Monday, September 28, 2009

In praise of document cameras–OHP RIP

One of the mainstays of 20th century audio-visual is the overhead projector (AKA view graphs to those with military backgrounds). As a matter of fact they're having remarkable staying power in the 21st. As with most technologies these days, it's being overtaken by a more flexible and convenient technology, the document camera.

Overhead projectors have been nearly ubiquitous in classrooms. It was fairly easy to create a transparency for them, first with a relatively inexpensive machine that used infrared energy to create an image on the film, and later with copying machines and laser printers. Of course, if you had just a plain piece of acetate and a suitably sticky writing instrument, you could just write on them. They were the paragon of reliability. The major failure was burning out a bulb, but many models had a lever that would just change to a second bulb. From the banner above this blog, you can see that I still have some affection for overhead projectors, but I really don't have much use for them anymore.

There were downsides. The main one, of course, is that in order to use a transparency in class you had to make the thing first. The material and appropriate machine isn't always right handy. They're a little bulky to carry and store. And, they cost fifty cents to a dollar each to make.

One thing that always bothered me is that the projector always seems to be askew from the screen, and projects a distorted image (Keystoning to you AV Club members).

Document cameras are taking over the role of overhead projectors, and as with a lot of the digital revolution, provide additional capabilities and flexibility.

A document camera is basically a digital video camera that's mounted to point straight down at (you guessed it) a document. Any document—a sheet of paper on which you can write with any instrument you've got handy, an editorial cartoon in this morning's New York Times, the post-it note with a lame excuse a student left on your office door. You don't have to make a transparency, you just use it the way you found it. You can even put your overhead transparencies on it, although the shiny plastic may reflect the lights above the camera.

The document camera is connected to a video/data projector that projects on the screen, and in a permanent installation, it's always fills the screen and is straight and undistorted.

Zoom lenses provide a range of magnification so you can zoom in on the fine print, or out to fill the whole page.

Early document cameras got a questionable reputation because they used plain old TV cameras which had a maximum resolution of about 400 lines and type could look pretty fuzzy on a full page view. Current document cameras use digital cameras that are probably sharper than the projector you view it with. (Although you'll probably still have trouble reading a full page of text, but, let me clue you in, your audience couldn't with an overhead either.)

Things start getting really cool when what you want to show the class isn't a flat piece of paper, but maybe a bug, a chemical reaction, or a medical device. Three dimensional objects work just fine. At UW Oshkosh, we've installed a few document cameras that have the electronics in a small box on the side so you can put a pan full of chemicals under it without worrying that a small leak will kill the electronics. (If you spill a cup of coffee on it, however, it will kill the electronics—ahem!) Many document cameras also have a tilting head so you can turn them and use it like a conventional television camera. Some can even be pointed into the eyepiece of a microscope.

The big downside is the cost. Not only do document cameras themselves cost more than an overhead projectors, but they need to be connected to a projector in order to be any use. The cost of the document cameras themselves have come down recently, and it's likely that the classroom already has a projector available to project a computer image. Another downside is that you can only present one device at a time on the projector so you have to somehow switch between the two devices as you use them. This is usually done at UW Oshkosh with a control panel in a fixed place in the front of the classroom, but some of the larger lecture halls have wireless control panels the instructor can carry around the room.

At UW Oshkosh we have document cameras installed in the larger lecture halls, and are deliverable as needed to smaller rooms.

In our planned new academic building, document cameras are going to be really integrated into the system. Every classroom will have two projectors, one for the computer, and one for the document camera (as well as the capability to view DVD's and whatever else they're going to invent). In addition the screens will be above the whiteboards, so they won't impede the instructor's ability to write on the board. And there won't be any overhead projectors.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Growth And Development Of Podcasting At UW Oshkosh

I contributed a post to the UW System Learning Technology Council Blog about Podcasting last week, so I might as well cross-post it here.

You can go directly to it at this link.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

No technology at all. or not.

This blog is supposed to be about instructional technology, but one of the first things you learn in instructional design class is that it isn't the solution for everything.

I really enjoyed this post from a Geologist on using a technique to stimulate discussion. Actually I think it could be applied in developing discussions in an on-line class where it's critical to involve all members of the class.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Progressive disclosure or the dreaded build?

Since the mid-'90's I've been doing workshops training people to use Powerpoint and do it effectively and have had a web page with my workshop handouts and presentations. In the presentation I use to introduce the workshops, one of the things I recommend is the use of custom animation to introduce concepts on a slide as you get to them in your spoken presentation. Recently on a Physics Blog of all places, I saw a link to report of a study which found that using custom animation has a detrimental effect on learning!

