Friday, May 30, 2008

ooVoo Chat with Jim Witte

Jim was nice enough to devote some time for this conversation, some of which covers his own use of desktop video conferencing.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hosting ooVoo Chats

It would be nice if any technology that we promote for instructor use could also be readily used by students. In that regard, ooVoo only requires Webcam and headset so would seem to fit the bill. But if you want to post the recorded video, that requires fair amount of file space and a server. Students would use up their entire campus allocation with just a few movies, so they'd want some external host. Moreover, ooVoo produces the recording in .flv format. Although YouTube converts uploaded videos to .flv, it doesn't accept videos that are submitted in that format. However, does! Further, will render the video in the in original resolution rather than in a shrunken version. So for student use (or instructor use in Colleges that don't provide unlimited hosting), I'd recommend

Do note that even blip doesn't accept .swf file format (Jing movies) so for that students would have to use some other Web space (sigh!) but those files tend to be smaller so their campus space should suffice.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

All over again with Deja Vu

I finished up the last couple of episodes of 24 Season 6 over the long weekend. I need to do the stationary bike on a regular basis - to get some form of aerobic exercise that is not too stressful on the joints - and to keep from cutting out of it early I depend on some DVDs of a TV show sans commercials to keep me company while I'm doing the bike. So, lacking a better alternative, I started back in on 24 Season 1, episode 1. To that narrow mindedness make any snicker that you'd like. But note there is a reason I'm bringing it up.

Since I started watching this series during Winter break, there hasn't been a huge lull for me to forget the plots, a lot of detail in that episode I couldn't recall, true, but the main theme is hard to misplace. Yet it turns out, context is everything.

The big mission for Jack Bauer and crew is to prevent the assassination of David Palmer, who happens to be the first credible Black candidate for President of the United States. This episode first aired in November 2001. At that time, my state of Illinois had had an African American Senator, Carol Moseley Braun, but no longer had one. Bush was less than one year in office. Filming of 24 probably started well before the attacks on the World Trade Center; the timing of the shows initial airing was fortuitous for the producers to build a fan base. Nobody was thinking ahead to the Presidential race in 2008....Nobody!

Yet there it is, the key plot device an assassination attempt on a Black candidate for the Presidency, with the fear that if it is successful then it would throw the entire country into a panic. As the pundits at the New York Times make hay with Hilary Clinton's ill considered remarks about Bobby Kennedy's assassination, here and here and here too, perhaps it's helpful to consider what the screenwriters for this show came up with, recognizing full well that these screenwriters knew how to push the buttons of the audience (the show aired on the Fox Network) and noting further that it's the job of a first episode to pull the audience in. The coup de grace, if you trust the correctness of the trivia on the IMDB site about the series, is the irony in noting that Clarence Thomas is a big fan.

Monday, May 26, 2008

wider blog

By futzing with the xml after doing some investigation of what's required, I was able to make the main part of the blog wider, keeping the sidebar as is. The video with norma in the previous post is no rendered at 600x400 and fits nicely as it is embedded. There were some minor casualties. The title bar looks a little weird and the right gray boundary around the main area seems to have been lost. If I can figure out how to recover those, I will, but in the meantime, now I can post larger videos with impunity.

Friday, May 23, 2008

ooVoo Chat with Norma

ooVoo now video records directly to FLV format. (Pretty big file size - about 5 MB per minute - because they record at high quality.) It took me a little while to figure out the html to get that to play directly in the blog, but having done that I believe this is pretty satisfying as a result. Interviews are much more interesting than individual talking heads and that this can be done without a studio for recording as long as each person has a webcam and headset makes it an attractive option to promote.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Students Should Produce Talking Head Video

I made the movie below with online students in mind, but perhaps it makes sense for on ground students as well. Here's a bit about the logistics in case anyone wants to try it.

The movie is just about 1 minute. It was recorded at 640x480 with a frame rate I'd guess at around 30 frames per second. The resulting file was about 11.5 MB in .wmv format. When that was done I uploaded it to YouTube. I do have a good connection in the office and certainly at school network traffic is lower now that we're in summer session. Your mileage may vary. But the putting in the meta data, the upload, and processing took 7 minutes. Then it spit out the html to embed the video in the blog. It took another 3 minutes for the video to actually be available. From my point of view that's not too bad. Of course, I've done quite a few of these so more or less know what to do. A student doing it for the first time would have a harder time. But my guess is that they'd figure it out quickly --- the skill has alternative uses beyond the class so should be valued.

