Friday, February 24, 2006

Asynch and Out of Synch

This week marks the one-year anniversary of my blog. Happy Birthday!!! What did I do to celebrate the grand occasion? Unfortunately, the answer is, keep my nose to the grindstone. There were a lot of things to keep up with work-wise and teaching-wise so I haven’t made a post in over a week. I hope to make up for that in the next few days.

Today I want to video in teaching and learning - not the full deal, that is too big a topic – just how it has impacted me this last week or so. I was slated to deliver a presentation at our EdTech Brownbag and since I’m going to be at a CIC meeting this coming Monday and hence will have to miss my class, I thought why not prepare for the Brownbag as if doing an online lecture and in case that turns out ok, I’d do something similar for my class.

So I made a little Web site in lieu of a PowerPoint Presentation that is available here and at first my plan was to use my built in iSight camera in my iMac G5 to record me as a talking head. Unfortunately, and I hope if Apple continues to offer the built in iSight they will change this if they haven’t changed it already, iMovie doesn’t recognize that camera. It seems to require an external camera. However, I found this cheapie third party tool called Boinx iVeZeen which in my tests worked fine and put out Quicktime movies compressed for Web Viewing that seemed quite reasonable in terms of both the effort to make the video and the finished product. But due to procrastination and other work, I didn’t make these videos way ahead of time. So now it’s Tuesday, the day before the presentation and I start recording them. Lo and behold, iVeZeen craps out on me. Either the videos I was making were too long (they were a couple of minutes of talking head) or there is too much of something in some buffer, but whatever, it just wouldn’t work.

Cool and collected under pressure, I start to panic. For whatever reason, while a week earlier I viewed making these videos something of a lark, by that Tuesday it started to seem a critical part of my presentation. So I went to plan B. At home I’ve got an inexpensive Logitech Webcam mounted on the monitor for the family Dell. Also, the campus has recently gotten a site license for the Real Helix server and thrown into the deal is RealProducer Plus. So I made some recordings at home Tuesday night after first trying it on my Tablet PC in my office to convince myself this could work. (The Tablet PC is absolutely horrible for recording audio. The quality is terrible. But it was ok to test that this could be done.)

The process itself begins with Logitech software that comes with the Webcam. That is used to record an AVI file. I’m not film star and actually feel quite uncomfortable making these movies. So I’m interested in “ good enough” quality in the AVI file that is produced. The Webcam meets that minimal requirement. The audio is audible with not too much hiss and the coordination with the video, although it seems surrealistic to watch yourself on screen this way, is not too bad.

Then the AVI file is used as input by RealProducer which converts the file to a streaming format. The current file type is .rv, but I wasn’t sure how that would work with our current streaming server so I converted to the older type, .rm. The default speed is for 256K (DSL at home) streaming and I kept that and added 56K. Perhaps I should have also included a higher rate stream for what I have to say next. But since my prior experience with this stuff was audio only (I had done some video but only with the free version of RealProducer), I did what I did. The software converted this stuff like a charm but it does take some time to get the conversion going. Then via sftp to our streaming server and identifying the links for the files so they will stream and voila, they’re up on my presentation page. I put them there both as embedded in a player (which for whatever reason play only the audio on my Mac) and as a link (which plays the full video fine on my Mac).

I recorded 3 clips Tuesday night. It is hard to do, harder than just recording audio, because there is the question of looking at the camera or looking at the screen (and if you do both back and forth creating a shifty look as a consequence) and you need to show some emotion so the thing is interesting to watch, which is extremely hard for me to do when I’m simultaneously trying to provide factual information, especially without getting feedback from anyone else. So I left the rest of the work for Wednesday morning. If you go through these, you’ll see my shirt is different starting on the slide, Goals for a Gen Ed Course.

Now I want to switch gears for a second and ask whether this sort of stuff should be streamed or downloaded. If the entire presentation were zipped up and then downloaded, to be expanded on the users computer, the file is on the order of 30 – 50 MB. That is not overwhelming size if you know you want to view it and in that case podcasting the zip file seems like the right way to go. But if you just want to sample a bit, that is too much and most people won’t be patient for the download. So better to do as is where each clip is streamed. Now watch a clip or two and let it play a bit. If you do this during normal business hours on campus, then although our server doesn’t get an overwhelming amount of traffic, there is some latency so the audio and video get a little out of synch. That’s one reason for the title of this post. Compared to a couple of years ago with streaming this is quite excellent. Compared to TV, this is still not good enough.

My sense is that we’ll stay at this level for some time now. Video for download will become more a regular thing, but because these are comparatively big files there will be a lot of sampling things online – sort of like a try this new appetizer at the grocery store. Streaming that is on demand will handle this sampling type of need. And for many of us who may have quotas on our Web site and have a separate server for streaming, streaming may therefore dominate download where the audience is open. With a known, predictable audience, download via podcast clearly makes more sense because of the improved viewing quality when the files are resident on your own computer.

Let me make another gear switch now and note that in the Brown Bag series my group runs they have been video recording the presentation and then indexing the recorded video for better access by on demand viewers. Several examples are available so you can get a sense of what is being produced. On the one hand, this is a nice thing to offer to campus for those who can’t make the brown bag, although I wonder how many watch it online after the fact. On the other hand, however, I wonder if this use of technology promotes bad pedagogy and hence shouldn’t be promoted broadly.

My own standard for a successful presentation is whether the audience interrupts early and often and there is good dialog back and for the between the audience and the presenter. I really don’t like when the moderator says – let’s hold questions till the end – and with that feel for sure the presentation hasn’t worked well if at the end there are no questions.

My talk was borderline, mostly I talked, a question here and there. If anything, I felt the camera that was recording me contributed to he monolog mode. We used a wired microphone, so I couldn’t stray too far. That’s one factor. But beyond that, we had an operator who ran the camera, one of my staff, and that “leant dignity” to the presentation, dignity that it didn’t otherwise deserve. But that dignity inhibits the audience from asking questions. They’d be less inhibited in a more informal discussion where the technology isn’t present.

Am I out of synch on that? And what does mean when the head learning technology guy would rather have less technology?


Burks said...

Lanny - Hi! I just viewed your "talking head" presentation at:

What is the "value added" of the video? Wouldn't it be easier to just use Impatica and get your audio with PowerPoint?

-- Burks

Lanny Arvan said...

Burks - There are several things going on here from my point of view. First, I made the presentation as a Web site, with lots of links. For example, all the images are linked to other Web sites. In the back of my head I was thinking of podcasting and iTunes U. And the point here is that there is value in keeping the Web material and the multimedia presentation together.

Second, this was a presentation for a workshop, not a class. Some people who might view the presentation have perhaps never seen me before. So this is a way to match the name with the face and make it a little more personal.

Third, now I want to take your side of the argument. I'm not sure there is that much benefit. But we likely will see substantial amount of video capture in the classroom and then perhaps some post editing to put metadata into the video. Relative to that, this is easier because one can record in clips to begin with.

So I don't want to claim this presentation is anything special, but I do want suggest that we need to probe on this type of use to find out what works and whether talking head is good pedagogy in any circumstance.