I sometimes get asked about the various pieces of hardware and software I use to create my learning resources so I’ve given an overview of some of these on this page and included a variety of things I’ve learnt on the way. There are a growing number of free or very cheap tools available on the web for a variety of purposes and I try to use those wherever possible.
Part of my motivation for writing this is to remind myself what works. With so much choice and only tending to develop resources periodically I quite often find I’ve forgotten how to best set things up when I come to create something. I assume this is just part of ageing gracefully.
The blog is written using WordPress software. This really has proved extremely simple to use. The only thing I don’t feel reasonably in control of is how to embed images in text and keep good formatting (although since drafting this I’ve experimenting with using tables to format content [see the Links page] and I’ve been much happier with this). I use the free version of the software but have paid a small fee for the domain name and the custom design features which have allowed me to tweak a few minor things (most of which I’ve now found ways of doing in the original software – I’m not sure that I’ll renew this subscription).
Someone advised me to use WordPress and I’ve just taken that at face value without trying any alternatives so I’ve got no idea how they compare.
I’ve used two approaches to preparing screencasts. For material based on PowerPoint I’ve just used PowerPoint 2010 as issued by my university. (The recycling terminology screencast is an example of this). It allows embedding of video and audio within the presentation (a considerable advantage over earlier versions) and if you build in timed animations and transitions from one slide to the next then you can get PowerPoint to turn this into a video which can easily be uploaded to YouTube. The files get very large so uploading to a server that allows streaming is really the only practical way of distributing these.
PowerPoint offers the potential to record a narration within the software. Apparently this works really well in versions before 2010 but when this version came out Microsoft set the default audio to quite low quality and removed any option to change this. There is a work around of opening a presentation in PowerPoint 2007 setting the sound quality, saving and re-opening in 2010 but I didn’t know about this and have now got into the habit of recording the sound separately and inserting it as audio clips (see section on recordings below).
For screencasts based on other software and particularly where I want to show that software in action I use Screencast-0-matic. (The Making nice gait graphs in Excel screencast is an example). This works over the web and is extremely simple. The free version is powerful. It only allows recording for fifteen minutes but its generally considered to be best practice to divide screencasts into shorter segments than this anyway. Paying just US$15 however gets you the pro version which allows longer recordings and, much more importantly, includes editing tools. This is important because if you make a mistake in the free version you’ve got no real option but to start the whole thing again. In the pro version you just keep going and clip the offending section out afterwards. This saves considerable amounts of time and frustration.
Fairly early on I went out and bought a reasonable webcam. After quite a bit of comparing on-line reviews I selected the Logitech c920 HD and have been extremely impressed with it. Shopping around I picked it up for about £60 and consider the money well spent. Much of the processing is done on board the camera which means it can be plugged directly into the USB port of my laptop.
It’s got quite a good response to moderate lighting conditions but doesn’t cope with the very low artificial light conditions in my home office so I tend to do most recording during the day. It’s got quite a wide angle lens and at full resolution this requires the camera to be very close to your face to have the head fill a reasonable part of the screen. Parallax tends to exaggerate head size and makes me look even more like a Muppet than usual. Reducing the resolution and moving the camera back a little is more flattering.
I mount this on a Hama table top tripod which I manged to pick up for about £10 (recommended retail price closer to £30). Although its designed for a table top it actually extends very well and has much wider application. The combination of webcam and tripod makes quite a powerful system for recording all sorts of video.
The built in microphone on the webcam is very good as long as you don’t stray too far from it. I’ve found that accessing its settings through the Sound option within Windows control panel allows me to double the sensitivity without affecting the background noise. This is probably because there is some obvious noise reducing software within the camera. This takes a couple of seconds to kick in so if you are being fussy it is good to record a couple of seconds at the start before speaking and crop this off later. Although its not detectable when someone is speaking there is some faint noise during recordings which gives rise to an audible transition in PowerPoint when the recording stops. I generally record a couple of seconds extra at the end in order that I’ve moved onto the next slide before this happens. (This also gets rid of an audible click when the recording ends).
I’ve failed to find a good free (or even cheap) video editor. I find Windows Movie Maker works quite well on faster computer but doesn’t work at all on my work issue laptop. PowerPoint 2010 now has good tools for trimming videos and I tend to record short clips and rely on PowerPoint for tidying things up.
I use YouTube for hosting video. I must admit I don’t find the interface particularly intuitive but I generally only want to post the videos there rather than use this as my primary means of distributing them so that’s not too much of an issue.
I actually find recording sound more problematic than video. Using a relatively cheap headset mic (Trust Cinto – £6) which means the mic is very close to your mouth gives excellent quality. It was when I decided that I’d rather not wear a headset when recording video that I ran into problems. I found out later that this had as much to do with the sound card on my laptop (Toshiba Portege R600-13X ) as anything else and purchasing a ridiculously cheap external USB sound card (Dynamode 7 Channel USB 2.0 -£2) made a considerable difference when using a cheap mic. Even so its important to keep the mic reasonably close to your mouth to get good quality. I actually find that the mic built into the webcam is the best option for sound recording and use this now even if I’m not using the video. This has the advantage that if I’m recording some sound and some video to use in a screencast (see the Why we walk the way we do sequence) I get even sound levels which I found surprisingly difficult to achieve with a mix of sound recorded with the webcam mic for that accompanying video and another mic for pure audio.
If I am recording pure audio then I use Audacity, a free audio editor. This is really simple to use and includes some really nice functions for removing coughs and pauses. The software isn’t as intuitive as it could be but taking a little time to learn what it is capable of pays dividends.
Harry Potter figures
Ever since reading the Harry Potter books to the kids, and particularly since seeing the films, I’ve been a bit bored by static illustrations and have been experimenting with Flash animations. These get even more interesting when you allow some interaction with them. I gather there are approaches that animators find easier these days but I actually find Flash a particularly convenient format (and it suits my instinct to code things mathematically). It only works in 2-d which is a little limiting but I’ll live with that while I develop my skills.
I found Swish extremely easy to pick up. You can download a 15 day trial (and to be honest its not too difficult to spin that period out) but I’ve bought a copy now (about £100). You can do quite a lot with miniMax4 but I’ve found that the full version (Max4) is essential if you want to do proper coding. The results can be embedded in Word, PowerPoint, Web resources and .pdf files so they are really flexible.
Having started with Flash I did look at Adobe Flash Professional as well but it is phenomenally expensive for an individual and I found it much less intuitive. I also tried the open source Flash Develop but couldn’t get into this at all for some reason – maybe I’m getting old.
Some of the simpler animations (e.g. the rolling foot) are animated gifs which can be made out of any series of pictures (a bit like those flick through books we all made as kids). There are a number of sites that allow these to be combined into a single .gif file and one I find extremely intuitive and quick is gifmaker.me.