Coincidentally, I was looking at my web site's Google Analytics today and noticed my Powerpoint page has been getting a few more hits than usual lately, so out of curiosity, I googled "Powerpoint instruction" to see where I landed. The last time I did this a couple years ago, I quit looking after 50 pages. Today, it was number four on the first page! I'm going to have to be more careful about what I'm shooting my mouth off about–and the first thing I thought about was this study about custom animation.

In an article titled "The Dark Side of Custom Animation" published in The International Journal of Innovation and Learning, Stephen Mahar, Ulku Yaylacicegi, and Thomas Janicki of the University of North Carolina Wilmington compared two classes who used the same recorded lecture with a synchronized Powerpoint presentation. One was set to present each element on a slide as it was presented, and the other to present the the whole slide at once. They found that students could recall more details of the slide presented all at once, than with the one progressively disclosed. (I've only seen the abstract and blog summaries of the article, but I've got an interlibrary loan request in for the whole thing).

My fondness for what I've always called progressive disclosure, long before Powerpoint existed, is based on several ideas.

Back in the stone age, probably the biggest abuse of overhead transparencies was to put practically your entire presentation on one transparency. They were relatively expensive, kind of bulky to drag around, and a bit of a distraction to change during your presentation (Although they were kind of fun to throw like a frisbee into the audience if you had a good stiff mount). The bad things about this were that regular typewriter type (12 pitch for you oldsters) was a little small to be read from even the middle of the room, not to mention the back row and it also gave the audience something to read while you were speaking. I'm pretty skeptical of the idea of multi-tasking, especially when the tasks are reading and listening. If I'm reading something, I lose track of what's being said.

I said earlier that people put their whole presentation on one transparency. Well it was more like an outline of their whole presentation, so when reading the outline, the audience was probably missing the full detailed story the speaker was saying. The same thing is true of Powerpoint. (If the text on the slide is exactly what you're saying, you're already doing badly enough that no technique is going to save your presentation).

You (again those of you old enough) may remember presenters attempting to do "progressive disclosure" by sliding a paper down the transparency revealing only what had been covered by the presenter. With illustrations we used to have multiple overlays which could build up to the complete visual. (I had an instructor in AV grad school who referred to this as selective revelation, which has a spooky religious sound to it). This is exactly the idea behind custom animation in Powerpoint.

In addition to missing out on what's being said while reading, the audience may skip ahead to the end, and start wondering about how you reached the conclusions, instead of listening to you explain how you did. Revealing on your slide the parts of an argument or process as you talk about them seemed to me to allow you to concentrate the audience's attention on what you were saying rather than having them get ahead of you.

In the age of Powerpoint, in many presentations I've found myself listening to a presenter expounding on a list of points on a slide, and realized I'm not sure which point they're talking about. Looking at the slide doesn't help me clarify anything, and I lose more of the spoken presentation reading the list on the slide. It seemed to me that presenting the slide one point at a time would keep me focused on the subject being dealt with right now.
My basic point is that I thought progressive disclosure, on an overhead transparency or with Powerpoint, concentrated the power of the projected visual to focus the attention of the audience, allowing you to develop a concept point by point. The Mahar et al study seems to contradict this.

I'm curious to see the slides used in this study. Were they just lists of bullet points, labeled illustrations or diagrams of processes?

Did the students have access to the slides after the lecture? Could it be a matter of better note taking from the static slide? Would they do better if given access to the slides after the lecture so they could concentrate on the presentation and have the illustrations to review later?

There is an alternative in Powerpoint that would preserve my need to know which part of a slide was currently being talked about, and to also have the entire slide available. One of the classes of effect in Powerpoint is Emphasis, whereby the element being acted upon is made to look different–one assumes more noticable–when it's place in the order is reached. Using this instead of the Entrance effect would help the audience stay synced between the spoken presentation and the visual on the screen, and preserve the enhanced retention effect the Mahar et al study seems to have identified. It wouldn't keep the audience from reading ahead, but maybe that's not such a detriment to understanding I thought it was.

When I get the whole article maybe I'll send some of these questions to the authors. Maybe they'll google themselves and find this blog and submit a comment!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How Conveeeenient.

The Church Lady always made that sound like a bad thing, but with instructional technology, making something more convenient can lead to benefits for learning.

I recently participated in a planning meeting for a daylong faculty development session to inform faculty what instructional technology tools are available and to encourage adoption. We talked about what added value these technologies gave to teaching. Things like better interactivity and engaging the wired generation came up, but when I volunteered convenience, the rest of the group was reluctant to include that in the list, but I've seen several instances where the initial impetus to adopt a technology was because it made something involved in teaching easier, and as a side effect, had a positive impact on learning.

