Monday, August 29, 2005

On Talking Heads

Over the weekend I bought an inexpensive Logitech Pro Webcam for the family computer. Part of the idea was for the kids to make little videos and burn them to a CD to send to family. The other part was for me to play with it because it seems like there is a little Video craze on campus and I wanted to get some more experience with it. One kid made a video and then immediately afterward told me to trash it and not look at it. So I did. We’ll get to sending movies to the relatives a little later.

For now, I did some first order experiments, making a few simple movies of myself, both with the software that comes with the camera and with the free version of the RealProducer. The install of the camera itself was remarkably easy. It comes with a CD that has the software and after that is installed a reboot and plugging it into a USB port is all that is required. Not being a genius in the practical arts, I was challenged by how to work the clip used for a flat screen panel and getting it off the base that one uses when it sits on a flat surface, like a desk. There were no instructions for that. It turns out it snaps off its base and readily fits into the clip, which is of hard rubber and easily bent to fit the flat screen. Some impressions of how this might be used for instruction follow.

Talking head videos are viewed as a no-no for good online instruction. I understand that. There is little real content added given how much additional bandwidth the video consumes. A voice track is not that bad, bandwidth-wise. But the video is a killer. And what does it add? Presumably, this is replicating the part of the face to face world that we could do without. The Web seemingly offers all these other opportunities for finding approaches to engage the learner, and here we go again with the lecture, the tried and true approach that we know doesn’t engage them. We just can’t seem to resist talking at the students instead of having conversations with them.

But now, let’s flip this on its head. What if it is the students who are making the talking heads video? What if they do this in pairs as part of a project that is in lieu of a term paper. Suppose the project requires them to write up a little screenplay in dialog form on the topic the instructor assigns, has them present that dialog online by acting it out in front of the WebCam and then delivering that in some format that at least the instructor, possibly the rest of the class, and maybe anyone else on the Internet can see. And suppose, in addition, there was a requirement to design a Web site that complemented the presentation and that included a discussion of the issues and an annotated bibliography on the topic. The talking head video now becomes an instrument through which students make oral presentations, something we should definitely encourage them to be doing, and a way to get them engrossed in making the project. Since they are on screen, they might rehearse. They might care more about what they are delivering. And, that might translate into them learning more about the topic they are presenting on.

With that in mind, my object in using the WebCam was not in high production value but rather in terms of seeing how hard it was to make a movie (and also what type of bandwidth the moving making consumed). After a fashion I fixed in on movies that were 320 x 240 (I assume the unit of measurement is pixels). This seems small enough to keep the bandwidth down but big enough for the viewer to figure out who is on the screen. I made a bunch of clips that were each about a minute in length. The resulting output is about 10 MB in uncompressed AVI format and about 500K in compressed RM format. Though not my intention, a student could send a video mail once a week and that would be no big deal.

“Dear Mom and Dad – School is great. My roommate and I are partying all
the time but I’m still able to keep up my B average. The food though is
terrible. Please send money so I can eat out once in a while. Love
The recording is near idiot proof. Push a button to start the recorder and then push the same button to stop it. There is something to know about where the file is when the recording is done and it is saved to the hard disk. And with the free RealProducer software there is something to know about naming and locating that file before the recording takes place. Otherwise it is a snap.
The hard part for students, I assume, is finding a quiet and well lit place to do the recording. I used my home office for this and it worked like a charm. I don’t think a dorm room would work nearly as well.

I did absolutely no editing on the videos I recorded. I know others want to get the students engaged with video editing but for me teaching an Econ course I’d let the students know that editing is possible if they are not satisfied with the raw footage, but that would be for them to decide. For me the idea would be to have them focus on themselves as presenters and get that as good as possible. Worry about that and the economics, not the film making.

This all seems quite do-able, with perhaps the exception of where the students store their work, including all the outtakes. I’ll deal with that in a future post.

No comments: