Talking heads: attraction or distraction?

A talking head is the phrase often used to describe a video feed of the narrator within a screencast. It has been suggested on the basis of anecdotal evidence that students like having a ‘talking head’ in screencasts, as it gives the video a more personal feel, and I have gone along with this approach so far in my own practice.

But do talking heads help? Does being able to see the person encourage more effective learning? Or does it distract from the content being covered? This is a question that we’re trying to probe this summer.

Dr Eugene McSorley in Psychology uses eye-tracking technology as a research tool for investigating topics such as phobias. While showing a series of images on a computer screen to a subject, eye-trackers allow him to follow where the subject is looking, and for how long. In this project, we’re going to use this technology to investigate how students interact with screencasts, with and without talking heads, and to find out whether talking heads help, hinder, or have no effect on the short-term retention of information.

For this project, Eugene and I have recruited two UROP students: Luxveeka (an MChem Chemistry student) and Nadyne (a BSc Psychology student), to design, carry out and analyse a series of eye-tracking experiments. The project started on Monday and will run for six weeks. Watch this space!

Team selfie! From l-r: Nadyne, Eugene, David & Luxveeka (wearing the eye-tracking headset)

Team selfie! From l-r: Nadyne, Eugene, David & Luxveeka (wearing the eye-tracking headset)


Experimenting with screencasts as an assessment tool

In Typography & Graphic Communication, I’ve been experimenting with using screencasts to assess digital projects. So far, the screencast seems to be an effective tool for demonstrating students’ achievement of our learning outcomes.

In part 1, our students take an integrated module that requires them to evidence their ability to apply theoretical and professional knowledge to their practice, while also demonstrating technical competence in a range of design tools. For example, their ‘design for screen’ project requires them to design a prototype for a website using Adobe Dreamweaver and applying relevant knowledge about user-centred design and how to use typography and images effectively in screen-based communications. Although one would reasonably expect that the application of relevant theory is demonstrated through good design decisions, these kinds of projects can be difficult to assess because engagement with theory isn’t necessarily self-evident in the design.

For this project, I asked students to submit a client-facing screencast presentation of the web design they were proposing. The screencast brief was motivated by the need to experiment with new ways in which students can demonstrate their achievement of particular learning outcomes in a way that explicitly supports the acquisition of a range of skills for screen-based design. In the past, to accompany project work, students have submitted project workfiles that serve as a demonstrated record of their design process and reflection on practice. However, submitting a paper-based workfile seems to me to be incongruent with the raison d’etre for screen design. It also means students could potentially waste a lot of valuable project time capturing and printing out particular stages of their design process.

Screen shot 2015-06-04 at 10.44.10In contrast, the screencast enables them to explain their engagement with theory and how it informed their design process, while showing (on-screen) how they anticipate users would interact with their website. The screencast is effective for assessing the module outcomes because it requires students to integrate their articulation and visualisation of theoretical and professional knowledge. It also provides an easy way for them to discuss their understanding of the coding and technical aspects of their project work. Furthermore, it provides them with a way to describe their individual, creative interpretation of the brief and showcase what they think the key features of their design are.

Online polls conducted after the project indicate that the majority of students agreed that the project (1) gave them an opportunity to explain how they had applied theory to their website design and (2) helped them engage with presenting information to clients.

I had also envisaged the screencast as providing students with an opportunity to develop their presentation skills. The online feedback poll indicated that students were divided in their agreement of whether the screencast had enabled them to develop their presentation skills. I hope to explore the reasons for these perceptions further and develop more support materials for this aspect next year.