs will soon conquer the mechanical glitches which have been highly publicized. Some have already solved the evaluation and accreditation issues. When this becomes the normal process, students across the world will have the option of taking a history class at 8:00 am on Friday or the Ivy League professor’s MOOC any time. Students will then ask for transfer credits.”

Oh, of course, evaluation is solved… well not really. Sure in math there’s a right and wrong way to do things – so a multiple choice, or fill in the blank can assess that (assuming the student has actually entered the answer and done the work). Other disciplines that require interpretation could crowd source the evaluation like Coursera does. Which is fine, but not exactly impartial or valuable (in many people’s experience). I guess my snide commentary is that it mimicks really well the higher education evaluations used. Honestly though, transfer credits are difficult enough to ascertain based on current standards in Ontario (I’ve tried to get my Athabasca University credits recognized at another institution for a prerequisite and was told I had to take it locally to get credit for it) – again this is a problem the system has to address, and not something that technology will particularly solve.

“How can this lead to cost reductions? The savings can accrue rapidly if the course is massively enrolled and subsections are taught by less well-paid individuals; or if the course lasts several years and the designers and lead professor may be paid over time.”

Clearly this is the crux of the cost-reduction argument. Reduce the pay of the experts creating these courses, and teaching these courses to massive numbers. Increase enrollment in first year and if they don’t succeed they can come back next year and try again in the same environment. The average sessional at my University is already making peanuts (on top of having paid out a lot for their PhD) – lets cut their pay too. If I were at Carelton, and a faculty member, I’d underline this and make sure it was front and centre at the next negotiation.

I’ve been fairly critical of the statements about technology being a panacea for all that ills higher education; it’s not and it never will be. To create a quality e-learning piece, it takes often 10 times the amount of time, and usually the same amount of cost to produce. So logically, you’ll have to use that item at least 10 times before it makes a return on your investment. If it’s a lecture that’s been professionally captured, captioned (as required by law in 2014), audio tweaked and perfected, slides intercut with video, title cards for the beginning and end, and you deliver that lecture once a year, you’ll have to wait 11 years for that to make any return. Think your video format will be out of date? How about the content itself?