Screencasts give you space to breathe at a conference

I gained an insight recently into a new benefit that we might all derive from screencasts. I gave a paper about the role of a placement tutor and, in particular, how the skills we develop as personal tutors have to be adapted to suit the role of placement tutor. I did not know anyone at the conference, and I was given the dreaded after lunch slot, so I knew I would need to keep everyone interested, or at least awake!

With these considerations in mind, I chose to show the audience, after some initial preamble, an animated screencast that I have made for my students, showing them how our academic placement scheme in English Literature works. (The screencast is in the GRASS screencast bank on this site.)

Screenshot academic placement screencast

What happened next was rather unexpected. During the few minutes of the screencast I saw shoulders relax. Some people smiled. A couple even laughed at some humorous animation on one of the slides. Nobody – nobody at all – looked at me. It was a delight. I could get my bearings whilst they watched, which helped me, but I also realised that this was really helping them. Better than any description I could have given them, this short screencast gave them the student’s eye view on how our placement system works. I felt confident that they knew exactly what I was talking about from then on, and also that they had a sense of how a student might feel during the early part of the journey towards a successful academic placement.

I have used Prezi and PowerPoint at conferences before, and sometime I have just talked to people without a visual aid, but this new experiment has inspired me to use screencasts in this setting in future.

What was perhaps most surprising was the way the audience members reacted during the Q &A session. They did ask me about being a placement tutor, of course, but I also answered several interesting questions about making screencasts and how I felt students might benefit from them. It seems that the appetite for screencasts as a pedagogical tool continues to increase – interesting times lie ahead!

Screen capturing in Classics

Silchester ModelMatthew Nicholls

I have been using screen capture in two ways in my Digital Silchester module for Classics. The first is to create how-to videos for upload to Blackboard. Some of our class time is spent showing students how to execute certain tasks in a piece of digital modelling software, and taking a screen-grab video has proved a great way of reinforcing these classroom sessions. Students can watch to make sure they have understood the class or to remind themselves, and it saves me a lot of time in emailing explanations.

The second use is for giving feedback on student work, part of which comes to me in the form of a 3D digital model of a Roman building. Using a screen recording I can navigate into and around their models and give spoken feedback corresponding to what they see on screen – a much more efficient and helpful way of giving precise feedback than trying to explain what I mean in writing.

I am grateful to the GRASS project for helping me think about the possibilities this technology can offer, and also for the lovely homemade cakes at their events.

Enhancement through screencasts…continued…

Following on from my last blog post,  I did manage to produce a couple of screencasts ready for Enhancement Week. I asked colleagues to send me the material and then I made the screencasts, although I hope in future to encourage more staff to produce them themselves. We now have the first of ten screencasts completed.

A couple of things happened to me as I worked on this project that it might be worth noting:

1. Colleagues are able to see the screencasts on our bb site already, so they are getting better at knowing how much material sits well in this context.

2. I have stuck to the idea of using Powtoon for everything that is extra-curricula and will continue with Prezi for all else, for now.

3. I have used the same music in each of my Powtoon screencasts. This was partly because a student came to my office yesterday and told me that, although the music is beginning to annoy him, it does make him perk up and know that he has to take notice!

4. The mash up function on bb that I have been getting so excited about does not seem to work until YouTube has indexed the screencasts, so after 48 hours of waiting I went back to the ’embed media’ function, which I know has limitations in terms of useability by all.

5. I also realised that, to find anything on YouTube so as to use the mash up function, you do need a reasonably exclusive title. ‘Study Abroad’, one of my original titles, brought up pages and pages of possibilities.

You can see the screencasts here:

Enhancement personal tutor


Enhancement study abroad


Enhancement through screencasts

Cindy writes:

I have been thinking recently about how to make the most of our Enhancement Weeks, so naturally screencasts came to mind. The challenge we are facing in our department is to help students to engage with activities in Enhancement Week whilst also offering long-term material to which they can refer both before and after that week.

