Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Tablet PCs and Art School

I've been playing with my new Tablet PC for the last few days. Lots of fun - if only I could write (and better yet, if I could draw). Conceptually everything works wonderfully, but my handwriting is for the birds so demo-ing this folks have to use their imaginations. But it does make it "real" in the sense of being like home movies rather than professionally produced. That does convey that anyone can do this, which I believe is true, if they have a Tablet PC and some other software that I'll talk about in a bit.

One of the things that have really benefited from the increase in CPU power is the making of screen movies. Three or four years ago, that process would disrupt what was being done on the creator's computer, which would itself disrupt the presentation, and apart from that the output would be kind of choppy and therefore not engaging for the viewer. All of that has changed now.

If one thinks about screen movies via capture, most people would probably think of Camtasia, at least in part because way back when many people had the Snag-It image capture utility on their desktops and the two different softwares are made by the same company, TechSmith. I haven't used Camtasia recently. I stumbled across a different application called BB Flashback made by a UK company called Blueberry Consultants. It seems to work well in terms of the capture and adding audio, and it allows export to many file formats. In my play, I've been exporting to .swf (Flash) format. I need to learn more about that as far as whether it can work ok at scale without a streaming server. In my little bit of testing, it comes in fine at home with my cable modem. Burks said it was slow over dial up. Since I'm thinking about preparing this sort of thing, well in advance of the use, I don't think that is a big deal. If necessary, these movies can be put onto a CD and sent through the (snail) mail.

Why make movies out of pen strokes? Just to make sure everyone can fit in this conversation, recall back to those old TV ads that invited you to join Art School if you can produce a reasonable replica of a certain still life with a line drawing, then you too can enroll in the school. Even if that commercial conjures up some of P.T. Barnum's most famous lines, particularly about a fool and his money, it also emphasize hand written activities and copying. I know a lot of instructors don't like PowerPoint and would prefer to write out their lectures. These and other instructors feel that having students copy what the instructors have written, particularly in notation intensive courses, is really important. The writing out the content is the way students get familiar with the material.

I've also seen students, notably engineering students, who have vociferously demanded that their instructors use chalk. I've interepreted this as a demand for pacing in the presentation to match the pacing in the way the students process the information. But there may also be a benefit to see how things are written out, particularly equations and diagrams. Instructors have a way of tranferring their ideas into the written representations in a way that helps students and it is the construction of the representations that is critical to watch and to imitate.

The screen movies can do in essence the same thing. Accompanied by the voice annotation it simulates the lectures explanation of technical material with animated strokes and deft commentary. It has the added benefits of being replayable, in case the student didn't "get it" the first time, and the still further benefit that the instructors body doesn't block the chalkboard. The student viewer can see it all.

These screen movies are technically easy to produce. Once a facility with using the pen on the Tablet PC has been achived, all one has to do is set the recording are on the screen, push the record button and start writing or drawing brilliant and creative things. Then when that is done, press the stop recording button. My sense is that erasing in this context is not a good thing to do so that the student will have a finished diagram at the end of the clip. Of course mistakes happen, so in that sense anything goes. But erasing well constructed content is a no no.

I would do the voice narration after recording the screen moving, not at the same time. Part of this is because there is some concentration required to make the digitial pen write as on the blackboard. The other part is to see if "ums" and "ahs" can be prevented and by focusing on the talking while viewing the screen capture movie, the audioe flow should be smoother. It is a snap to place the audio file as another track in the screen capture movie and then export to a nice format for viewing. The latter is processor intensive however and takes a while to create a finished product. This is not like saving a Word document.

So technically, this is an easy way to make mini presentations. Perhaps a handful of these on the same general topic would play the the role as an online alternative to a lecture. It fits in perfectly with the theme that presentation can be doen in advance of the live class session so that in class time can be spent on discussion.

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