An example that is dear to my visually oriented little heart is the use of Powerpoint to bring illustrative materials into lectures (notice I didn't say anything about putting a lot of text on the screen). I was a history major as an undergraduate. In five years (yes, I took five years), I don't think I saw a single map, chart, diagram of succession or picture of any historical figure or location during a lecture. Before scanners, the internet and digital cameras, in order to show a picture to your class, you had to schlep down to the AV department with a stack of books and periodicals, wait a week or two until they were done, probably pay a buck or so per slide, and then drag a slide tray to class with you, if there was a slide projector available. And then you only had one copy of the slide. If there was another lecture or presentation in which you wanted to use that picture, you had to either get another copy or remove it from your original presentation and hope you remembered to put it back right side up before you gave that lecture the next semester. With digital images, you can make as many copies as you need with a keystroke, organized into as many different lectures as you need and if you use network storage, you don't even have to carry anything to class. Not only that, but with presentation software like Keynote or Powerpoint, you can label and annotate and draw Officer Obie circles and arrows all over them. Associating a concept with a visual image is a powerful tool for retention. The language learning software Rosetta Stone builds vocabulary by associating words with pictures rather than with text rendering of English equivalents. This benefit to learning was always there with slides and overheads. What has made it more common in classrooms today is that it's easy. (I guess I am assuming there's a computer and projector available in the classroom–at UW Oshkosh, this is a valid assumption)

Another fairly recent example is GradeMark, an add-on to the plagiarism detection software Turnitin. It has a lot of features that offer convenience for instructors. It provides for on-line submission of assignments which are then accessible to both student and instructor on the web, so no one has to keep track of stacks of paper or files. The big thing that makes life easier for the instructor though is the comment library. Every comment you make is saved and available to be repeated with a menu selection. Since most commenting on papers consists of repeating the same criticism thousands of times, this is a great time saver. In a workshop introducing Grademark to a group of faculty, when we got to the comment library feature you would have thought we had given them a raise. Making it easier leads to more and more timely feedback from the instructor, which certainly has a positive impact on learning.

Group projects for students have been problematical requiring students to sync class, work and social schedules to get together. This is one case where technology making it easy can be detrimental to learning, or beneficial, depending on the tool used. Students very quickly discovered the divide and submit strategy. Any project was broken up into pieces, each student wrote a bit of the report, exchanged them via email and then somebody cut and pasted a Word document together and submitted it to the instructor. The method does provide the convenience of not having to physically get together, but really circumvented the learning objective, since there really wasn't much group work being done. Students dislike this method because they feel they're being judged on what might be the shoddy work of others and instructors don't like it because they can't tell who contributed what. On-line collaborative writing tools like Google Docs and Wikis provide the scheduling and shoe-leather-saving convenience, but more importantly to the learning objective truly allow the students to interactively work on a document as a group, and provide some individual accountability by maintaining a log of who did what.

Whenever a group of Learning Technology folks get together, it always comes up that in order to get faculty to adopt instructional technologies, you have to make it easy. I think they usually are referring to easy to learn. In the examples I've cited, there is some learning the instructor has to invest in, but once implemented, can make it easier to do things you been doing all along, and give your students a learning booster in the bargain.

Friday, June 12, 2009

You can't always get what you want, but....

Sometimes you do get what you want. This is a little bit of a long story involving the history of classroom technology and the sometimes labyrinthian budgeting of the University of Wisconsin System. The large lecture halls on our campus were some of the first rooms to be "technology enhanced," which means to have some sort of projector installed which will serve up the screen from an installed computer, the screen from a user supplied laptop, video from tape or DVD, maybe a document camera, and some way to control all these devices. At this point in history, some of them have been through one upgrade since being first enhanced in the early to mid 90's and are now due for another upgrade, and a couple for odd reasons have only been half enhanced (I'll explain as the story goes on). It seems like every time I have attended an event in a classroom in the past several years, I was grossed out by how dim the projectors were. In a statewide conference that we hosted last year, the presenters had to keep changing the lighting from "presentation mode" to "off" so the audience could get a decent look at the photographs in the presentation. I felt like everyone was looking at me wondering why the projectors were so lousy.

So, for the last few years, I've been focusing on upgrading these big lecture halls where so much instruction takes place.

I have to mention a lot of the smaller classrooms also really need upgrading too. (see an earlier post) The primary source for funds to install technology in classrooms is the Classroom Modernization Fund, which was established in the early 90's to enhance classrooms with the then new technology of digital projectors for computers, which could also project video, which had almost 100% replaced 16mm film by then, but until then almost had to be viewed on a television set, which made things a little tricky in large lecture halls.

