30 March 2007

Screencast tutorials

Since bandwidth availability has improved, the last few years have seen more videos and screencam/screencast tutorials on websites, for both marketing and training purposes. They're getting easier to make and deliver, with more sophisticated purpose built software, some of which is cheap or even free.

Tutorials featuring a video capture of screen activity, have been a stock elearning item in the corporate training arena for a long time now, and software like Flash is used to build components that allow scaffolded interaction to create a 'show-me' or 'let-me-try' environment for employees learning to use company software systems.

In Higher Education, bite-sized screen activity tutorials can help students learn to use new tools, such as statistics software, a wiki or a learning management system.

Different types of screencast tutorials

  • Screen video only - this 'show me' approach gives view to an expert user's desktop as they demonstrate a task or process. This can be done with or without narration, but generally benefits greatly from a synced voice over explanation.

  • Enhanced screen video - this captures user activity as above, but helps the learner focus on the important points by including highlights of certain screen elements, explanatory balloons, arrows, etc. overlaying the video itself.

  • Interactive tutorial - the 'let me try' approach guides the learner through a protected process of actually interacting with the software to be learned. The learner can click buttons or control selected screen elements to move through a task, but only certain options are available at any one time and they may be following specific instructions about what to do next. Learning by doing leads to better retention, and the screencast tutorial allows it to happen in a 'safe' directed environment where wrong choices don't lead them into trouble. check out the excellent article on varying levels of interactivity in simulations/tutorials, by web-based learning author William Horton

  • Narrated tutorial - This can be video demo or interactive. The narration describes or guides the user through the process being taught. Narration is generally a very effective approach as it contextualizes the screen activity as it happens, helps to focus the learner on what's important and helps sustain learner attention (it's so easy to be distracted by phone and email noises when you're 'merely' watching something). To put it another way, narration makes optimal use of one's cognitive processing capabilities (see note on Richard Mayer's research.)

  • Audio enhanced tutorial - Even if a tutorial doesn't include narration, it can still include other audio, such as clicks, music, or feedback sounds for wrong and right answers. Use these with caution (and only after reading the Mayer research) as irrelevant audio, such as unnecessary music can become distracting or confusing. Repetitive sounds can become irritating (imagine a loud buzz after every wrong answer.)

  • Text or subtitled tutorial - when narration is not an option (and in addition to potential accessibility and hardware issues, a good, well-recorded narration can be hard to come by), many tutorials use subtitle explanations or text balloons pointing to things as they happen. This can be tricky to manage well, as there are various pitfalls. People read at different speeds and following the onscreen activity at the same time as trying to take in the contextual text information can impede the learning process. (When you're reading the text, you're missing the activity and vice versa.) If you take this approach for demonstrating screen activity, balloons are generally preferable to subtitles, not only because the balloon can point specifically to the action to which it's referring, but because it allows the visual information to be displayed in close proximity, which eliminates the back and forth eye movement required by subtitling.

Note: Richard Mayer's findings on the effectiveness of different combinations of visuals, text and narration are essential prerequisites to good screencast tutorials. As a starting point, my earlier post "Mayer's Principles for the Design of Multimedia Learning" provides a summary of the essentials.

Educational screencasts can be short and sweet nuggets you self-narrate and throw together in a half hour, or sophisticated interactive tutorials, requiring programming skills for software simulation, professional narration and scripted instructional design.

Screencasting Tools

Software like Camtasia, CamStudio (open source), Snapz Pro (Mac), ScreenCam and others make short screencasting easy, and some are more full-featured than others. Adobe's Captivate allows an interactive experience with more than just video to be built easily. This Captivate review in Digital Web Magazine has the complete story.  [Note: since Snow Leopard you can use QuickTime player to record the screen and audio narration directly from your Mac.  no downloading of software required. Update: 21 Oct 2011]

The latest version of captivate reportedly allows for the easy creation and management of branched scenario based training (these are those 'what would you do next' simulations). In the case of screencasting, this is in the 'let me try' interactive category, but takes it a step further and can represent a "test me" category. Simulations can make for extremely useful and engaging elearning but have been cumbersome to create and manage. Learners are faced with a set of options at each of a number of decision-making points. For a simulation to be at all realistic, and not just glorified true/false , different learner responses must branch out towards various results so the options grow exponentially. I've spent many a bleary-eyed afternoon trying to organize, complete and visually represent dozens of these simulation screens, so the prospect of a tool making it "so easy a SME could do it" is truly enticing.

Simulations can be static and slide based or video based. One customer service training program for a large bank had the learner looking directly at a customer (on video) and interacting with them to deal with their customer complaint. The learner would listen to their complaint, and select from a list of options about what to do next. Depending on their choice, the customer would respond differently (eg."Well okay, I guess I can try that" or "Thanks, that will help a lot!") and the simulation would continue down the decision making tree. Of course these video simulations are a very different tutorial beastie to screencasting, so forgive the apparent tangent, but there's certainly overlap and room for integration of the two.

How to Screencast

From the technical perspective, screencasts on how to (you said it) screencast, are available at showMeDo.com. From the conceptual angle, veteran screencaster John Udell looks at other uses for the screencast, and describes the process of creating one, as does the handy article, How to create a screencast with a Mac at Digital Web Magazine, which includes cheap software options for the Mac. Udell also highlights interesting variations on the theme, like interview screencasts. Why not have two people narrating?


For ideas, inspiration or 'what not to do' check out myscreencast.com, or click through the selected list below..
  • User controlled, no sound
    This pyDev tutorial acts like a slide presentation in that the user must click next to see the next step. This allows the user to go at his own pace. It's interesting to consider how a more interactive approach could have been taken with this one. Instead of using a next/back button, why not prompt the user to click relevant buttons to move the task forward -- as though the learner were helping to complete the process himself. For example, the second balloon says "pressing ctrl+1 brings us the choices we have". Then on the next screen, these choices appear. Why not have the user actually 'click ctrl+1' to make that happen?
  • Screen video with sound
    Adobe Captivate tutorial
    on adding audio feedback to buttons demonstrates a 'buzz and bell' button feedback action, which although possibly of debatable benefit, demonstrates a potentially useful concept. I worked on an interactive tutorial that, at well distributed points, responded to the user with narrated feedback (eg. "that's right" or "Try that one again") The responses were varied to make the effect more natural (less conspicuously repetitive) and to keep it from getting too irritating. The phrase variation, quality of the professional narrator, and modest use of the device were keys to its success.
  • Screen video with narration

Publicly available interactive screencast tutorials, are much harder to come by since they're much more difficult and time-consuming to produce. Please drop a line if you know of one.

And just for a lark, don't miss the ACLU's pizza ordering screencast! (okay, not technically a tutorial, but it's engaging and gets a point across.)