The only real issue I can see with this is if English is not the first language or the student has some disability that makes speaking difficult. Otherwise, I'd do this if I were teaching now.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

no file attchments

If you do embrace email posts to a blog for a class, you can't use file attachments.  But, again, linking works.  So a link to a file that is on a Web site would be ok.

Email Posts to a Blog for Class Use

I'm writing this from one of my test email accounts - one of the free ones given by a vendor. Then I'm sending this to an address meant only for the blog. Blogger tells you to keep that address secret, because anyone with it can post to the blog. I've tested doing this from a variety of different test addresses. It seems to work well. It preserves formatting and linking. And once it reaches the blog it seem to not include any identity information of the sender. Perhaps Google tracks that, but if this is coming from a non-Google account, then how do they identify the address with any other info?

Because there is no identifying info, if there is to be some recognition of who posted this, there would have to be some type of signature at the end of the post. (Blogger will say it comes from Lanny Arvan, the blog owner, regardless of who the sender actually is.) If first name suffices to identify the person, that would be great. Otherwise, first name last initial, or some alias that is for the class would have to be used. Does this satisfy the campus security folks?

And would students go for this approach? I should point out that students could set up their own blog as an archive of their messages by sending the email to two addresses, if they'd like. Alternatively they can archive within their Sent items by simply setting up a filter for the address. Seems pretty good to me.

Clever Student

Monday, May 19, 2008

eLearning and Telecommuting

Last Friday my staff and I drove up to Chicago to do a presentation for the Accountancy Department’s Masters in Tax program – a one-year Friday-Saturday program for professionals in the field. We were introducing them to Adobe Connect, in this case to be used for the group work the students do outside of their face-to-face sessions at the Illini Center. The presentation went reasonably well and I expect to see good uptake of Connect by this cohort of students.

Coincidentally, the day before the trip I had glanced through this piece on Learning Studios where there are tables and chairs arranged in pods, instead of the usual semi-circular rows that one sees in many Business School classrooms. The Masters in Tax program has something similar. Each team sat at it’s own pod. But unlike in the Educause piece, the seating was like a horeshoe, with one end of the table open, the end that faces the front of the room where the projection screens were. This arrangement makes sense to me and I was impressed by the set up. On occasion the students work ensemble with the instructor, in which case eyes face front and the seating enables that. But there is also a lot of group work and then the students face each other and converse among themselves without having to readjust their seating.

I will be curious to learn how effective the group work via Adobe Connect is. As was made clear to me during a lunch conversation before our presentation, the students in this program are extremely busy people. Apart from the instruction itself, the weekend program creates a benefit for the students in forcing them to commit that time to their learning. Something done online during the week has to compete with the other demands placed on these people. When we compare face-to-face with online, it ‘s not just the experience itself but also this time allocation effect that must be considered. But, of course, there is an argument that cuts the other way. Some of the students in the program are coming from as far away as Peoria, about a two hour drive one way when there isn’t much traffic. Meeting online is so much more convenient in light of such a commute.

With this experience fresh in mind I started to scratch my head after reading Paul Krugman’s latest, which argues that in Europe where they have smaller cars and drive less than in the U.S., they may have a better solution in place for the new world we live in, where gasoline prices are likely to continue to go higher and where for environmental rather than economy reasons it would be good to lower our reliance on fossil fuels. Indeed, on the Frye Leadership Institute Alumni listserv there was an interesting discussion last week about reducing the carbon footprint attributable to IT activities on campus. There were a lot of interesting and clever ideas mentioned, such as Climate Savers Computing and the Virtual Computing Lab. But nobody talked about IT as a possible carbon saver via telecommuting. This thought didn’t occur to me till I had read the Krugman piece.

The way commuting works, those costs are typically incurred by the employee rather than the employer, especially in the absence of a COLA. Likewise, on the issue of carbon footprint, the employer typically doesn’t get credit if, for example, the employee drives a more fuel efficient vehicle. But in what I write in the rest of the post, I’m going to assume the savings can be internalized and that we’re interested in producing them, as long as they are real and not some fiction, so I won’t concern myself with how such an internalization would manifest.

