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.