The Value of Screencasts

Before we start, I think some vocabulary is in order. Most word processor programs still do not recognize screencast as a word, so I just want to make sure that those who may not be familiar with the concept know what it is. Basically, a screencast is a short video that explains a process or idea to students.

We know more know about learning styles, multiple intelligences, and how students learn in general. It is surprising to me that screencasts are not more prevalent. I try to make as many connections as I can to different teachers in different places. In most of the schools in my district, I can confidently say that only 1-3 teachers regularly make and use screencasts with their students. If we take a complicated skill or process and only explain verbally, or only offer written directions, a lot of students will not follow what we are saying. Then, we as teachers often get frustrated when the students do not understand, when we in reality did not present the steps in a way that is understandable to all students. I think that most teachers can appreciate that, so why is classroom use of screen casts so rare?

My best guess is that most people do not realize how easy it is to make their own screencasts. Making a narrated computer demonstration and uploading it to a web server for students to watch sounds like it should be difficult. While I want to focus this post on the merits of screencasting, I think a brief overview of the available tools is relevant.

  1. Jing – Jing is the simplest, most easy to use screencasting application that I have used. It is completely intuitive. It works on Windows and Mac. It is free, but requires you to make an account. When your done, you can press a button to upload your video to their website. It is a wonderful program and is what I have used most often.

    1. Here is an example of a screencast that I made in Jing to help my students learn how to login to the school system’s server to get on the computers.

  2. CamStudio – Camstudio is an powerful open-source screencasting application that works on Windows only. I have not had a chance to try this one personally yet since I stopped using Windows for a time, but I have heard great things. It also won the award for best screencasting application on the Lifehacker blog (I know the name sounds like it should be nefarious, but it is a good blog that offers tips on how to accomplish things better or faster.).

  3. Screentoaster – Screentoaster is a web application. You just go to your browser and you use a program on their website to record what is happening on your computer. It requires a free account and works on almost any system.

  4. Istanbul – Istanbul is a free, open-source screencasting application for Linux. I have not had a chance to try it yet, but it will most likely be your best bet if you use Linux as your primary operating system.

  5. Camtasia Studio – Camtasio Studio is the more powerful, more complex older brother of Jing. The same company – Techsmith – makes both programs, but Camtasia Studio has a ton of features and offers advanced editing capability. It also costs about $300.

  6. Adobe Captivate 4 – I have a love-hate relationship with Adobe. I am an open-source advocate, but I will readily admit that I think Adobe makes outstanding programs; they also have outrageous prices. Captivate (Windows only) is the best screencasting program I have ever used, but it costs $800. You can make basic tutorials, but you can also make interactive tutorials that have questions and activities built-in to reinforce concepts and make sure students understand before they move on.

    1. Here is an example of a screencast that I made in Jing. This was a trial I did on Captivate to see if I wanted to buy it (I did, but no one would give me $800.). I took the same concept as the above video and added interactivity to it.

When I have to teach a concept to students, I usually follow certain steps to ensure that my students understand. I explain what we are going to be doing and why, I demonstrate it for them, I do an example with them, I post directions with pictures and detailed explanations for reference, and I provide screencasts illustrate the concept. Sometimes certain steps can be omitted, but I find this formula usually results in students understanding what they have to do and how. This way, there is no confusion and the students can focus more on the assignment and less on how to figure it out.

Screencasts are also a good tool to use to enable students. I make screencasts readily available for students on a variety of topics and once the students learn the habit of using them, they just watch the screencast that demonstrates the skill they need and move on. They do not have to stop to ask questions. This is not an example of my being lazy; it empowers the students and gives them both greater self-esteem and practice in learning on their own.

Children are not the only people who need more than one way of digesting information. I am often in a position where I have to give directions to teachers. When I started, I would just make a list and ask them to complete something (for example, how to setup your grade book properly). Very few people ever did what I asked. I moved on to sending very detailed, step-by-step directions with pictures (the pictures were even annotated; many would have the right button circled with an arrow saying “Click me!” in big letters). A much higher percent of teachers cooperated (or were able to cooperate). Now, I send both the detailed directions and a video and usually most teachers follow through. It does take more time up front, but it results in less remediation during the lesson.

I do not write about screencasts as a panacea to all the ills of education. Rather, they are just 1 tool that we can use to help our students. Here are some resources that may help you as you get started. Some 20+ examples that I made when I was working on a professional development course can be found at http://litteacher.com/Tutorials. Tomaz Lasic made several 2-minute tutorials on his blog; they are about a specific topic, but his technique may be of help while you are starting. Lastly, Larry Ferlazzo, a relentless resource sharer, put together a list of what he considers the best applications for screencasting on his blog.