The rise and rise of screencasts

Over the last few years we have seen a remarkable growth in the use of screencasts at UCL. A ‘screencast’ is simply a dynamic video recording of live computer screen activity. Unlike a screenshot, which is basically a static image, screencasts capture video sequences of clicks and screen changes often enhanced with an audio explanation. The audio can be captured ‘live’ or added on later.

The method was first popularised in the 90s via the Windows tool ScreenCam (formerly Lotus ScreenCam) designed for software demonstrations and tutorials. Like all modern screencast tools, ScreenCam allowed various visual effects such as zooming, highlighting and labelling to be added. Its main advantage was ease-of-use, requiring no knowledge of video editing and soon became widely used by teachers as a way of converting of PowerPoint presentations to short movies in the the Adobe Flash format.

In the last decade there has been an rapid growth of screencasting tools, some downloadable like ScreenCam to a PC, Mac or mobile device but many others now recording directly to the cloud so that they can be published via social media. UCL’s institutional system Echo360 (Lecturecast) includes a screencast facility as part of its lecture capture tools, allowing academics to create short videos without needing a live lecture setup. This has provided a logical ‘next step’ for colleagues inspired to move beyond conventional lecture capture, and many use cloud-based services such as YouTube and Vimeo in addition to publishing via the lecture capture system.

Such recordings are currently being used at UCL in a number of ways, for example:

  • To ‘flip‘  lectures – i.e. pre-record a lecture, publish this material along with an associated feedback channel e.g a Moodle forum or the Lecturecast systems inbuilt discussion facilities and  use  face-to-face time to clarify and discuss issues picked up through student feedback.
  • To produce supplementary materials to live lectures.
  • To record  talks introducing and contextualising areas of study – e.g. talks to students that help to inform choices regarding their direction of study.
  • The production of materials for distance learning.

In an earlier blog post I reviewed Davis and Hardman’s 2012 report on how short Echo 360 screencasts (up to 10 minutes) could supplement ‘conventional’ teaching such as lectures and labs. They found a number of uses, contextualisation (associated with ‘flipping’), assessment preparation and cohort-level feedback. The approach seemed to be time-saving,  students were happy with the  ‘rough and ready’ production values of scfreencasts and the project identified some difference in marks when students used the the contextualisation screencasts.

How can you get started? For UCL academic staff with an account on the Lecturecast service the EchoCapture Personal installer can be quickly downloaded for Mac OS X and Windows 32 systems. Recordings are easy to make and edit and can then be uploaded directly to the Echo System Server (ESS) where they can, like recordings made in LectureCast equipped theatre spaces, be made available as streamed and downloadable versions.

Other screencasting tools: For those happy to go ‘off-piste’ there are lots of screencasting tools out there, e.g. 18 Free Screencasting tools to Create Video Tutorials Some of the more common ones seem to be Camstudio, Jing, Screentoaster, Screenr and Screencast O matic. Screencasting iPads is much less easy but Screencasting Smackdown – Videos in the Classroom  lists several tools. For example the Explain Everything  app provides a useful recordable whiteboard used by several UCL colleages for freehand drawing of diagrams and equations.

Tips and tricks: Although technically simple, good screencasting needs just a little forethought. A sensible general introduction is is Screencasting 101 – Fundamentals of Screencastin. As a follow up I rather like an amusing 10′ video by Dan Nunez, The 10ish Commandments of Screencasting.- the first of Dan’s Commandments is Hide the Goods! For a more educational focus try Quick start guide to flipping your classroom using screencasting or lecture videos . Screencasting Variety Showcase is a highly recommended recorded JISC conference session on the possibilities of screencasting by Phil Ackroyd (City College Norwich). Finally JISClegal podcasts about Recording Lectures and Screencasts  is a practical ‘how to’ also covering some of the legal, technical and accessibility issues.

For lots more information on lecture capture innovation visit my site REC:all (recording and augmenting lectures for learning).

Image by Manuela Hoffman

Forward flip

One of the most surprising (and pleasing) e-learning phenomena at UCL over the last year has been the rapid rise and adoption of the term ‘flipping‘.