Sometime around 2002, we started utilizing this money to replace computers and projectors which had been purchased with this fund. The number of classrooms which have projectors and computers in them has grown quite a bit, and in recent years, most of the Classroom Modernization Fund has been dedicated to replacing computers and projectors, and especially due to a perfect storm of funding to install new classrooms in 2002-2003, we currently have more equipment that needs replacing than the Fund can handle.

But, there are other sources of funds that can be used for Classroom Technology.

The Clow Pits are three lecture halls that have had special problems for installing technology. One of them was technology enhanced in the mid '90's. The stage area and most of the seats are only accessible by stairs, which means they're not ADA accessible, and if you want to remodel them they have to be made ADA accessible, but because of the way they're sort of buried into the ground surrounded by city and university utilities, this was so expensive to be out of reach, so there they sat without much technology. In the two rooms that had no installed technology, we put a projector on a cart in the front of the lecture hall, which worked OK, but it's inevevitable that when you say loose cable, you often also have to say risk management, and if the instructor didn't trip when wandering around the stage, they had the projector shining on them, and casting a shadow on the screen. Another issue was that we could get the projectors only so far from the screen, and even with an expensive wide angle supplementary lens, the image was a little small for the room.

Now these rooms had projection booths in the back from the era of 16mm projectors where we could place projectors (without "remodeling"), but a data projector needs about a 1/2 inch diameter cable running from the computer to the projector, and there is a distance limitation. This distance limitation could be overcome, but we're talking about even more expense. Recently, however, someone invented a relatively inexpensive technology where the video and control signal would be sent to the projector with Category 5 cables (your computer is connected to the internet with a Category 5 cable), which are much easier to deploy these kinds of distances than a proper video cable. Also about this time, the the video projector in the one of these lecture halls that been installed failed early in the semester, and because it required building scaffolding to get to the projector hanging from the ceiling, we had to put a projector on a cart in that room too.

This came to pass after the deadline for submitting Classroom Modernization Proposals for that year, so even if I did have money in that Fund, it would be a year and a half before we could make these improvements. Well, we also have the Student Technology Fee in UW System. Each student pays a certain amount that is supposed to be dedicated to increasing student access to technology. I had always refrained from addressing the Student Technology Fee for classroom upgrades, because the guidelines for that Fund explicitly exclude that type of use unless a committee composed of students (which we do have at our institution) decides that's what they want to do with it. The previous year they had decided to put aside 10% of the fund to purchase classroom technology in a new academic building which will open in 2011, so that seemed like they were amenable to this kind of expenditure. I made the proposal for these three problematic rooms, and they went for it! The upgrades took place last winter. Not only are the projectors more conveniently (and safely) located, and their controls were more consistent with what we have in other classrooms. but we also specified higher brightness projectors which put a very nice image on the screen even with the room somewhat illuminated.

I should say something about the brightness of projectors. The image in these big lecture halls is over twice as wide as the image in a normal classroom, so the light is spread over an area more than four times as great, and if the projector brightness is equivalent, it's four or more times as dim. In the past, high brightness projectors were available, but were four times the cost of a normal room projector, so we always had installed the same projectors in the lecture halls and just accepted that we would have to turn the lights almost off to see a good image. Considering that people still had memories of turning the lights completely off to view 16mm films and slides, that wasn't so hard to accept. Several things have changed since then. In the first place, the projector is in use for almost the entire class today, so sitting in the dark is more of a bother. Secondly, projectors are much brighter in general, and higher brightness projectors intended for these large venues are now only a little more expensive than the ones for normal classrooms.

Now to another set of lecture halls, this time two rooms in Halsey Science Center. The technology in these rooms had been installed as part of a building remodeling project in 2001. The outside vendor who did the installation frankly did a lousy job. We almost immediately replaced the portable projectors they had hung with heavier duty models, but those are now getting old, and as mentioned earlier, are kind of dim compared to new projectors. We also had a problem with the control system. The programming of the control systems in this case was done by the vendor, who retained the rights to the programming, so if it needed changing, we had to go to them to get that done. This is not an unusual arrangement, but it is getting to be less common. What really capped this off was the vendor went out of business without giving us the programming, so any change would require starting from scratch, which is a bit of expensive programming. Somebody dropped one of the control devices several years ago and we had quite a scare that we would wouldn't be able to recover this programming. Also at issue is that newer control systems now have less complicated programming which was easy enough to learn that our technicians could pick it up in a three day training session.

I had proposed improvements to these two lecture halls to the Classroom Modernization Fund, but before the time came for the committee to review that proposal, another of the UW System's funds entered the stage. There is a Classroom Renovation Fund, which in the past was distributed to the campuses annually, but now is distributed on an irregular basis. It allows for installation of technology, much like Classroom Modernization, but also covers a wide range of remodeling and infrastructure improvements that Classroom Modernization does not. Since it is the prime source of funding for these extensive remodeling projects, our Facilities Management group is loath to use it only for technology improvements. Last year, we received a larger chunk of this fund than we had been getting, and Facilities decided to use some of it to make the improvements to these two lecture halls that I had recently proposed for Classroom Modernization! (It turned out this had to be delayed a year, but the improvements will be done this summer) Five lecture halls down and three to go!

