The Use of Screencasts to Educate

Dealing with end-users or simply beginners is not always a pleasant and easy experience for tech jerks. I personally sometimes get irritated when I have to explain for a thousandth time a simple concept I have already clarified in layman’s terms a day or two ago. While I was working as Technical Support and I dealt with users all the time, one of the intricacies of helping people over the phone or via e-mail was the lack of picture – if only I could show them what I wanted, or see what was on their screen, then it would have been much easier to find the problem and solve it.

Lack of picture was also a problem when communicating with my developer colleagues, who were thousands of miles away from the office. And in one of those moments, when we were excitingly discussing a bug that appeared on my machine but the developers did not understand what it was and could not reproduce it on their machines, a small movie that captured what appeared on my screen was exactly the solution we needed to understand each other. This wasn’t my first encounter with screencasting but was one of those cases when one sees the practical benefits of a technology that sounds so distant and difficult.

I do not yet consider myself an expert in screencasting. Actually I have done no more than 5 or 10 short movies and I do not think they will get an Oscar, if there were Oscars for screencasts but I know a lot about screencasting and I am afraid that I am getting addicted to it. And believe me, making a simple screencast is not difficult at all but it can be so useful and impressive for others! While making a screencast to answer every support ticket is hardly worth the effort, making a couple of screencasts for the most common questions makes sense and pays off in the long-run, especially when 50% of the issues in the tickets are the same.

But maybe it is time to explain what screencasting means. Do not get stressed by the name “screencasting” – although it sounds complex, actually it is very simple. Screencasting (also screen casting or screen captures and varieties) is creating demo movies for software (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screencast). The movie is created by recording the screen activity of a piece of software program – either by capturing sequences of screenshots, linking them to each other and (optionally) adding audio narration, or by directly filming the activities onscreen as a continuous movie.

I bet you got scared by the definition and already think that only the equipment for a screencast might be worth thousands of dollars but in reality you need only special software (and there are some good programs that are free) to make a decent screencast. If you want to add audio narration, you might need a microphone that is not on the cheaper end but most microphones on the market are OK for the purpose. There is a newer trend in screencasting – to add movie frames in addition to screen activity and if you decide to follow it, for instance to include offscreen scenes, then you might need a camera but still traditionally a screencast is a demo movie, not a full-length film with people and places in it.

Uses of Screencasting

You might still wonder what the practical benefits of screencasting are and where it can be used. The quick answer is that only your imagination is the limit for the uses of screencasting. The paragraphs above implied one of the many possible uses of screencasting – to create demo movies to answer frequent support issues. This is hardly the only possible use of screencasting – since screencasting combines both picture and audio to show what is happening on screen, it is an extremely useful medium to communicate knowledge and ideas and can be used for demonstration of software features, for all kinds of e-learning, for HOWTOs for a particular program or task, for reporting bugs in software, etc.

The fact that screencasting is gaining popularity is hardly surprising. What is more, neither screencasting, nor the technologies it employs are new – there has been screencasting software (Lotus ScreenCam) for more than a decade, not to mention the existence of audio and screen capture techniques that have existed for more than twenty or thirty years. But one of the reasons why screencasting became so popular recently is the fact that due to their size (5, 10, 50 MB or more) screencasts could not distributed easily before broadband Internet became common all around the globe.

Although I know from the start that any attempt to take a complete list of the possible uses of screencasting without skipping an important use is bound to fail, I will show you just some of the most common uses of screencasting. I would like to point to another classification – not that much of screencasting uses but of screencasting genres – made by Jon Udell, who is one of the emblematic names of screencasting. So, according to their purpose, screencasts can be divided as follows:

  • Commercial Demos – I am not sure if this is the first or the most common use of screencasts but certainly it is a major use and one of the reasons why screencasting became so popular. Commercial demos are intended to show to the target audience what a marvel a given piece of software or a site is. I bet that this is the most expensive type of screencasts because when it is part of the sales and marketing campaign of a given company, the quality of the pictures has to be outstanding and very often the audio narration is recorded in a studio by professional actors, rather by the user himself.
  • Tutorials and HOWTOs – tutorials and HOWTOs are an essential use of screencasting – it looks that screencasting is invented just to make it possible to show in a couple of actions rather than in paragraphs of text how to perform a given task. And the possibility to add audio narration to explain exactly what is happening on screen makes it the perfect tool when you have to repeat a given lecture or a course many times, addressing audiences of hundreds and thousands of people. It is obvious that for e-learning and distance learning screencasting is a really valuable technology.
  • Instructional Movies – while tutorials and HOWTOs are generally short (from 5 minutes to half an hour) and concentrate on a particular task only, technology does not limit the size of a screencasts and it could be a full-length movie. But there are some specifics of long screencasts – they must be made into logical smaller parts, otherwise the audience will hardly have the patience to see it at once from start to end. The advantage of full-length instructional movies over tutorials is that in the movie you can include everything in a logical sequence, while the tutorials (even if you number them as Part 1, Part 2, etc.) generally examine only one topic.
  • Software Reviews – I don’t think that anybody will dispute the advantage of a screencast over a textual description only, when reviews are concerned. It is so much easy to communicate an idea, when you can show the stuff you are reviewing.
  • Reporting Bugs – although this stuff is not abundant on the Net, screencasting to record and report bugs is a really valuable tool. As my experience shows, bugs are tricky in two aspects – there are bugs that occur only occasionally and under specific circumstances and therefore are not always easy to reproduce and sometimes, even the bug is reproducable but it is hard to fix, developers just find it easier to deny its existence than to fix it. But when one can present a movie with exactly what is happening, then it is visible what is wrong and if there is a will, there is a way to fix it.