We already have a couple of departmental screencasts which gave me ideas about how we could do this:



Now I am planning to produce a series of similar screencasts covering what I think are topics that will enhance the studying life of students. Topics identified so far are:

  1. How to succeed on Twitter (and/or LinkedIn)
  2. How to choose a dissertation topic
  3. The Professional Track Degree
  4. How to make the most of the personal tutor relationship
  5. Applying for postgraduate study
  6. Creative Writing in the Department of English Literature
  7. Study abroad
  8. Using the library
  9. How to use your reading list
  10. Budgeting for your study costs/book purchases

Now I face a decision and a new challenge. I have to decide whether to stick to Powtoon screencasts for all things ‘extra-curricular’ or whether to use a combination of different types of screencast, adn this relies to some extent on the challenge…I have asked a selection of colleauges to make one each of these screenacsts. I hope to persuade them that it is not difficult and is worth there while.

Watch this space for developments!

Mashups? I love them!

I have just found the ‘mashups’ function on Blackboard. Who knew that even existed??! I have struggled in the past trying to ensure reliability on all devices when inserting screencasts into content areas of bb, and even when I managed to insert them, they often seemed to fall over just at the point when they were most needed.

A chance browse showed me the mashups function and now I have been able to link to all the screencasts I have on YouTube with no problem at all. The function is easy and quick to use and it looks neat and professional on the page. I have been able to include them on a general information page for all English Literature students and I have emailed the students and my colleagues to tell them they are there. I have also asked them to let me know if they would like to see any other topics covered. It will be interesting to see what happens next…

bb screenshot

BSL comes to town – a university first?

Cindy writes for her department’s blog:

The Department of English Literature has just published its first British Sign Language interpreted screencast. ‘The Punctuation Pathway’, one of our first ever screencasts, is now available in this format for viewers on our YouTube channel ‘English Literature at the University of Reading’ and can be found here:




Moments of clarity

Using technology is a funny thing. At one moment you feel elated because it has done exactly what you wanted. The next, you are left wondering how on earth you can have been so stupid. Take powtoon ( animated screencasts as an example. I had produced nearly a dozen of them before I decided to fix a little thing that had been niggling at me all along. When I went to these screencasts, or displayed them for others, the screen they saw (the screenshot displayed before pressing ‘play’) was a bit of a muddle, sometimes having a few words of text on it and sometimes an animated figure mid-move. I knew I had done something wrong, and set out to discover my error.

Screenshot academic placement screencast

When I went back to powtoons I had that moment of clarity that so often arrives in these situations. It was a quick enough process to work out that whatever was on the editing screen at the moment when I pressed play was the image that would appear forever as the opening screen. It was rather more laborious to fix it. I decided that I wanted an image of a character on each of my screencast screenshots, and so I fiddled about for ages, altering the timing slightly to ensure that each powtoon would display a character at the side of the screen before pressing ‘play’.

I republished each and every one of them and was rather proud of myself for at least five minutes. I decided to leave them publishing whilst I made myself a cup of tea. As I waited for the kettle to boil I realised my stupidity: why just a figure on the screen? Why on earth had I not had the sense to begin each powtoon with a proper title screen? That way, anyone could see that they were about to view the correct animation before they began.

So, a lesson learned. Am I going to make sure that, in future, each of my powtoons has a title screen prior to publication? Of course. Am I going to go back and change all of those powtoons I have just republished? It’s Week Three of a busy term – what do you reckon?!

Happy anniversary! Cindy writes….


Well, it is not actually an anniversary as such, although there will be two of those to come before the project finishes. Today is the first official day of our GRASS project and it is also, coincidentally, one of the few days when nobody on the GRASS team has talked to or emailed a fellow GRASS enthusiast to talk about the project!