Let me proceed by considering Blended Learning in the classroom and promoting a partial telecommuting approach in the workplace. In so doing I’d like to make several points:

1. There is much similarity between the two and we should go out of our way to emphasize that. Thus learning technologists who’ve got some experience in support of Blended Learning should be enlisted to help those on Campus who in the work context want to entertain a telecommuting approach.

2. Universities should take a leadership role in promoting telecommuting. It is something that we in Higher Ed can export to the society at large if we learn how to do it well. The green argument for telecommuting has been made elsewhere, but the uptake has not been great to date except in certain niche areas. There is a need to demonstrate it works more broadly.

3. In towns like Champaign, housing tends to more expensive in town, so many staff making more modest salaries live in the surrounding communities. The recent increases in energy costs hit these staff disproportionately. In a time where budgets are tight, telecommuting is a way to reward such staff where it counts – in the pocketbook.

4. There is learning that needs to happen both for the staff themselves and their supervisors as to whether telecommuting can be efficacious and what practices and technologies might make it more effective. This might be as simple as asking if, for example, there are several co-workers telecommuting in part with some days at the office and other days at home, whether it matters how much they overlap in the office and if one should strive to have them all there at some times or if the goal should be to keep the number at the office as uniform as possible.

5. Because of the previous point there likely should be a phased in approach to telecommuting with some pilots that are carefully evaluated. In other words, start with one day per week at home for a few employees. Work up to more days per week and more employees. Do the pilot with employees who are already doing some work from home, perhaps in the evenings.

6. Where there have been face to face programs for commuting students that have moved to a Blended learning or Fully Online approach, there likely is some relevant experience that would apply for telecommuting (and vice versa). Of particular interest is finding the right mix between synchronous and asynchronous communication, with the former likely better for keeping people on task and committed to the work (as with the Masters in Tax students) and the latter better for flexibility and archiving the work. Also of much interest is how much work should be done ensemble with all staff aware of what is going on versus having very small groups or individual efforts. Here there is a different trade off – making all aware of the activity versus coordinating when the work is being done.

7. There are also questions about the importance of certain technologies and matching them to the participants. For example, Adobe Connect allows users to have talking head video interaction via Webcams. Does the Webcam promote the work, or is an audio presence sufficient? One might be able to get much of the desired functionality with a combination of applications, for example Skye and Google Docs. Does a a single application matter or not?

8. There is a need to allow experiments of this sort enough time so participants can move down the learning curve, but also a need to recognize when “it’s not working” and allow them to call it quits when they’ve reached that point.

9. And it may be that some employees are ripe for this and others not. But I think mostly the question is whether the employees have already “bonded” and have a good working relationship with one another. I believe we know from experiences with eLearning that face to face is very helpful for making such bonds, but it may be less necessary to keep up the same frequency of face to face once the bonds have formed.

I’d like to think there’d be learning the other way too – from telecommuting to eLearning. At present those on Campus who are deeply knowledgeable about eLearning constitute a tiny fraction of the populace. And if the way one learns about eLearning is to have a program or set of programs that are Blended or fully online, then it is likely for the vast majority to persist in their ignorance because because a high threshold must be crossed to justify developing such a program. But telecommuting could become broadly popular – the energy cost and green issues are likely to be with us for quite some time. So it should be possible for the institution to become aware of what eLearning is about through that channel. We can’t get there, however, unless we try it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Transcribing Voice and Inserting Captions with Screen Capture Movies

This post is a sequel to a recent post called futzing with captioning. Here I want to talk about the “more natural” process of recording the voice first, without a script, and then transcribing that. I have the expression more natural in quotes because that’s the way it is for me. I assume it would be that way most everyone else who has intimate and often quite implicit knowledge of a subject matter, so can talk about it with ease (though whether that talk is intelligible to others might be an issue). If you actually sound more natural by reading a script that you produced ahead of time, by all means do that. It likely will be faster overall and give a cleaner presentation. But as I said in the earlier post, I sound mechanical that way – there is a lack of spontaneity. Recording the audio without a script is much better and I believe will give a better experience for the student. But then making that video accessible is more of a chore.