Screencasting and Education

As seen from the classification above, two of the major uses of screencasting are directly related to education – tutorials and HOWTOs and instructional movies. Since a screencast is relatively simple to make and does not require significant resource and knowledge, it is not surprising that the Net is full with educational screencasts on most diverse topics – from teaching beginners how to perform basic operations in office packages, to explaining the intricacies of complex technologies. Although screencasting has not yet replaced human teachers, it can be of valuable help for self-learners and in e-learning because it gives the chance to view the movie at leisure at home and play it as many times as necessary to fully understand the concept or to memorize particular steps.

As I said, on the Net there are screencasts about almost any topic and technology one can think of. Among the links to sites with educational screencasts, I can name http://myscreencast.com/forums/ as one place where there are many screencasts divided into categories (concepts/ideas, software development, web stuff, Mac, Windows, Linux software, etc.) plus a section to request a screencast about a particular piece of software. Another site with general resources (although it seems that they are more Mac oriented) is http://www.screencastsonline.com/ . An excellent place for Excel beginners is http://www.schooldatatutorials.org. A place with more technical screencasts (actually targeted mainly to development with Microsoft products) is http://channel9.msdn.com/. The links I quote are just to give you an idea about what is available on the Net and the list of interesting sites with screencasts can be endless and a simple search in Google is likely to lead you to the stuff you want but if you still cannot find the screencast you are looking for, why don’t you make it yourself?

Tips and Tricks for a Simple Educational Screencast

One of the first issues that you need to consider when preparing your screencasts is what software you will use and what output file formats will be OK for you. As far as screencasting software is concerned, there is really a lot to choose from – starting from free packages (although they do not offer all the extras of commercial ones), to lite versions of professional ones, to the professional ones themselves. I am not going to delve into much detail or recommend a particular screencasting program, since your choice largely depends on your purpose and on your budget but here you can read reviews about the most popular screencasting programs.

The other issue that you need to consider before you start recording your screencasts is the output file format. Generally, choices are ShockWave Flash, standalone executable files (EXE), AVI, QuickTime, and windows media files (WMF). Flash is best if you plan to publish the screencast online, while standalone executable files and movie formats are OK mainly for Windows and Macintosh but still you need to check in advance that the file format of your choice is supported on the operating system where it will be played. One of the most helpful brief explanations of file formats I have found until now is contained in the documentation of Camtasia Studio, so if you decide to download the trial, you may want to have a look at the “Help Me Choose a File Format” section.

As I said, preparing a simple screencast is easy and to accomplish it, you will not need to reads tons of documentation. With some of the screencasting programs on the market it is really intuitive to record a screencast. But in any case, before you start recording, you need to prepare first. It might be interesting for you to see how screencasts are made. For this purpose, although this is not the typical screencast because it involves off-screen scenes as well, I recommend you to see this one – http://libsyn.com/media/donmc/SCO0015_-_Behind_The_Scenes_-_H264_-_Chapters.mov.

When you have done with the preparation and planning for what to include in you screencast, it is time to record it. I would like to say right away, that it will be a miracle if you manage to do it right the first time – not that I mean that it is so difficult to do it but as my experience shows, there must be some kind of scenic fever and as a result there can be a lot of chaotic actions with the mouse and uncountable “hmmms”, if the whole activity has not been rehearsed prior to recording it. Therefore, my tip is that you prepare well and don’t rely on improvisation and the same time do not get desperate if you need to record a movie a couple of times. Better, be prepared to record (or at least heavily edit) the audio narration after you have done with the screen activity. Then you will need to synchronize audio and video but for obtaining a screencast of decent quality this step is mandatory.

When you plan the screencast, there is one more thing to consider – its text. Yes, even if you do not write the text before you start recording, you need to have an idea what you will include and never forget that the text must be suitable for listening to – i.e. when one reads a piece of text, long sentences and paragraphs and complex words are not so much of a problem, but when one listens to the same text, it becomes more difficult to comprehend.

Another tip is not to make the screencast too long. Instructional movies are OK but if you explain a simple concept in the course of half an hour and you include every single irrelevant detail you can think of, you might expect that your audience will get extremely bored. A “trick” to shorten the overall time of a screencast that you must avoid at any cost is to speed the narration – it is obvious that when you talk faster it will take less time to narrate the text but for the user the tempo of your narration might be too fast to follow. For longer movies (or for movies with distinct separate parts) it is a must to include breakpoints of some kind – places where the user can stop and have a rest and then go on.

For educational screencast, one of the best things to do is to use more callouts and cursors that are easily noticeable on screen. Unfortunately, it is mainly the commercial programs that offer abundance of these extras. Another extra, that is valuable for preparing coursework are quizzes, which allow to have questions with multiple answers and to calculate score. But I dare say that only a few of the commercial programs offer this feature, so at least in the beginning you might have to do without it.

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