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.

GRASS is spreading!!!

As a team we have been enormously busy over the last couple of months around the University and around the country talking about screen capture.  It has been brilliant to see such enthusiasm, particularly in Reading, on the use of this enormously versatile technology to improve T&L provision.


Our mini tour started back in November. After a quick CQSD showcase event I went up to the University of Leeds as an invited speaker. As soon as I got back we ran our first Reading Lunch and Learn session for 33 colleagues who all enjoyed our famous home-made cake buffet.

Grass 2

I then headed off to the University of Bristol before returning home to talk to 26 highly enthusiastic ISLI colleagues for an hour long lunchtime meeting in February.


Grass 3

The following day we had the opportunity to outline the use of screen capture to provide feedback to another full room at a CQSD training session. Just a week later Cindy was able to outline our project at the School of Humanities Board of Studies meeting and at the School of Language and Literature T&L meeting.  David and I delivered our first ever interactive session during an hour long meeting with 10 colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences. With at least 8 more internal meetings and one external visit planned from now until June we will certainly be keeping ourselves busy!

Of course one of our key events is the second GRASS Lunch and Learn in Carrington 101, on Friday 27th March. The event will run from 1 until 3 but colleagues are welcome to leave earlier. This is an interactive event so if you would like to actually make a screencast on your own laptop whilst eating some of these…


…as part of another cake buffet (including David Nutt’s millionaire’s shortbread and Susie Newton’s chocolate brownies), please sign up by clicking on Employee Self Service and finding TEL: Screencapture: Grass lunch and learn.


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


Screencasts demonstrating Web page programs for T&L

Richard Mitchell (School of Systems Engineering) writes:

Encouraged by students who felt that some programs I had written were a good visual way of demonstrating some fundamental concepts behind cybernetic systems, I have produced a few HTML5 web pages which students can run on PCs and mobile devices. They are designed to allow students to investigate the effect of changing key parameters and see graphically what happens.

I felt that these would be even more accessible if I could produce some short videos demonstrating these programs in action – and was thus very interested in screencasts and the GRASS project.

Various colleagues recommended Camtasia as the product to use, and I am delighted to find how easy it is to use. I set up the screen with an introductory slide from powerpoint, behind which I have my web browser with my programs; I set Camtasia to record the area where these are displayed, and press record. I then talk about the slide and then flip to the browser and demonstrate the program. At the end, I just save the recording (I don’t even edit it) and get Camtasia to generate an MP4 video, which I then put it on a web page.

Once I have rehearsed what I want to say and set the slide and programs up, I can produce a video of between 5 and 10 minutes long within about 15 minutes. A selection of the videos can be viewed at

I currently produce these for a first year course, and recommend students view them when reviewing material covered in the lecture to help verify their understanding.


New toys

David writes:

It’s great fun preparing screencasts with the new Surface Pro3 that the GRASS project team has bought. With a stylus, it’s possible to annotate Powerpoint slides as you go, adding in mathematical derivations, underlining key phrases, and so on.

It’s also been a bit of a learning experience for me, too. When used as a tablet, swiping your finger in various directions is associated with making menus appear and changing between windows, which you (probably) don’t want in the middle of a screencast! It also took me a while to find the ‘eraser’ function of the stylus, too, for when I made mistakes! That said, it’s probably my favourite bit of kit at the moment.

All our kit is available to be borrowed (laptop & tablet with Camtasia Studio, 2 USB microphones), so do get in touch if you’d like to try any of it out.

Here’s a short screencast (2′) I prepared for my School Staff Meeting (with the Surface Pro3), plugging the GRASS project and highlighting one of the tools available in the new version of Blackboard.

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!

GRASS Lunch and Learn – Friday 28 November 2014

GRASS Lunch and Learn – Friday 28 November

Many thanks to those who attended the first GRASS informative session last Friday. We had an excellent turnout of 33 colleagues and some very positive feedback.  Our thanks go also to Gavin Brookes, who took time out of his day to attend and introduce the session.

Of the 22 questionnaires returned, 15 rated the session as ‘excellent’ and 6 rated it ‘good’. 18 are likely to use screen capture and the GRASS website. There was even great praise for our cakes! This is very encouraging news!


A number of you flagged up either the lack of time or IT support. Like with everything, practice is the key and it is amazing how quickly you can learn how to use the software packages and the screen capture platform. It really is VERY intuitive! With regard to lack of IT support, we have set up the GRASS project in order to help you with any problems you come up against, and are happy to give email or one-to-one advice in your own office if necessary. Just contact me ( and I can talk you through problems or arrange a call out.

We have also two high spec laptops already loaded with the Camtasia Studio software, together with some excellent quality microphones and we are happy to lend these out.


A number of you seem confused by the range of applications/software, and which did what, so here is a summary:DSC_3531




Screencapture software


Camtasia Studio – ( screencapture platform – simply it records the screen and produces it to be uploaded to an MP4, YouTube, or (this gives your screencast a www address which is useful for embedding in webpages or emailing to others). You can have a free Camtasia Studio 30 day trial (they are happy to extend this if necessary) and the licence is low cost.

Jing- ( screencapture free platform – records the screen and is free but quality is not as good as Camtasia. The disadvantage also is that your recordings are limited to 5 minutes.


There are many other forms of free screencast software such as Screen o matic (, Snagit ( Free software however usually have limitations and are designed to encourage upgrading to paid alternatives. For Apple Mac, Tapes ( has extremely good reviews and is good value for money.


For a non-bias, educational viewpoint from an expert who has tried all screencapture software see :


Presentation software


Prezi – ( free presentation software – a vast number of thematic and colourful templates that can be used to produce presentations. The software zooms in on different areas of the DSC_3533screen and can include Youtube or other screencapture clips. Prezi comes with a huge number of free templates. The websites Prezi Base and Prezi Zip offer even more choice. Most templates on these sights cost around $10 but they can be used again and again.


Powtoons – ( free cartoon type software using quirky presentation tools and music, as well as “read as you write” text. Students like this medium but it can also be used for more formal presentations too

Video Scribe – ( free 7 day trial


Our next group session will be Friday 27 March from 1-3pm in Carrington 101 – you can either, come along and build upon your experience, ask any questions or feedback any problems…… or if you have not been motivated enough by either the last session or time constraints, have a recap and a try!




Our hardware has arrived!

Just in time for our ‘Lunch and Learn’ on Friday, all our hardware and software has now arrived! To help people get started with screen capture, we’ve got two computers (a Toshiba Satellite Pro and a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet + stylus), with Camtasia Studio installed on them, plus two USB microphones. We’ll be using these to make further screencasts during the project, but it’s also possible to borrow them for your own screencasting. Just contact the team!


Lunch, learn and homemade cake!!!

The GRASS project team are very excited to announce that our first ‘Lunch and Learn’ event will run on Friday 28th November in Palmer 103. We’ll be outlining our experiences and answering questions from 1 until 2. Those of you who like to stay on and receive one to one help are very welcome to stay until 3. We’ll have a buffet lunch and a range of HOMEMADE cakes including lemon tarts, chocolate brownies and butterfly cakes. Just sign up via Employee Self-Service or e-mail me to confirm your place!!

If you need a reminder about why we’re all SO enthusiastic about screen capture have a quick look at our 90 second summary screen cast by clicking on the floating island below… we hope to see many of you at our first major event!!!

SC at Reading for event