Screencasting Complex Ideas
This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.
I have an inherent prejudice against teaching students (and faculty) to use user computers as tools by providing step-by-step directions for a specific progress. I believe that, while totally helpful in the individual instance of that specific process, the step-by-step instructions are, in the end, handicapping: they do not introduce the learner to the underlying concepts that might guide their further, more extensive use of the same tool independently.
That said, periodically I need students or colleagues to do exactly one specific sequence of steps. This year I have been experimenting with presenting these sequences of steps as “screencasts” — videos of me doing the process while I narrate what I’m doing. This has a number of advantages, not least being that it is far, far faster to create a screencast than to write a set of instructions. Additionally, the screencast presents as a manageable video, rather than as an overwhelming 17-step sequence of directions. Additonally, rather than describing the process, learners are able to see the process as it plays out.
I have created perhaps a dozen or so screencasts so far this fall, and I have settled into using Screencast-O-Matic, which I like because it does not require installing additonal software (as Jing does) and it is free (as Jing is) and it makes it easy for me to post my screencasts either to the Screencast-O-Matic site (for free), to YouTube (for free) or to save a high quality video file to my computer, that I can edit in iMovie or Sony Vegas Movie Studio. With the video hosted on either Screencast-O-Matic or YouTube, I’m then able to embed the video in a blog post or wiki page for the learners to view.
One technical issue that I ran into is that the Screencast-O-Matic streaming video requires Java to be installed and allowed to run (which is generally true on all computers), and that the series of dialogs to permit this are disconcerting and derailing for some learners. In general, where I can (for videos under ten minutes), I have also posted the videos to YouTube, which requires less from the user to view it. The YouTube videos, viewed in HD are still somewhat lower quality than the Screencast-O-Matic-hosted videos, but they’re generally fine.
I have also been experimenting with OmniDazzle as a way of highlighting parts of the screen as I talk and work in screencasts, making it easier for learners to follow my mouse motions and directions.
A learning issue that I have run into is that some folks (more faculty than students) have been unwilling to click play to watch the video. The process of learning new technology without an actual person standing at their elbow is too overwhelming to contemplate (this is not inference, this is what I was told by those faculty).
I’m not entirely gung ho about screencasts, for the reasons listed above in The Model — that I want learners to understand concepts, rather than steps. I fear that presenting a shamanistic approach to learning technology — “do this sequence of arcane steps and the magic happens” — undermines long term learning. That said, I feel that I am able to better present concepts without intimidating learners in a screencast when I am just talking, rather than presenting a paragraph-sized annotation to each step of a set of directions.
The screencasting approach does, of course, not address all learning styles. It works for more than the directions, I believe, capturing both visual and auditory learners, but it is still not the same as working with the learner to help them accomplish the process in person, themselves. To this end, I have tried to hold screencasts in reserve as a reenforcement for in-class learning, rather than as a sole source of learning about a particular process.
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