Now to the lecture halls in the Nursing/Education Building I had been embarrassed in that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. They also had older, dimmer projectors, and also had older, although still working and reprogrammable, control systems. Complicating this one were limited inputs on the control system. These older control systems really couldn't add a new device. If you wanted to use a laptop, you had to take the video cable from the installed computer, and plug it into your laptop. In addition, we had added a document camera in there which had a feature where you could plug the computer into a port on the document camera and if the document camera was off, the projector displayed the computer, and when the document camera was on, it displayed the document camera. This allowed us to add the device, but to put it mildly, this was a sub-optimal user interface. More than a few guest speakers lost a chunk of their available time trying to get their laptop image on the screen.

Well, the Student Technology Committee had been so forthcoming with the Clow Pits, I made the proposal to them for these rooms. What a difference a year makes when working with a student committee. This year's committee not only didn't approve the proposal, they were a little offended that I even tried to take such advantage of them when I had other funds (however inadequate) for classroom technology.

But, the committee didn't make this decision for about six months after I had proposed it, and during that time I was pretty confident it would get funded. I began to worry about that last lecture hall, the largest one in Halsey Science Center. This was the first multimedia classroom and a big showpiece when it was first installed in 1992. The original design was pretty good. It's always been popular with faculty because it has two projectors. You can show a video on one and the computer on the other, or the installed computer on one, and your laptop on the other (this is the science building, ya know). We had replaced the projectors once and updated the control systems two years ago. but I worried if I got all those other lecture halls upgraded with new, brighter projectors, this room was going to look pretty dim. I had intended to make this my highest priority in the next Classroom Modernization cycle although that meant it wouldn't happen for a year and a half.

Enter the last budgetary player, End-of-the-Year Accounting! It's a little frightening when I think about it too much, but especially in Information Technology, there can be quite a bit of difference from what you plan on in a budget, and what you actually have to do with that budget. Happily some costs go down unexpectedly, less happily some staff leave and you have salary savings, and you always stick something in there in case something unexpectedly breaks, knowing that you'll probably have new needs you hadn't thought about if nothing does break unexpectedly.

This year, our IT division was on the happier end of that equation and at the end of the fiscal year we identified a good bit of money, and my boss decided to fund the Nursing/Ed project the Student Tech Fee had rejected and get to that big Halsey Lecture hall a year earlier!

There's some question about where the Nursing/Ed project can be competed this summer, but my wish to bring these lecture halls from their somewhat outdated condition to some pretty neat places to teach is going to be granted. In contradiction of Mick Jagger's famous lyrics, In addition to getting what the University needs, I'm going to get just what I wanted.

In case there's anyone still reading this incredibly long post, and in case any of you are UW Oshkosh faculty, start looking for pictures, videos and web resources to illustrate your lectures next year, because they're going to look really good.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Another way to capture digital video

Digital video is easy to capture with web cams  but they're usually have an unzoomable wide angle lens and have no viewfinder, so you have to watch the computer to point them.  Video is easy to capture with Mini-DV cams, but then you have to connect the thing to your computer and do a real time capture of the video.  There are VHS webcams out there that are pretty good camera's, but what use is a VHS tape these days.  Pinnacle systems has come up with a device that can help all these problems.  It has analog video connectors on one side and a USB port on the other into which you can plug a Flash drive or a USB hard drive.  Almost all camcorders, digital or otherwise have analog video outputs that are live whenever the camera is on. (Although I think the intention was to use that to play back recorded material on a TV set.)  With this new device, the Pinnacle Video Transfer, you can use them to capture digital video.

Here's a link to a five minute video demonstrating it I made for the Communications Faculty at UW Oshkosh.

It's also great for  capturing all those VHS tapes in digital format.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Let me give you a little help with that.

I attended a joint meeting of several groups from UW System involving technology in one way or another.  One of the sessions in the Learning Technology Development Council focused on production of media and what resources were available to faculty to have materials produced for instructional use. A common theme that emerged is that many institutions have units that teach faculty how to produce materials, but don't do any production for them, usually citing insufficient staffing levels, but also often including the disclaimer that the trainer is an instructional designer and isn't a production specialist.  What bothers me it it's implied that teaching faculty to produce their own materials is a superior plan, using the "teach a person to fish" analogy.  I've heard similar statements since the beginning of the digital age. I remember making several statements similar to what follows at a workshop on Instructional Technology that took place on our campus in 1995.