Flipping involves an interesting redesign of ‘traditional’ teaching. Students are asked to view and sometimes comment on a short video online to prepare for a tutorial or seminar. The idea is they then come to the live event immediately ready to discuss in more depth the issues raised or apply those ideas in practical problem solving or group work supported by the academic. The videos can be all or part of a recorded lecture or be specially prepared using for example a narrated Powerpoint presentation. They can be supported by many kinds of online resources such as e-readings and quizzes.

Although the idea has been around since at least 2006, used by Eric Mazur at Harvard and others,  the US high school teachers Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams are often credited with starting the movement. In the UK the idea received a boost in a prophetic 2010 Daily Telegraph article by Daniel Pink on ‘flip thinking’, but it was Salman ‘Kahn Academy’ Khan mentioning “teachers flipping the classroom” in his 2011 TED Talk “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education that popularised the whole concept. The influential Wired magazine then accredited flipping as a key trend in an excellent 2012 article University just got flipped: how online video is opening up knowledge to the world which itself forecast the rapid rise of the MOOC.

The idea of getting students to prepare properly for tutorials is hardly new and as the e-learning blogger Steve Wheeler pointed out at the time (What the flip, 2012), there may be risks involved if incomplete flipping perpetuates old ‘instructional’ models. He presented an attractive notion though that “Flipping learning for me means teachers becoming learners and students becoming teachers” which seems the logical ‘next step’ for flipping, an idea I will return to in a later blog post.

One of UCL’s great advocates of flipping is of course Carl Gombrich, Programme Director, Arts and Sciences (BASc) who flipped extensively from the outset of his Approaches to Knowledge course to engage students in cross-disciplinary discussion. Carl explains his approach earlier this academic year in his blog post Flipping lectures – reflections on a term of learning.

Carl also featured in a recent Times Higher Education / Echo 360 webinar E-Learning to Active Learning: Transforming the Learning Environment along with ELE’s Steve Rowett and myself where we explained UCL’s innovative approach The recording can be accessed simply by registering on the site. Carl uses the UCL desktop recording (EchoCapture Personal) software, part of Lecturecast, to create his video segments.

In the presentation Carl highlights some of the ‘good things’ about flipping:

  • Students can interact with lecturers on questions that interest them/problems they want to work through.
  • Students/lecturers get better relationships in terms of mentoring/personal contact etc.
  • Active learning: lecture times can be used for summative assessments: short tests, blog pieces, group work, debates.

As we speak to academic colleagues, E-Learning Champions and departmental committees across UCL we are beginning to realise just how many people are interested in flipping as a way to explore new forms of teaching and learning and the Times Higher Education / Echo 360 webinar is a great place to start.

Video – the quality conundrum

The use of educational video is increasing at a surprising rate across UCL. Lecturecast of live lectures has proved a remarkable success with latest figures showing half of our students now accessing the system. As lecturers become more familiar and comfortable with the medium, many are asking “what next?”, i.e. what can be done beyond simply recording a basic lecture.

Some are already using Lecturecast’s personal capture software to record ‘screencasts’, essentially short narrated presentations is a natural next step. Others are trying out webcams and smartphones to produce short clips, some are recording diagrams and equations written directly on tablets. These approaches are often associated with ‘flipping‘. Flipping involves an interesting redesign of teaching, where students are invited to look at and consider pre-recorded video materials before a live seminar or tutorial in which the contents of the video or issues raised by it are then discussed. Proponents claim this is a more engaging and effective use of lecturer time. Video and audio clips may also be used to provide feedback for students or ad-hoc supplementary resources, explaining a particular problem or assessment question students are struggling with.

The obvious question arises as to what quality does the video have to be? We are all used to the very high production values of BBC documentaries but most of us have  now also viewed wobbly, fuzzy YouTube clips to learn pretty effectively how to do some specific practical tasks.

So what is the right approach? At the Coursera conference I attended in April, I asked MOOC developers how they were creating video resources – video is usually a major part of MOOC design, providing an important ‘human touch’ and authors are actively testing different formats.

