Screencasting: I Could Have Talked All Day …

Sharing discoveries and knowledge is one of my greatest pleasures, wherever I work. Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to present a session on screencasting, a topic I could probably have talked about for hours but had just ninety minutes to discuss. The audience comprised primarily faculty members at my university, and although the group was relatively small, the attendees engaged well and appeared interested and appreciative.

My focus for the session was not so much demonstrating how to use a specific screencasting software tool but, rather, to communicate why an instructor would use it and the factors to consider in making one’s screencast good. I began by emphasizing that the instructor must first consider what his/her use would be: will it help the instructor lecture, provide feedback, give tips, demonstrate a software application, etc.? I provided a one-minute video with clips of four instructors using screencasting in various ways so that the attendees could see that it’s a simple but highly useful concept and that if others around them are implementing it, so can they!

Then I progressed to what I consider the three steps for screencasting: plan, practice, and do it. To me, planning is the primary step here, and that’s what I focused on for much of the rest of my talk.

Because planning determines so many factors to make screencasting successful, instructors must ensure that they do not skip this step. What does the instructor want to use the tool for? How long will the screencast likely be? Will the instructor use a PC or Mac for screencasting? Does the produced file format (.mp4, .swf, .wmv, etc.) matter? Does the instructor want to use a webcam with the screencast or record only the desktop? Are advanced features such as editing and mark-up tools necessary? These decisions will make determining the right software application much easier.

During the planning discussion, I talked to some extent about microphones. I displayed five types of microphones and noted the good and bad points of each: my laptop’s integrated microphone (which I discouraged instructors from ever using for their screencasts), a cheap analog stand microphone that I’d purchased years ago with a Gateway desktop computer (which I ranked just a bit better than the laptop’s internal microphone), both an analog headset and a USB headset (which I encouraged instructors to use, largely because the microphone moves with them as they talk and move their heads), and a tiny USB clip-on Samson Go Mic (which I did not encourage other than for scripted audio but for which I wanted to note the portability and excellent quality of the audio).

Once the instructor has considered all needed elements for his/her screencast and decided on the proper tool (and I provided plenty of suggestions of tools, including Screencast-O-Matic, Screenr, Jing, Camtasia, Microsoft’s Community Clips, and QuickTime Player for Mac), he/she is ready to practice. I showed a five-minute video I’d created about three free tools (Screencast-O-Matic, Screenr, and Jing), and then I quickly demonstrated one of those free tools, Screencast-O-Matic. Although Camtasia Studio will likely always be my own preferred screencasting software application, I demonstrated (and largely suggested) Screencast-O-Matic for a number of reasons. First, Screencast-O-Matic offers a completely free version that is probably more than adequate for several instructors. Second, Screencast-O-Matic offers a paid version, but the paid version is much less expensive than Camtasia yet still has some great advanced features, such as editing and screen-draw tools. (My belief is that when instructors are just beginning to use such a tool, they should use something inexpensive and then “work their way up” to more advanced software.) Third, Screencast-O-Matic is Web based, so instructors need not download anything (and this is significant at a university where Information Technology restricts administrative rights on computers!). Fourth, Screencast-O-Matic’s free version allows up to fifteen minutes of recording time, which is much more liberal than the five minutes of recording time offered by the free Jing and Screenr tools. Fifth, Screencast-O-Matic works on both PCs and Macs. Sixth, the free Screencast-O-Matic tool offers not just sharing of the desktop but also webcam integration, which isn’t possible with many other free tools. Last, Screencast-O-Matic produces files in .mp4 format, which is much more universally accessible than the offerings of some other applications (such as the .swf files produced by Jing and .wmv files produced by Community Clips).

I ended the session with a ten-minute video on “Screencasting Commandments” by the hilarious Dan Nunez. As the video played, I was aware of smiles and laughs throughout the room, which was my goal, as the video is not just educational but also extremely humorous.

I believe that encouraging instructors to think about their needs for screencasting and then emphasizing the need to plan, practice, and do it is a much better way of presenting a tool than merely showing off the tool, with instructors thinking, “How does this apply to my needs? How do I make this work in my class? Is this really going to be as easy as just opening up a software package?”

Only time will tell if the session produces significant results, but given that one instructor has already been in touch with me about her idea for using screencasting and another participant is considering active encouragement of screencasting among his part-time faculty, I believe that I was successful in my attempt to make faculty at my university more cognizant of the many uses of screencasting and more eager to try it out.

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