Although, my job now is more administrator and coordinator, I still think of myself as a media producer, most of that time as a graphic artist and photographer, but I've had to do television, audio, web and multimedia production at some point in my career, and I still think of my unit as a production unit. My staff and I also work quite a bit as trainers of faculty in media production and I'm not against it–it is appropriate in a lot of cases, but it's not the best answer all the time mainly because:

It's my job, I'm good at it and I love doing this stuff. 

You're probably a pretty bad graphic artist or photographer or videographer or whatever.  It's been poster presentation season lately and walking past our large format printer outputting faculty designed posters is a disconcerting experience.  Putting a box around everything really just clutters up a layout. Type will not leak out if it's not contained in a box. Readers can separate a table from a paragraph without a line or two physically separating them. Combining center alignment and left alignment is not good design. A poster does not stand out better if it's a three by four foot green block with lots of white spaces scattered inside it. Bullets without hanging indents, or worse yet, hanging indents without bullets don't clarify lists.  I apologize for the snarkiness of that rant, and I don't want to make anyone feel bad, but it is frustrating to have faculty going off to conferences with ugly posters, when I could clean it up and make it professional looking.  I can hear the response: "So what? You can read what its about can't you?"  Well, if I are talking bad you done still understood. You would certainly assume I was an idiot if I used grammar like that. I don't think bad design is necessarily as negative as bad grammar, but I think good design will promote a positive approach on the part of the viewer.  It's not just a matter of "dressing it up." It improves the effectiveness of the communication. At the very least, it removes visual noise and concentrates the viewer on the message. Professional research deserves professional presentation.

You're an expert in your field, do you need to learn to be an expert at media production to0? Faculty have tremendous demands on their time.  Providing them with experts to produce presentation and instructional materials makes it unnecessary to spend large blocks of time learning how to use complex software, and to not spend time learning (often through trial and error) what makes a good video shot and how editing can compress time and make sure the viewer is looking at what's important without a lot of clutter. I realize production tools have become almost mainstream and products like iMovie can put tools in the hands of anyone with a camcorder and a computer that previously were only in the province of professionals, but if you're trying to show your students how to use the NMR spectroscope, a professional video producer can make sure that your audience can see what they need when necessary.

If you're a faculty member at UW Oshkosh who wants to do it yourself, I'll be glad to help you learn the tools, and give you advice the best I can, but I'm not sure I can pull off getting across details of typography and design in one easy lesson. (but I'll try in another blog post.) But if you want a professional looking and effectively communicating materials. come see me and my staff.

OK, end of rant.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Widespread, affordable video conferencing

I seem to have a thing with video conferencing lately, but you really can't get more AV than interactive moving pictures and voice. Videoconferencing is a great way to bring distant experts in to interact with your class without paying for a plane ticket and a hotel room or to have a similar class at another institution collaborate or compete with your class. One objection I  hear often is that the expert or other institution doesn't have access to a video conferencing set-up. There are ways to do effective video conferencing over the internet with inexpensive cameras and free software. 

Obviously, the expensive, installed specialized video conferencing systems are going to have some advantages, but the free and inexpensive systems can provide a usable interactive experience.

The first thing you need is a video source for your computer.  Web cams are available for $35 that provide a picture just about as good as the average camcorder, as well as  having a microphone that can pick up anyone in an average sized classroom if they speak up. (Many of the computers in the classrooms at UW Oshkosh have a camera built-in) The limitation is that they're pretty wide angle (hence have to be fairly close to the person in the picture), and don't have zoom capability.  That really doesn't make too much difference if a distant individual is the main focus of the presentation and it's not necessary for them to get that good a look at your class. If they need a better look to converse with an individual, that person could come up to the front of the class. I've been the distant presenter in situations like this where I was seeing a room full of people and I had no trouble recognizing that the audience got a joke or seeing that a person near the back had a hand raised. Some camcorders can deliver video directly to the computer and there are also under $100 dollar devices that allow you to bring the video from any camcorder into the computer to take advantage of the higher quality video and zoom lenses.

The service most people recognize for this function is Skype. Skype will make a video call from any internet connected computer to another, for free, to anywhere in the world. It does require a fairly fast connection, at least on the order of DSL.  I have made calls to individuals in Korea and Hawaii, and to universities in India, Germany and Peru. To use Skype each party has to register and get a username.  Then you simply enter your distant party's username to make a call.  There's also a text chat accompanying the video calls in case you have trouble with the voice during the call. I have never had such trouble, but occasionally a new user will have their preferences set up incorrectly.  Skype is probably more well known for voice calls.  Their profit making activity is to make calls from a computer to normal phone lines for a fee, presumably for less than normal long distance.  With video calls, Skype can only make connections between two individuals, although up to 10 people can conference with audio only.