There seemed to be no ‘magic formula’ for making video….methods ranged from engaging an expensive professional ‘videographer’ through Lecturecast quality to cheap-and-cheerful laptop DIY. Intriguingly nor was there a consistent user response. Some students liked the glossiness of professional production, but just as many others felt engaged with the authenticity of warts-and-all desktop recordings.

What seemed to be more important was finding a format the lecturer was comfortable with. What process or set-up enables his or her teaching personality to shine though? Some MOOCers reported a ‘deer in the headlights effect’ when lecturers were presented with an array of lights, big cameras and fluffy microphones. If not natural performers some academics were much more comfortable, natural and effective via a lo-fi recording made in their home or office. DIY video also cuts down on editing time. Lecturers know what is important and shoot just that, so minimal editing is needed. Professional camera people on the other hand tend to record much more footage then have to do more editing, adding to the overall expense.

Several MOOCers suggested that if resources are limited (as they always are), it may be better use the professionals only for difficult or high-stakes shooting. Outside camera work, shooting real-life examples, complex lab work, long-life instructional videos, one-off interviews with prominent experts, marketing material and so on may all be a better use of camera person time than getting them to record simple ‘talking heads’.

One of the reassuring aspects of this use of video in MOOCs is that rather than undermine  the role of the lecturer it actually seems to reinforce it. The power of academic narrative remains strong even in an electronic environment. By enabling ‘inactivity’ through selection, pause and rewind good lectures can be transformed from an ephemeral experience to a powerful learning resource.

Webinar: From E-Learning to Active Learning: Transforming the Learning Environment

Notes from webinar we starred in hosted by Times Higher Education (@timeshighered) and sponsored by Echo360 (@Echo360).  The slides:

From E-Learning to Active Learning: Transforming the Learning Environment from

John Elmes, Editorial Assistant, Times Higher Education @JElmes_THE
John Elmes joined Times Higher Education in January 2011 as editorial assistant for news. He was previously a features writer for UK and has freelanced for the Independent, the Independent on Sunday and the Times Educational Supplement. He studied at Durham University and graduated with a BA in English Literature. He also has an MA in Journalism from Goldsmiths, University of London.
Mr Carl Gombrich, Programme Director, Arts and Sciences (BASc), UCL @carlgomb
Carl has degrees in Maths, Physics and Philosophy and was a professional opera singer before joining UCL in 2002. He enjoys making interdisciplinary links between all these areas (and more!) and has taught maths, physics, music and philosophy at a number of institutions in the UK and privately. Carl was the Principal of UCL’s international preparatory certificates before being appointed to Programme Director, Arts and Sciences (BASc) in September 2010.
Steve Rowett, E-Learning Developments Team Leader, UCL
Steve has worked as a learning technology specialist with a number of universities including the University of Surrey, Queen Mary, University of London, and Roehampton University. At UCL he leads a team exploring and evaluating innovations in online and classroom technologies. He recently led UCL’s biennial student IT survey which captures the student voice across a range of IT and e-learning topics.
Dr. Clive Young, E-Learning Advisory Team Leader, UCL @CliveYoung
Clive has worked as a learning technology consultant in several universities, most recently with Imperial College London. He has led several UK and international projects on the pedagogic design of video and was an e-learning project evaluator for the European Commission. Clive is also an associate lecturer at the Open University tutoring on their MA in Online and Distance Education

Always on the forefront of education and research, University College London (UCL) claims one of the world’s most sophisticated e-learning strategies and learning environments. Over the last four years UCL, the lead partner at of REC:all has run a major initiative to increase the use of lecture capture across the institution. The Echo 360 system is used, rebranded as “Lecturecast”, and starting with a small pilot project the number of instillations has rapidly grown to 62 across the campus.