Here are a few such movies at my blog The Economics Metaphor, those under the label “Cost.” The three movies run less than 9 minutes in total, but with the ancillary spreadsheet, Word doc, and self-test in the last of the movies, I believe this content would be sufficient to replace the hour lecture on Cost that many instructors cover in Principles or even in Intermediate Microeconomics. Others can judge that for themselves. Here I want to talk about the making of these things and what I’ve learned from doing them.

First, each movie recorded a region of the screen that was 640 x 480 in dimension. The bottom 640 x 90 area was deliberately set to have a plain background so the captions could overlay that area and not block out anything of interest. Do note that this is all done so the captions can be turned off if the user wants to do that. One can produce captions that are placed “underneath” the captured video as long as one is willing for those to display all the time. But then the entire captured region is shrunk so to squeeze in the captions, and the shrinking of the video means it will be narrower as well as less wide. So with the captions it will render with some black space on each side of the video. My approach avoids that black space on the sides. Ultimately, the produced movies are rendered somewhat smaller, at a custom size of 596 x 437, so they can fit into the Blog without appearing to overflow the column. They are still large enough to render as if at original size.

For the Cost Table video, I did the screen capture first and then recorded the voice while watching the movie the second time through. That’s my trick for making sure things move along and I don’t go off on too many tangents. But it is more laborious that way and so for the other two I recorded the voice while I did the capture. Even with that I had to rehearse the captures a few times to make sure I knew what I was going to do at each step. Then I set out to produce the transcript.

A lesson learned is to produce the transcript first without worry about the timings, and then use the built in Camtasia tool to put the timings in afterwards – more about that in a bit. After screwing around with various alternatives, I opted for each line to have 45 characters (which includes blank space between words). I don’t really know what is optimal in the tradeoff of having the text change too often, on the one hand, and having too much in any one view on the other. I tried for a reasonable compromise. And with that, I vowed to have two lines of text per caption. Three is possible but I thought that too much.

Once I worked down the routine, this is how I produced the transcript. I’d play a little bit of the video and then hit pause. Then I’d type a line, or two if I was lucky. Then I’d have to figure out if there needed to be a line break or not. If not, I’d play a little bit more of the video to pick up a few more words and proceed again. Some of my sentences are longer than two lines of text and sometimes they are very short. So in going from one caption to the next there had to be a way to signal that. I started each new caption with a capital letter as if it were the start of a sentence, whether that was the case or not.

The creating of the script is laborious and the person doing it would find life much easier if they had some idea for the subject matter, to see if they should make a literal translation or make some small changes in the text to enhance readability. Look at the captions for the Algebra video (the middle one). This will give you some idea of the issues with captioning text when there is technical content. I’m guessing that between writing the script and putting the timings in, it was about a half hour, this for a movie that is under 3 minutes in duration, a good incentive for keeping the videos brief and to the point.

The other thing I’d like to comment on here is just how colloquial the voice is. I thought my writing was informal, but au contraire, at least compared to the speaking. I think that’s necessary when talking about a subject from a technical point of view, for otherwise it will seem impenetrable. Also, my pacing is distinct from the pacing when reading text. I don’t pause much if at all at the end of the sentence. It’s almost as if a period is an excuse to accelerate the speaking. I believe the rapid speech conveys some sense that I’m interested in what I’m talking about, which is likely important to convey for otherwise the students will find this stuff very dry. But it also means that student might not get it in a first pass. One of the benefits from the video is that it can be replayed as often as the student would like.

To sum up, if the only concern was providing good content for the students, this would definitely be the way to go with screen capture movies, producing a capture where there is no audio for the script and then producing a transcript. But this is quite laborious, no doubt about it. So generating a large volume of content of this sort requires the fore knowledge that the videos will have substantial use value to a good number of students. If that condition is satisfied, then it’s likely also worthwhile to hire students (who’ve already taken the course) to create the transcripts and put in the timings.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Asps and Aspirations

Tuesday night I worked late in the office. I didn’t leave for home till after 7. And since for reasons I don’t understand public radio doesn’t come in too well near my home, especially in the evening, I didn’t listen to the radio on the drive and had no clue about the primary results when I got home. So after pouring a glass of wine I plopped on CNN. Lo and behold, there was Donna Brazile really giving it to Paul Bergala. I tuned in too late to know what started it all, but I quickly got the sense that she felt as if she’d been taking it from him for quite a while (they’re part of the show every weekday evening in the slot before Larry King, at least now when the race between Clinton and Obama is news) and with it getting down to the wire, she had had enough. This seemed to me the obvious consequence when one has commentators who have their hearts in particular candidates. Brazile, who is also a superdelegate, had been fairly non-committal as to which candidate she backed on earlier show. But given that African Americans have been turning out in droves in support of Obama, I have to guess that trumps gender in this particular instance. Bergala has been for Clinton from the get go.

