Thursday, June 21, 2007

Like Father…

The house we lived in where I grew up in Bayside had a fair amount of wear before we moved in, I believe that was summer of 1959 when I was 4. So by the time I was a teenager there were a variety of minor things in the house that needed repair and my dad spent a good deal of his weekend time doing little fixit jobs. His instruments were many and varied but I recall a lot of use of popcicle sticks or wooden toothpicks, string, and scotch tape. He got a certain delight from his handiwork though the rest of us had to wonder whether it really would do the job. Mostly it did, at least for a while. But it definitely didn’t look like it was professionally done. That was part of the charm.

I don’t have any of my dad’s desire to do home repair, but I do have a yen to create online objects and most recently I’ve been making video clips, either little screen movies with voice over or talking head videos. It occurred to me that those should be combined – introduce the screen movie with the talking head – to give the viewer an idea of who that man is behind the curtain. This is an early attempt at trying that. It is definitely not slick. I wonder if it gets the job done.

Here we are trying to get the College of Business to standardize on Illinois Compass (WebCT Vista 4.x) to use as a courses portal, to take advantage of the fact that the calendar tool allows a pooled view across courses, and to see if we can deliver something that satisfies students and faculty alike and yet is hosted by the Campus rather than by the College (take advantage of economies of scale and lower incremental cost for the College). We’ve been doing some training sessions for instructors and for administrators responsible for some of our professional programs, notably the MBA and MSF programs.

Those sessions are reasonably effective and I believe are a good gateway toward an ongoing relationship between my staff and those receiving the training. But not everyone in the College will want to avail themselves of the training and if as I prefer you make the training a dialog partly driven by the inquiry of those receiving training, then some things may not be covered at all and other things may not be done in sufficient depth. Short videos available online might fill those gaps nicely.

Also, there is something different between these little movies and a Web document with screen shots, parallel to but perhaps not identical to the difference between lecture and presentation from a textbook. My sense is that the Web documents tend to be quite functional in their orientation. They are therefore quite good as reference, especially for someone who is looking to do a particular task. But as a first pass they may leave the reader missing the forest for the trees. In the movie you can be more conceptual and not try to be exhaustive in what is covered. That might be better as an entry.

Now let me talk about a variety of factors that contributed to how the video turned out. I’ve got my dad in mind thinking about them. First, I don’t want these to be a life’s work. So I didn’t story board at the outset and I didn’t do enough takes so that every part went perfectly smoothly. I did put some effort into getting the microphone volume setting appropriate, but you will notice that in going from the talking head to the screen capture there is a jump in the volume, the consequence of recording in two different applications, and I did nothing to smooth that out. I also put in some effort into determining the size of the window to capture so it would display reasonably in a browser. If I’ve got my Bookmarks toolbar hidden, then the entire movie displays within the browser window comfortably. With the Bookmarks toolbar enabled, the stop and start controls at the bottom show up, but not fully. That effect is just like my dad’s handiwork, ok for use but definitely not perfect.

There is one other parallel with my dad. I like to do things with inexpensive equipment. The webcam and headset that I use are really cheap, about $70 in total. (Camtasia at the educational discount is under $200, but I wouldn’t call that cheap.) For things I do on my own, I much prefer cheap. I don’t know if the reason is genetic or upbringing, but I really do prefer that and the question what can you do reasonably well for very little money appeals to me as the right type of ed tech question. I can rationalize my instinct by saying that for all forms of content creation it makes sense pedagogically only if the students themselves can do it. Cheap means the students can do it where they live and need not go to a lab. That’s something to consider. But my own comfort with the approach doesn’t derive from that rationalization. It comes from something else, a more basic feeling.

I believe my dad did some of his handiwork as therapy, a form of self-expression and a way to do other than his job. My dad rarely talked about his work at home, but I believe he wasn’t very good at it, he was in a Law partnership with his brother who was the more senior member of the firm, and I believe there were a variety of frustrations about the work for him. Self-expression and therapy are definitely two core needs for me. Kind of makes you think about blogging.

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