I often get asked about video calls to multiple individuals.  Up til now, the only option was iChat, the instant messenging application on the Macintosh, but of course, that meant both parties had to have a Macintosh.  iChat would allow calls to up to three other individuals.  Just within the last week, I  discovered a service called Tokbox  that allows you to connect up to three other people. Tokbox is based on the Flash player that is almost universally installed on both Macintosh and Windows computers and operates directly in a browser window just like a web site. The host must register and start a session.  Then a special URL is sent to the other users by email.  When they click on the URL, Tokbox connects them to the session. One minor limitation with Tokbox is they don't handle echo cancelling very well.  If everyone on the call is using open microphones and speakers you can hear yourself repeated with a  slight delay.  In the worst cast scenario, this could start the painful howling of feedback.  The solution is for everyone to use headphones, but in the tests we have done, the "echo" was only slightly annoying.

Tokbox is also a classic example of a "mashup," a service where two or more internet services are combined. In a Tokbox call you can also share a video on YouTube or a slide presentation (e.g. PowerPoint) on SlideShare with everyone in the call. Tokbox also includes a text chat window.

(Later edit:)  Wouldn't you know, about two hours after posting this I found out about ooVoo, which offers a similar service, although it works as a separate Java based application, which incidentally, didn't work when I installed it on my Macintosh running the latest system software)

On-line meeting software can also involve a video connection and send it to more than three others at a time, but this blog has gotten long enough and I'll cover that in another post.

Readers from UW Oshkosh are welcome to contact me for equipment loans and to make sure your classroom computer is set up to use video.

Desktop videoconferencing is really not a new innovation.  At the grand opening festivities of the IDEA Lab in 1996, our featured speaker came to us via CU-SeeMe, an early free video conferencing program which featured a black and white, 160 x 120 pixel image. Primitive as it was, the speaker and audience made a connection that wouldn't have been as rich with audio only. (CU-SeeMe is still available)

Although not quite up to the standard of dedicated Polycom and Tandberg multi-thousand dollar systems, desktop video conferencing can provide nearly as effective a connection and make it available to a much, much wider group.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Multi-site video conferencing

Videoconferencing has been developed to reduce the amount of travel our faculty and staff have to travel to attend meetings. Most meetings we travel to consist of people from more than one institution. We can now make connections to up to three sites from all our video conferencing facilities.

We have had video conferencing capability in two classrooms for quite a while, but most of the time during the day, these rooms are occupied by classes.  Two years ago, we established a smaller conference room in Halsey 259, but up until now it could only connect to one site at a time.  We have now licensed the multi-site capabilities for that room.  Curiously, the machine that makes the connections always had the capability, but you have to buy the license separately and input a code to unlock it.

Multi-site conferences can follow a couple different formats.  In the discussion mode the screen is split so that every site is visible at all times.  In the presentation mode, the last site that speaks fills the screen to the other sites, and the speaker sees the split screen version.

All three of our rooms also have the capability for "people plus content," with which a full resolution computer display is transmitted along with the video and displayed on a second monitor or projector. This is controlled separately from the video source, and the last site who activates this feature has their computer displayed to all the sites.

People plus content only works if all sites have the capability to do this, if not, the video source can be switched between the video camera and a lower resolution version of the computer display, and a document camera or video recording device as well.

Gas prices have been reasonable for the last few months, but it's unlikely to stay that way, and video conferencing gives us means to meet with distant colleagues without spending the time and money on travel. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Titanfiles-not a bad little video server

Titanfiles is a system which provides not only networked storage which is available on-line from anywhere, but it also allows you to control with whom you want to share either a single document or a whole directory. It also turns out that it's not a bad little video server.

Digital video files have many useful purposes in education. You can provide a more personal message to on-line students or demonstrate a procedure that students are sure to have to review when they actually have to do it weeks after it was demonstrated in lecture. It's also been common practice to record students giving presentations or sample lessons to give them feedback and critique on their performance.

One big problem is video files are HUUUUGE! The quality of file you see on YouTube can be a megabyte a minute, and DVD quality about 7MB a minute. Exchanging these things via email can create problems. The limit on attachment size with Titanmail is 10MB. I guess you could fit some video under that limit, but if you were sending that file to multiple people, you could put some serious strain on the email system.

Instead, you could put the file in your Titanfiles account. You've got a gigabyte available. Then create a ticket, which is just a specially encoded URL, and send that to whomever you wanted to watch the file.

Try this link (It will probably go to a new window, just click the back button to get back to the blog.)