In any event, their scuffling was giving me a headache so I switched channels to MSNBC. After a brief update of the then current results, they left the commentary of Chris Matthews and Tim Russert in favor of an interview with Harold Ford Jr., who with due respect argued that, in thinking a step or two ahead, Obama does have problems getting the votes of working class, ethnic, white male voters and to sure up on that front he should seriously consider getting Clinton to be his VP candidate. That was the smartest thing I heard that evening. Much of the rest was just speculation on how the next steps of the campaign will play out, with very little added information content, unless the speculation itself is news. Indeed, we seem to have gotten way beyond the threshold of the observers affecting the events that they watch. The pundits now seem to be telling the candidates how to run their campaigns. I prefer analysis to demagoguery. The best of that I heard from Mark Shields the following evening on the News Hour, who argued that Clinton might bargain with Obama for his campaign to absorb some of her campaign debt. Ask yourself, if that is what’s really going on, what bargaining chips might she have to make that outcome part of the deal?

I watch this stuff in part as an escape from work. But that doesn’t seem to be working now. The lack of analysis aside, there’s another issue. We become what we abhor. I’m seeing a good part of my job as being a pundit, though in this case the problem isn’t that I might influence the outcome in the process – I’m supposed to do that – the problem is reporting on the outcome once it has occurred.

We’re doing a project on Blended Learning with a novel twist. I’ll write about it when it’s a little further along. In the meantime, we have to plan the evaluation of it now and, because it involves human subjects, we’re required to complete IRB forms so they can review our proposed “research.” For some reason, the word research in and of itself set me off. I’ve already got in my head the upside if this first project “works” and we start scaling the approach to other courses. I can see the consequence – for instructors and students, to be sure – but also for me and my office, in terms of how involved we are with the mission of the College and how much we’ll be appreciated for bringing in an innovative approach to instruction. Mine is not the view of a dispassionate geneticist studying her Drosophila. My staff and I are not neutral about what we hope to learn from this implementation. A pundit and his team doing research. Hmmm.

Perhaps for recreation I should stop watching election politics on TV and go back to the Yankees. It’s a lot safer career-wise. I never say “Holy Cow!” and The Scooter is not one of my role models.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Futzing with Captioning in Camtasia

I've been screwing around with Camtasia using their captioning tool to learn how it works. This is my latest movie. It has several serious flaws that I'll describe in a bit. But first let me say some nice things about the Camtasia captioning tool.

There are two ways for captions to appear. They can be under the video as stand alone text. Or they can overlay the video. In the later case, there is an option for closed captioning, so the viewer can turn that on and off. That is slick. (But this option is only available if the video is produced as Flash.) Also, if you have a script for the captions to go along with the movie and you have reasonably short sentences so you know where the breaks should be from the point of view given by the text, then Camtasia has a nice real time tool for putting in the timings of those breaks. I give them high marks for that too.

But the overlay does this by putting in a colored background onto your image and that cuts off about 1/4 of the image from the bottom. That colored background has some transparency, but for all intents it means that part of your image capture will be blocked. That's fine if there is white space or something else neutral. It's not very good, however, if there is information content in that part of the image.

I found myself feeling very awkward reading a script of my own creation aloud. If you watch and listen to the video above, I'm sure that comes through. I'm much more natural without a script. But production-wise, it clearly is less effort overall to write the script first and read it back then to talk through the slides and generate the script as a transcription of the talk through. In fact, I don't really even like PowerPoint if I'm going to be speaking, because I want to go with what moves me at the time and not stick with the preassigned message. (On the other hand, if I simply wrote the text and didn't speak it, then the PowerPoint would be ok to me as a way to deliver the images that are part of the writing activity.) So there seems to be no good way to have it all, including a reasonable time in which to generate an end product.