It seems odd even to think of this as our first day – we have achieved much already and we have put so many plans in place over the summer. Already our students are working with GRASS material and shaping our ideas about how best we can move forward. Having a first day is special, though, as it reminds us that we are now on a proper footing and can go full-steam ahead. One of the great benefits of being offered TLDF funding for a project such as this is that it reminds you that the university is supporting you – that will help to keep us inspired.

So, to my fellow GRASS team…thanks for the fun we have had already and………here we go!!!!!!!!!!!!!



I love powtoons too!

After Emma’s brilliant start on powtoons I have decided to follow suit! I thought it would be really difficult, I suppose because the end result looks so good, but in fact it was just as intuitive as she had promised me it would be. In fact, I am noticing that I am getting a bit better at working my way around this type of software the more I use it, which might be an encouraging thought for any colleagues thinking of dipping their toes in.

The one thing I found it hard to get my head around at first was the timing. Because each element on the screen can move on and off in different ways, and you can dictate how long an element stays on the screen, and you have to work a bit at getting it right. At first I had characters zooming in and flying out all over the place and I realised, to my horror, that when I played the ‘show’ back, slides were moving on before all of the words had appeared.

The good news is that there is a really useful little tour guide (at the top right of the screen as you are working on a powtoon, just click on ‘tour’) – the bad news is that I still couldn’t work out, for a little while, how to change the timing. (You have to click on the element – text or image – that you want to control and then you can use the timing slide bar to expand or contract their time on screen. The overall timing of each slide is changeable regardless of where you have clicked – you use + and – on the time bar.)

The two I have created so far are here:

Screenshot careers learning screencast


Screenshot academic placement screencast


Now I have a decision to make. Do I use animation to offer help and advice for topics outside the core curriculum, and still use Prezi screencasts for things like module descriptions, or should I mix it all up? I can see benefits to students being able to see from the form of the screencast whether they are looking at an ‘extra’ or something relating to core activity, but I am a little bit in love with powtoons now…

I think I will await the results of Emma’s survey to student (see her last post) and then decide.

Flat Prezis…deep Prezis …still deciding…

An unexpected question has come up this week and I am still pondering it…

Our Part One module convenors are all doing a great job of producing Prezis for our modules descriptions, which we will turn into screencasts. I hope that they will also be voiced by the convenors so that it is not just my voice on every screencast. All well and good, you might think, until we all got together.

One thing became clear as soon as we started to talk about the screencasts – each person was very attached to the Prezi template they had chosen, but they were very different from each other. This is not a huge problem, but it did lead to discussions about how standardised these things should be. Should a department (and/or school) ensure that all of the screencasts issued for a certain purpose (say, module descriptions) are based on the same Prezi/PowerPoint template?

Prezi wikimedia image

Emma and I had already had a similar discussion, considering whether animated screencasts and Prezi-based screencasts would sit comfortably together in a group of related screencasts, so I should have expected that this discussion would arise with my department colleagues.

For now, we have agreed to create all of the draft Prezis (seven of them) and then compare. Given that Prezi will allow for different colour themes in one template, it would be possible for us to choose one template for all of them, or leave them as they are.

The second question that emerged was about how ‘deep’ the Prezi template should be. Should it comprise a series of connecting sections which sit flat in front of a background, or should the sections draw the viewer through an experience, such as along a road or into a building, or up mountain? I had no idea that colleagues would have such vivid ideas about this, but they do. We talked about whether we wanted our module descriptions to look like a journey with a goal at the end – on a Part One module? Isn’t that meant to be the start of a journey? Also, would it make the process of choosing a module look laborious if they wandered through a labyrinthine screencast to get an overview?



‘Flat’ style Prezi – easier to take an overview? Not interesting enough?



‘Deep’ style Prezi – more interesting and appealing? Too complicated?


I realise that we are academics and so can have a tendency to overthink everything we do, but I take heart from this experience. Who could have predicted that we would all come to care so much about screencasts?!