Wiping the Screen Clean

Posted on 18 March 2009 at 3:32 pm in Coursework, Podcasts.

In Ancient Rome, it was fashionable for the sons of the wealthy to be educated by literate Greek slaves, some individually, others in small, privately run schools with at most a dozen students. The typical writing materials of the era were parchment (made from animal skins; vellum, from calves, was considered the highest quality) or papyrus, made from beaten reeds. However, both parchment and papyrus were too expensive for children’s education, so tutors used a clever alternative: a wax tablet and stylus.

The tutor or his students could use the stylus to draw markings in the semi-soft wax; afterwards, the text could be smoothed out and the tablet used again. With this tool, the tutor would teach the most important subjects to his students: Greek, Latin, and arithmetic. This idea never went away — from slate chalkboards to contemporary whiteboards, reusable writing surfaces have had a long lifetime.

Education today, of course, takes many forms, and extends far beyond the classroom. With distance learning enjoying ever-increasing acceptance, new tools had to be created to allow for classroom-quality teaching to be available in an asynchronous electronic environment. The computer, once owned and online, is a tool where lessons can be written and re-written, viewed and re-viewed, and updated all with minimal cost. One tool intended to fulfill that role is screencasting. A screencast is a video screen capture combined with narration and disseminated using RSS feed enclosures, much like a podcast or vlog.

One entertaining and well-known example of a screencast is the ‘heavy metal umlaut‘ screencast by Jon Udell that serves as a primer on wikipedia.

So how is the screencast being used by our bibliosphere? Meredith Farkas points out a number of examples:

  • The UCLA Library’s “Road to Research” online research guide contains a number of screencasts, such as this side-by-side comparison of Google Scholar and the PsychINFO database.
  • Princeton’s “UChannel” streams a mix of screencasts, filmed lectures and other materials, also available over RSS feeds and iTunes.
  • The University of Maine has many of their online tutorials available as screencasts.

Other institutions use related technology for the same purpose. San Francisco State’s J. Paul Leonard Library prefers narrated slideshow style presentations, such as this one entitled Intro to College Level Research. I like this product since it avoids some of the herky-jerky, follow-the-mouse effects of Camtasia screencasts; it also has easy-to-use options for captions for users without speakers or headphones (this can be very important for library users!).

This is one of the chief perils of relying on screencast technology for user education; users at library computer terminals may not be able to listen to narrated presentations, or even if the library allows sound, they may hesitate to. We cannot assume that all users are accessing these types of resources from home computers; in fact, many users are at the library because they do not have home internet access. Therefore, we should provide multiple options, including captioned presentations and non-video (text and/or image-based) alternatives.

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