The other problem with the video is the background music. I don't know if this is completely Kosher, but to avoid copyright infringement issues but to use music that is familiar and whose lyrics one might (not so) subliminally tie to the message in my presentation, I've opted for midi versions of well known tunes. In this case it is a segment from the Wizard of Oz song, "If I Only Had a Brain." And this same segment is repeated over and over. (My music editing skills are also fairly feeble. Through fade in and fade out I was able to get the volume of this segment set at a reasonable level. But I couldn't do that uniformly to the entire song.) But, the midi sound can be grating on one's nerves. It would be much nicer to have the actual instrumental bit from the movie. One could eliminate the background music entirely, for sure. But my sense if that this were well done, then the more one can engage the senses of the viewer, the more effective the video would be, though I must say that there's no analog to the captioning for the background music.

My conclusion from all of this is that for a person without disabilities, we could produce a reasonably interesting show by using text, music, and images as the primary inputs, with spoken words only rarely, accommodate much of the production issues I mentioned above and be satisfied with the result on some grounds. But if we want an experience that is accessible to all, a goal we should aspire towards, then aesthetically it will be limited in a variety of ways. I'm sure someone more skilled than I could improve on what I've produced here. But those limitations are likely there for all of us.

Video is likely to become an increasingly important part of our repertoire. So I'd be curious to know how the rest of you are thinking about captioning and accessibility now. For me, it's something I'm still trying to wrap my arms around.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Renewing Ourselves

Late afternoon yesterday I took a stroll around the development where I live. The park across the street from my house showed dandelions everywhere. We tolerate the weeds where the children play, but not on our own lawns that must be more pristine and well kept up. The air was crisp with the temperature in the high 60s, low humidity and clear views, the sunset still an hour away and a sense of transient perfection punctuating the calendar before return to the hot and muggy summer. The 10-day forecast predicts we’ll have this temperate climate for a while. This is Finals Week here, then Graduation, followed by Summer School. Perhaps the seasons are permuting and we’ll be spared the air conditioning bills till June or later. Spring is our season to start again, even as the conversation coming out of our national politics wants to dampen down our hope.

As I walked along the path near Interstate 57, I saw a rabbit. A while later I saw a couple more, outside the backyards while walking up Duncan Road. There are no squirrels here, perhaps because the trees are still so young and the development still has a feel of space reclaimed from agriculture; I suppose that’s the reason the squirrels haven’t yet made it west from the older neighborhoods in town. The dogs are mostly on a leash or running around inside back yards with fences. With nary a predator in sight, the rabbits are the animal equivalent of the dandelions, spending their time on what they do best.

There are corn fields immediately to the south. The farmers have been getting ready to plant. I saw some tractors in town last week, slowing down traffic. In that setting they seem to be the encroachers because they alter the usual flow. Yesterday I don’t see any farmers but I do see many people puttering in their yards. They have the urge to grow something outside and shape its appearance as it grows. I am jealous of that feeling because I don’t share it.

Though I used to traipse around Buttermilk Falls Park when I was an undergrad and sit on the rocks and stare at Lake Michigan as a grad student, my idyllic spot has always been inside, a coffee house or living room, with reading or conversation or simply staring into space both means and end.

Now it’s technology that pronounces the artificial nature of my existence. Earlier in the afternoon I read out in the back yard with the Kindle, the Sunday Times download and non-reflective screen making it the perfect companion. During my walk I imitate my 15 year old son, wandering around with the ubiquitous iPod, my internal rhythms competing with old Allman Brothers music for my attention.

I have the unmistakable feeling that things are out of wack, the uncontrolled growth of Asteraceae and Leporidae a metaphor for societal ills. Yet there is also much beauty in the varied colors of the leaves and a sense of possibility in seeing how far we’ve come out of the harsh winter. What path should we take to greater harmony?

Friday, May 02, 2008

Students Should Make Web Movies In Doing Homework

Here's a video from me to make the argument for Web Movies made by students as part of the normal transaction for students doing their work. It would be much easier to make the case if students had Tablet PCs, because then they could do it in one step. But in my argument I assumed that the students didn't have Tablets and were just using a regular computer to make the movies.