August 22, 2009

H1N1-motivated (and very brief) reviews of CamStudio, Captivate, and Elluminate

Preparation is better than panic, or so they say. With questions about the expected wave of H1N1 infections this fall and winter, my administration is trying to gently prod faculty into thinking about what might happen if 30-40% of students in a class are infected and absent. (Well, I'd hope they're absent if they're infectious.) While I've heard from one colleague who thinks that the admin is being unreasonable, at least my first impression is that they're not being heavy-handed (and certainly not as heavy-handed as a "gee, that's a lawyerly rather than educational" response over the summer to FERPA complaints, but I think the faculty will solve the latter problem quickly, now that the fall's upon us). One issue is the question of whether and how to adjust attendance policies (see the quick survey responses of about 100 USF faculty here). Another is the issue of making material available to students. Students would like classroom capture, and apart from the fact that the technology isn't there yet for a lot of situations, we need to address some intellectual-property issues before that becomes widespread.

But then there's distance education. Hi, Margaret! For many classes it is far from the ideal, but it may be a backstop in case H1N1 develops a more virulent strain (and here, virulent might well mean "upchucking for a day, followed by fevers, chills, and no capacity to read or do work for a week" rather than high mortality). At USF, as at many places, staff in many places are already skeletal, and it's the spread of H1N1 through staff more than students that could cause a university to close for a week or two.

So... what's a faculty member to do? One week? "Let's see where we are when we reopen" is as good for a short-term flu-related closure as hurricane/earthquake closure. More than two weeks?  Hmmn... the options there are mixed. Today, while preparing a few things for a class I designed to be online, I tried out the latest versions of three technologies, one geared for tutorials (CamStudio's capture/narrative of Things You Do While Computing), one geared for one-way presentations (Captivate, which has some interactive features but is probably most quickly learned as a way to narrate presentations), and one geared for recording live online sessions (Elluminate, which has a tool [Elluminate Publish] that can export the recording to mp3, mp4, etc.).

CamStudio: Best for tutorials. I suppose this might be modified to work for an MST3K version of commentary on video, but I'd recommend other software for that. Nothing else, I think.

Captivate: Produces a very slick Flash file, and if you have a decent microphone, it'll work fine for one-way presentations sure to put your students to sleep, which they might need anyway with the flu. I happened to be using my onboard mic inside my office, and until I discovered a way to improve a pop screen for the computer's built-in mic, my recordings were echoey, harsh, and POPoPOPped far too much.  Pop screen workaround: multi-folded kleenex over the tiny hole leading to the mic's diaphram. Now the recordings were just echoey and harsh. Much better. The interface is relatively easy to master, but I found it very clunky to use, in part because when I talk to students I am talking to real, live students, not to a hole on the top margin of the inside of the laptop's clamshell. For those who point to the inestimable Scott Simon as the paragon of radio storytelling, I can only say, Scott Simon is also talking to real, live human beings, the recording engineers in the studio!

Elluminate is a clunkyish way of connecting to students live, while everyone is miles away. I spoke with two students using it today and used Elluminate's publishing tool to turn a test recording into an mp3, an mp4, and a few other items whose purpose I couldn't quite figure out. The benefit: Ah, real students who can respond, ask questions, and keep me feeling a little as if I'm not alone in the world! The cost: oh, the pain of audio compression! Ugh. It's bad enough when you have a crackly connection and you know you're coping because, well, you have to cope. But while my voice in the Captivate Flash file was uncomfortable to hear, at least it didn't have the type of quality you'd associate with mid-20th century AM nighttime radio bounced off the ionosphere. 

My personal plans if USF closes for any reason this semester? Captivate for anything I really want to record (and figure out how to work that without feeling like I'm talking to a computer), Elluminate for connecting with students who know how to log into our CMS and almost nothing else, and then pray that students start to learn how to use Skype.

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Posted in Teaching on August 22, 2009 5:45 PM |