Monday, February 23, 2009

Interesting Whiteboard

There is an interesting Whiteboard tool that Norma told me about called Dabbleboard which one could use in conjunction with an LMS simply by linking to it. Each particular whiteboard get's its own unique url. While Dabbleboard does allow a login, it can be accessed anonymously. And the boards can be kept private so anyone outside the class wouldn't use it. It does seem to be a step up from the whiteboards that are in the LMS.

The Chat tool that accompanies Dabbleboard is actual a different product, Tokbox, which does voice and video chat in addition to the standard text chat, all through the browser without a dedicated client. It also allows video mail, a function I expect will grow dramatically in the next year or so.

Not everything works with these tools. We've tried embedding the Dabbleboard and the chat doesn't seem to function this way. Also that place where you change your name online appears flaky. But it does seem promising. I hope they keep developing it.

Two Additional Chapter Drafts Now Posted

I've written two more chapters for my book. They are up in draft form.
Chapter 4: Walking the Walk
Chapter 5: Just the Facts

Friday, February 13, 2009

Update: M&Ms Learning

YouTube did work on the Blackberry yesterday. I still could not get public radio to play, however.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

M&Ms Learning

A couple of days ago my sister-in-law sent me email about KenKen, a math puzzle game modeled after Sudoku. This NY Times piece is a good read on it (with a link to the site), particularly on the teaching approach embedded in KenKen - teaching without teaching. The students learn by working the puzzles, first simple four by by puzzles, then more complex puzzles as they improve. I've played it a lot the last couple of days, getting as good as an eight by eight puzzle. The nine by nine seemed overwhelming. I don't know if most kids would get hooked on something like this. But if they did, they'd learn a lot - about logic, algebra and factoring numbers. For the student who does get hooked, it's all very sweet, learning without studying, getting smart through play.

The design is extremely clever. I wonder if we could come up with this sort of thing in other domains, economics for example.

A few days ago I got a Blackberry Storm. I was thinking of getting an iPhone, but the rest of the family has Verizon as the provider so the incremental cost was just too great. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I've always hated cellphones and PDAs, though I've had a variety of them over time. Hearing on the connection, reading the screen, manipulating the buttons, all have been issues for me over time. The Storm is a step up. I could get to like it. The audio, both for listening and speaking (it has a voice annotation function) is very good. The navigation is fairly intuitive. The camera is excellent; it produces very high quality images. Reading email on it is quite good, very good clarity of the font and the scrolling is smooth. The touch screen typing in landscape mode - I've seen reviews where others have raved about it - is ok for me. It is still clunky and occassionally I put too much pressure on the screen, but I feel less of a ditz doing that than I did with my old Treo, tapping at it with my stylus and squinting to make sure I was getting the right letter.

So, I began to think of the Storm as a portable learning device, m-learning seems to be the craze so how would it work? Imagining myself as a student, would I be ok with it instead of a laptop? For me the jury is out. It's a more likely substitute in the field than in the classroom. I downloaded several of Google's mobile applications. Synching the Calendar and Maps worked fine but YouTube wouldn't play the videos. I tried listening to Public Radio online. The Storm does not have RealPlayer but it has Windows Media Player installed, however it didn't seem able to connect. (There are Internet Radio Stations that do play on the Storm, but of course if you want particular programming that may not solve the issue.) Perhaps these problems are temporary and I'll figure them out. The browser seems to work well but some of the Javascript stuff on Web pages doesn't show up at all. I couldn't play KenKen on the Storm. Bummer. I'm wondering whether unless everything goes xml if using a portable device means there has to be translation services or you miss out on the content.

At this point I have lots of portable devices: a Kindle, iPod, Tablet PC, and the Storm, for recreation as much as for work. Each either does a unique function or does its function so much better than the alternative that so far I wouldn't give any of them up in the name of convergence. There is, of course, also the matter of cost - of the device, of connectivity, and of content. The connectivity part is the one I least understand in terms of relating what we pay for wireless broadband versus the cost to the providers. If this is to truly become a learning instrument, the connection charges for the student have to come way down.

My sense is that m-learning is like candy. The idea is appealing, but it's still short of a real meal. At least now as compared to a few years ago, it melts in your mouth, not in your hands.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Closed Captioning with Camtasia - Tips and Tricks

Yesterday and earlier today I made some more content for The Economics Metaphor, my site for teaching Economic Principles/Intermediate Micro. Some of what I did was a screen capture movie of some Excel spreadsheets I had designed with my voice over. Thinking that others might like to give it a try, here are some of the tricks I used to get this thing produced.

First, note that Camtasia only does closed captioning if the output is Flash and at this point I've come to concluded that the move itself should be in .flv format, because it performs better and makes smaller files than .swf format. You can do open captioning (a movie with subtitles that are always there) in other formats and perhaps there is some virtue in doing it that way. But I'm going to assume most people would prefer closed captioning if they could deliver it.

Next, when Camtasia does this the captioning background is translucent. That background overlays the video. Based on experimentation, I've found that video itself should have a plain background where the captioning can appear - otherwise it looks noisy and the captions are hard to read. So I captured my video accounting for that.

Then, I want this to work reasonably well on a computer screen that is 1024x768 in resolution. And I'm making the video so it appears in my blog with two columns. The left is the main column where the video appears. The right is the sidebar column. This puts some additional limits on video width. If you were to design a video for its own stand alone page, you'd make it a little wider. I'll show where that occurs in the process.

The region I capture is 640x480. The Excel piece is 640x360 and right below it is background screen that is mono color of sixe 640x120. So there is some discipline in the size of the region that is captured where the action takes place. Those who make Tablet PC movies capturing their own writing might bear that in mind. When the movie is actually produced I shrink it slightly so it renders as 600x450. This is to fit in the blog. This step would be omitted if the video had its own page. If you want the video to render in the browser without having to scroll down to see the player and accounting for the fact that with several Tabs open and possibly a bookmarks toolbar the browser header can take up a lot of vertical space, you can't have a taller video on a 1024x768 screen.

Now let's talk about the captioning itself. (See the image below.) After experimenting with other alternatives, I've opted for 45 characters per line and two lines of text per screen as the rule. I don't always speak in short sentences or pause in the right places, but I think 3 lines of text is daunting as is too much text on any one line. So what I've got is a reasonable compromise. Also note that I put line space between the text on two different screens. It is rather frenetic to put the timings in as the movie plays. The line spacing makes that job easier.

Camtasia Captioning

That's pretty much it. My sense is that while we are being pushed to caption by our accessibility folks for any technical content students will really appreciate the captioning and students who are not native in English will likewise appreciate the captioning. It's really not that hard to do. And if the movies aren't too long, not that much work.