One of our original principles was that use should be voluntary. A few departments now record all lectures – some 20% of all our lectures are now recorded – but most leave choice to individual lecturer. Most of the growth in use therefore has been driven by staff and student demand. We now have about ten thousand hours of recorded material in the system and roughly ten thousand hours views a week (half of our students have now accessed the system). This in turn has driven ‘hits’ to our virtual learning environment, Moodle, now recording 20-30,000 visits a day. Lecture capture is thus a major part of UCL’s digital environment.
Earlier this year the Times Higher Education (@timeshighered) hosted a webinar “From E-Learning to Active Learning: Transforming the Learning Environment” sponsored by Echo360 (@Echo360) featuring UCL’s experience of this major project. The event featured UCL experts who shared;

  • How to change content delivery into interaction by flipping the classroom
  • How to leverage technologies to increase student engagement and collaboration
  • How lecture recordings and videos support the teaching and learning process before, during and after class
  • How to determine if MOOCs are a critical part of distance learning
  • How to incorporate feedback from academics and students into the active learning strategy

MOOCs as metaphors

I went as an observer to the first Coursera Partners Conference at the University of Pennsylvania last week with what I thought would be a simple mission. I wanted to find out the question that MOOCs (massive open online courses) are trying to answer. It turned out to be far more complex than I had thought.

Coursera was started about a year ago by Stanford computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller along with three other university partners; Michigan, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. That number has now risen to 62 partners largely from the US providing over 300 courses for a claimed 2.5 million students, almost 60% from outside the US itself.

Coursera has taken a fairly elitist policy and at the Conference were a good number of the heavy hitters of US higher education were represented, with the exception of MIT and Harvard who last year launched an even-more-elitist nonprofit rival EdX. What was really noticeable at the Conference was the prevalence of fairly senior academics. Ties almost outnumbered t-shirts and this seemed to me hugely significant, perhaps the key to understanding the Coursera phenomenon. This is not a vision initiated by individual academics, or e-learning types like myself but senior management, the ‘gift of Coursera’, as one learning technologist put it, had invariably been bestowed from above.

So what, I asked, were the institutional drivers? Activists were almost bemused by that query, there was it seemed an ideological drive to MOOC involvement. In part this was surely ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. The Keynote, former Princeton president William G. Bowen remarked, “One of the characteristics of academia is that nobody wants to be left behind”. Coursera’s ‘join our elite club’ strategy was clever and persuasive but MOOCs also seem to meet a range of institutional and even national priorities. One was the perception in the US of HE as costly, parochial and elitist, maybe unfit to skill and re-skill an under-performing workforce. The US government is clearly eyeing up MOOCs as a possible game-changer in educational delivery, if the pedagogical and economic concepts can be proven. The perceived low cost was mentioned repeatedly.

MOOCs clearly link to the ‘public good’ outreach aims of top universities, as well as raising their global profile. There is a perception that the global openness of MOOCs can improve the occasionally parochial perspectives of US programmes, good for students as well as institutions. Many individual academicsreported a real emotional buzz from teaching tens of thousands of students at a time.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it is a motivator for research-focused universities to re-focus on teaching. The Duke Provost Peter Lange said that at his university the MOOC initiative had stimulated ten times more discussion about pedagogy than had occurred in the previous ten years! For those with a responsibility for teaching and learning renewal, the MOOC must seem like a magic wand.

Interestingly there was little talk about income generation or ‘monetization’. Most initial university MOOCs has been supported by one-off university-level funds, supplemented by some departmental investment. Maybe thoughts of sustainability were yet to kick in, though some universities were now on their second iteration of delivery. Two ideas were mooted by Coursera themselves, Signature Track, a way of digitally verifying attendance on some courses that students can already pay a smallish sum for. The other was ‘course-in-a-box‘, essentially selling on prestige courses for delivery in other universities, usually with localisation of content and local support.

This led to discussions of ‘blended’ learning, using all or part of a MOOC to support a conventional course, usually in the same institution but occasionally elsewhere. There was much enthusiasm for this. The major re-thinking needed by academics to design a MOOC, and the particular focus on student-centred learning and new forms of assessment had revolutionised the way some courses were taught, usually around the ‘flipping‘ paradigm.