You can also put files stored on Titanfiles in D2L, but it's a little more complicated. For reasons I don't yet understand, when the ticket link in D2L is clicked in some browsers (Internet Explorer), it sends you to the authorization page. Logging in won't help you at all because the people you want to watch the file only have authority through the link.

However, you can insert files stored on Titanfiles in a D2L topic, embedded right on the, which is cool, because you can still have the rest of the information on the page displayed.

It looks like this.

You have to edit some HTML (the language the web is written in). That sounds scary, but it's really just a matter of a little copy and paste. The complete directions are on my web site.

A special use of Titanfiles as a video server is to record in-class student presentations. With a $35 web cam and some free software, you can record directly to a Titanfiles account. In the past you would probably have required the student to provide a VHS tape, which at the end of the presentation, you would pop out of the camcorder and hand to the student for them to review. Where's the student going to watch that VHS tape now? Although I'm sure the Library would appreciate the turnstyle numbers, that's about the only place a 21st century student could watch VHS. And then, they have to keep track of the darn thing, and bring it to you if you're going to review it, and then you have to keep track of it.

Instead, the presentation can be recorded directly to the student's Titanfiles account. (At higher resolution than the examples above, by the way.) They can watch it from anywhere and can share a ticket with you to review.

In this case, Titanfiles is mounted as a lettered drive on the classroom computer. Before their presentation, each student logs on to their Titanfiles account, and then one click in a video recording program (that I'll install for you) starts the recording, and a second click at the end stops it. That's it. All the other settings are stored in a file that I provide that you use to launch the video recording software. Detailed directions are on my website.

If you're using a lot, or very long, video files, it would probably be better to contact Brian Ledwell about our dedicated video servers, but for special applications and sharing the occasional video file, Titanfiles is a pretty cool solution.

Contact Sarah Bradway in the IT office for more information about Titanfiles, and for more about the details about the rest, I am The Audiovisualist.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

An Optimistic Projection

Easily the most widely adopted technology at UW Oshkosh is projecting some sort of computer image in the classroom.  Anyone who has been using them has probably noticed that the image on a lot of the projectors has degraded significantly.  The good news is we have discovered that many, but not all, will be able to be restored to almost like-new condition.


This story mainly involves the NEC GT950 model, which you may recognize as one of the smaller projectors hanging from the ceiling in many classrooms. In 2002-2004 funds from several special sources became available and we added 44 of these machines in new technology classrooms, on carts distributed from our Instructional Technology Centers, and used them to replace some of the earliest installed projectors.  The GT950 represented a new class of mid-range projectors that at $4000 were significantly less costly than their bigger brother, the GT 1150, that we had been installing at $8000 apiece (The latest projectors we're installing are about $3000). They were just about as bright and have some clever image shifting features that gave us more flexibility in where the projector needed to be placed.  Very handy especially for projectors being rolled into classrooms full of tablet arm chairs.

Seven years down the road, we faced the very scary prospect of having to replace this large number of these machines in a very different fiscal climate.  To make matters worse, these GT950's were not aging well.  Their overall brightness was dropping and annoying large pink splotches were developing on the image.  Based on our experience with older projectors, this was probably due not only to dust and dirt, but also to the aging of the LCD's that create the image in the rather warm environment in the beam of a powerful lamp.  As you might guess, parts are not available for a seven year old projector–ancient in the fast moving projector market.

LCD projectors are fiendishly complex devices.  The beam from the lamp is split by partial reflecting mirrors into three beams, directed around two to three turns with mirrors, through three separate LCD's and polarizing filters, one each for red, green and blue components of the image and recombined and directed through the lens with prisms.  This involves very precise alignment on more than a few parts. The engineers who design these things do not generally take great pains to put them together so they can be taken apart, and then reassembled with everything in alignment.

We have discovered, however, that this particular model can be cleaned to restore the image to practically new condition.  Because of the large number of these 950's in our collection and the relatively poor image they were delivering, Gary Vandre, one of our electronics technician, started pulling them apart and discovered that virtually every optical surface was accessible and the parts were able to be reassembled with everything still lined up.  The pink splotches are gone, and the brightness renewed to almost new condition.

It's not perfect. On most of them the aging of the LCD's is noticable as a green cast in the lower left of the image, probably due to the green LCD being closest to the lamp.  Also in rooms with heavy chalk use, the chalk dust is almost impossible to clean off the optical surfaces. The cleaning technique is to blast them with compressed air. Actually touching them and trying to clean the chalk dust off with windex and even the best lens cleaning cloth would scratch these delicate surfaces and knock them out of the perfect alignment need to create a sharp image.

We hope to get to all those projectors we can clean before fall, so the images in your classrooms should be improving soon, and now we know which projectors to concentrate our replacement efforts on and which we can keep in service to smooth out that projector population boom of 2002-2004.