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Make Your Screencasts Hits

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Screencasting is really big in education at all levels, as the recent proliferation of sites like TechSmith’s "59 Tips for Creating Engaging Screencasts," Read/Write’s "Screencasting Tips and Best Practices," and this YouTube collection by Scott Skibell would seem to indicate. There is even an entire site – Screencasting Tips.org – dedicated to the topic.

Is screencasting so important that it deserves so much attention? As an indicator of the changes that technology is bringing to education, including "flipping the classroom," the answer is probably yes. As a true pedagogical educational innovation, I have doubts. But that is a debate for another time. Right now, given the prevalence of the screencast as an educational content delivery medium, this is a perfect time to fall back on my years as a video and media producer and instructional technology professional to provide some high-impact tips for making your screencasts the most engaging, enlightening, and valuable to your audience. That said, here are my top three Education Unbound tips for achieving the maximum impact for your educational screencasts.

Screencasting Tip #1: Equip Yourself to Succeed
You may think that screencasting is basically a process where you sit or stand in front of your computer, turn on the web cam, and go. That’s fine, but boring and actually a bit unprofessional. Don’t forget that your own personal reputation and that of the institution you represent are on the line (online!) with every video you release to the public. That seems like a lot of pressure, but a few simple measures will help to ensure that you make a professional-looking video every time.  Be sure to consult with your on-campus IT department, film studies, or instructional support if you need help to find the resources below.

  • Lights: Lighting is one of most daunting, but simplest things that you can do to make your video look great. Too little and the picture is grainy, too much and you become a ghost. The optimal solution is to get a light kit and diffuser from someone on campus. This will provide you with the right levels of light. However, if one isn’t available, or you don’t want the hassle, natural lighting supplemented by some halogen or incandescent lamps can provide a soft glow that will make for a pleasing viewing experience. One thing to avoid is having any kind of light source behind you. If it’s bright enough, you’ll just become a shadow.
  • Camera: Most web cameras simply are not that good, so choosing a stand-alone video camera, particularly a HD one will automatically make your videos much better. Even choosing an inexpensive HD flip camera or the camera on a new iPhone, iPad, or Android device will be better than the one on the computer. One caveat here is that you will want to be able to mount the camera or device so that it does not move. No handheld video please!
  • Sound: While this may seem simple, it is the one thing about making a professional quality video that is the most challenging. As with the camera, the mic on your computer is not good enough for this task. Cameras generally have better microphones, but if you are going to stand more than a few feet away, you will need a separate microphone. If your IT department does not have a lavaliere mic that you can borrow, go to Radio Shack or visit Amazon and pick up one. They can be pretty inexpensive (20-40$) but will make all the difference in the world for the sound quality of your video. Finally, make sure that the background noise where you are filming is minimal. That quaint café may not sound so quaint when the coffee grinder kicks in.

Screencasting Tip #2: Plan for Success
Part of your planning will include accounting for the lighting, filming, and audio quality of your video as mentioned above. Beyond that, however, there are a couple areas in which some basic planning in advance will make for a much more enjoyable video.

Content planning is essential for a successful video. While you as an academic are most likely a certified expert in the area you are about to discuss on camera, having a basic structure and outline will help make sure that you don’t miss anything or go on too long and make the video boring. Additionally, think about ways in which you can split your content into the smallest meaningful segments. This is one thing that instructional design professional Sharon Boller reported finding most enjoyable about her experience taking  a MOOC from the University of Pennsylvania.

Delivery of your content is critical for screencasting success. One of the reasons that The Plaid Avenger (John Boyer) is so watchable is because he makes rich educational content really enjoyable through his flamboyant delivery. You don’t have to be Jack Black to be interesting either. Just don’t be a robot, and consider adding in some anecdotes to help add a story telling flavor to your screencast.

The lighting quality of Boyer’s video is good, and you can see the lavaliere if you look closely on his left shoulder. For more tips on developing your own unique on-screen voice, see my post "Crafting an Academic Screencasting Persona".

Finally, be aware of the staging of your video. A quiet classroom or your office offers the best options for controlling the quality of the recording. But there may also be a reading nook in the library that you can use, or if you have a decent lavaliere mic and the room is quiet at an off hour, the corner café might work. Don’t forget to look behind you too. We’ve all seen the clips of the news anchor who appears to have antlers because he stood in front of a mounted trophy.

Screencasting Tip #3: Litter the Cutting Room Floor
I know that editing video is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that the perception is that it is an incredibly tedious and time consuming task that is technically demanding. That’s true at the professional level. However, it doesn’t have to be the reality you experience when preforming simple editing of your screencasts. If you are on a Mac, then just using iMovie will provide you with a tool that will allow you to make basic edits and create a coherent video that flows more smoothly than is possible without editing.  Here is a video introduction to iMovie to help you get started:

On the Windows side things are a bit more cluttered, but a similar experience to iMovie can be found with Window’s Movie Maker which is free. Here’s how to get started:

If you are serious about making your video look professional you will need to step up to a program that allows multi-track editing such as Final Cut or Adobe Premiere, which are the two most commonly used by serious editors. On the free side, Lightworks allows much of the same fubctionality as Final Cut and Premiere. This video will get you started. But remember, no matter what program you choose, there are thousands of good tutorials online that will help you develop the ability to use your chosen program quickly and effectively.

In terms of actually editing your video, the best piece of advice I ever got came from a friend who was an editor for MTV. She told me that, "if there is any question of whether a piece of content should be cut or not, just cut it. No one will notice that it is missing except you."

If you can maintain the continuity of your message but make it shorter, your video will be much more watchable and enjoyable. The secret to this process is B-roll. B-roll is additional footage that illustrates what is being said, but allows the viewer to watch something other than a talking head. In a multi-track program like Lightworks you will be able to layer video so the B-roll hides your edits.

Keep Trying
Like anything that you want to do well in life, the secret to making successful screencasts is to keep trying and critically self-evaluate the process and the results. Each time you make a video look back through this post or make a checklist of items from it. Grade yourself on each of the categories and make note of ways you could improve on the results.

I am also happy to provide critical feedback if you’d like to share your screencasts below or on Twitter or Google+. Looking forward to seeing you online.