There was a strong feeling that MOOCs were like a magnifying glass, enabling the inspection of the educational process and the student experience in ways that had not been possible, or even considered, before, though ‘learning analytics’ (of online behaviour) and ‘A/B testing‘ (altering one aspect of design to determine effect) . I felt an unstated aspect of this innovators club was that the universities felt they were positioning themselves in some way for the future. Monetization was not really the issue at this early stage. Maybe the Google and Facebook growth models were are the back of people’s minds – build it and the income will come (eventually). The conservative fall-back model mentioned a few times seemed to be the MOOC-as-a-book model, where MOOC courses would essentially be the textbooks of the future, with ‘signature courses’ dominating some subjects and used across many institutions.

It was hard to dismiss the energy around the conference, though, there was the feeling we were all at the start of something big. Tom ‘The World Is Flat’ Friedman, speaking at the pre-Conference seminar said if MOOCs were search engines we should think of ourselves just at the ‘AltaVista’ stage, when Google was still nowhere on the horizon.

MOOCs were clearly a metaphor for all sorts of issues such as the renewal of teaching and learning in the digital age, the democratisation of learning, the role of elite universities, the threat and promise of globalisation. However, as we know there is a risk of using metaphors in education; they can simplify or obscure as much as illuminate. It is the deeper impulses pushing for MOOCs that we should maybe be tracking as much as the MOOCs themselves.

Golden OULDI

Converting conventional face-to-face teaching to online distance learning formats has long been recognised as a dauntingly challenging task for academics and learning technologists alike. The classroom and the computer environment are both complex, subtle and surprisingly hard to describe, so translating from one mode into the another very different one is fraught with pitfalls, especially for academics with little experience of online course formats.

As UCL moves inexorably towards more blended and distance forms of delivery, these hard issues are coming up for us, too. Colleagues in departments are keen to develop distance learning modules and programmes but need a lot of personal input from ELE and CALT to guide them. We recognise this is hardly scalable so ELE is piloting checklists to help UCL, timings, contingency, developers identify critical initial questions around market analysis, finances resourcing, staffing, learner profiles, assessment, editing, copyright and so on.

We are now thinking about tools to help learning design itself and the stereotype question is; “What would the Open University do?”. Although the OU is very different organisation to UCL addressing an hugely different clientele, they actually face similar issues. At an OU event last week I came across their current course planning tools, which are actually based on an open JISC project called OULDI (Open University Learning Design Initiative). The two tools I saw in action were the Activity Profile and the Module Map.

The Activity Profile is a spreadsheet designed to provide an insight of what kind of learning actually goes on inside a course, identified by different types of learning activities; Assimilative, Finding and handling information, Communication, Productive, Experiential, Interactive/ Adaptive, Assessment. Each activity is associated with familiar Bloom-style ‘process outcomes’ or action verbs i.e. learners will collaborate/engage/explore etc.  The developers are asked to allocate study hours in the face-to-face course against each activity against each activity type. The results often show a skew towards Assimilative activities (e.g. Read, Watch, Listen, Think about, Access, Observe, Review). This is designed to generate discussion about what type of balance developers want in the online course, bearing in mind the online format requires active and preferably visible engagement with the course.

The Course (or Module) Map gives another perspective, an ‘at a glance’ view of the course or module across four dimensions (see illustration), and is more analogous to some of the materials now being developed by ELE. It captures a brief textual overview of the course activities in terms of the types of learning experience the learner will have, how they will communicate and collaborate with tutor and peers, as well as the guidance and support provided and the nature of any assessment.

The point of these tools is not to be prescriptive but to stimulate discussion and accurate description of the module so leading ultimately to more ‘aspirational’ designs which make better use of the online environment. I hope we will be able to build some aspects of OULDI into our own learning design processes.

One final OULDI tool I thought intriguing was the set of printed Course Features Card Sort. This comprises around 45 printable cards to help module teams decide on and describe their course. I expressed some cynicism about giving academic colleagues such materials but was assured that once their own scepticism was overcome, lecturers found the prompts to be useful to capture the intangible ‘feel ‘of a course. If anyone out there wants to try these out, I would be very happy to facilitate!