Screencasts: An Ode

Alternate titles for this post were “How Do I Love Thee Screencasts? Let Me Count the Ways” and “10 Things I Love About You.” In other words, please excuse the hyperbolic enthusiasm with which I am about to wax lyrical.

Last year, I spent each week driving to and from New York state from my home in Massachusetts in 3-hour stints, during which I had plenty of time to consume podcast episodes. Quite often, I would listen to Bonni Stachowiak, host of Teaching in Higher Ed, discuss using screencasts in her teaching. She mentioned an app called Screencast-o-Matic, software that was then a sponsoring partner of her podcast.

I never gave her review of the software much attention, however. One reason, perhaps, was that Moodle and Blackboard had not made it apparent to me that such capabilities were available, unlike Canvas—to which I’ve recently been migrated—whose Studio software is integrated into the LMS. Not that this is an excuse, but I’m sure many of us find convenience a key motivator for instituting any new technology. It didn’t sound easy.

I wouldn't think about screencasts again until last month, when a new colleague sent me my first link to a screencast video. A week later, I began teaching three remote courses online, two of which are entirely asynchronous. And the serendipity gods sprung into heavenly song.

I must confess. I am in love.

“Screencasts? What are those?”

Screencasts are video recordings of your desktop. You select what portion of the screen you want to shoot, and the video recorder captures all the activity that goes on there. You can record anything—an open document, a PDF, a web browser window, etc., and you can switch among multiple tasks and programs with ease. You can accompany these videos with audio narration that is created at the same time, or even use a webcam recording of your lovely face narrating the video in a small picture-in-picture insert.

Surprisingly, I’m not sure many people are making the best use of screencasts. When, for example, I scouted the first dozen pages of Google search results on Screencasts and Teaching, hoping to gather a bunch of useful overviews and instructional content for you, and in particular screening institutional teaching and learning centers to find them, a funny thing happened. Not one of them included a screencast. Not. A. One.

So, instead of telling you what a screencast is, why don’t I first show you. Two birds, one digital stone.

* Caveat: One accessibility drawback is that my videos are not yet captioned. Studio in Canvas allows you to create transcripts, as does YouTube. I am working on integrating this feature into my productions.

“Hm. Should I use screencasts?”

Many posts online will tell you that screencasts are suited well for the “flipped classroom” model. But since I believe the humanities classroom has already been flip-flopping the lecture model for an awfully long time, the analogy of lecture-at-home, homework-in-class doesn’t quite work for me.

They will also inform you about various strategies by which you can script, storyboard, and edit your Screencasts to perfection. I also disagree with this take. Perhaps if you want to capture a lecture that you plan to use over and over again, you will want to create a polished product the first time. I understand that impulse. By all means, script away.

But for me, the priceless value of screencasting is that it can produce quick, efficient, and easily accessed versions of what you would otherwise be discussing with students in the classroom or in person.

If it will take you longer to produce a screencast than to write up a manual, document, or lecture notes, then why go through the technical aggravation? If, however, answering a student question, demonstrating how to access something online, or clarifying a point from a lesson can be done far more quickly if you just had the chance to talk to students in person, and you can use that as a model for creating your one- or two-take screencasts, then why not produce a video in that time (or even faster).

“How would I even use screencasts?”

I’m glad you asked.

Here are 10 possible applications of screencasts, in no particular order:

  1. Introduce yourself or the course: Before students come to class, or before they begin work on a remote, online course where personal interaction will be rare, create a quick webcam recording where you introduce yourself and your agenda for the course. If you don’t want to be on screen, record a screencast video of yourself narrating some key points on the syllabus to acquaint students with the course and its objectives

  2. Create a navigational guide for online course platforms: Maybe you are running a course with LMS software that students need some guidance navigating on day one. Maybe you have a personal website where you store course information. Maybe you want to use an electronic app like Slack or Perusall and would like to explain to students how to set up an account, log in, and use the platform. Show them.

  3. Explain a course feature: If you’re using Discussion Boards or another LMS feature, make a quick 1-minute tutorial. Explain things you think might be self-evident to make the course feel more accessible to students who could be struggling to juggle all these new technical hoops in their current educational environment.

  4. Show students where to find you: Are you using Zoom or Microsoft Teams or some other form of video or chat-based communication tool? Point out to students exactly how they can find you and how they can access these platforms through your institution’s login systems.

  5. Answer questions or expand on something from class: Perhaps some content-based question arose after a lecture or class meeting. Use a screencast to expand on the topic, perhaps assisted by a few slides created in PowerPoint or Google Slides.

  6. Record a lecture: This is the obvious use for screencasts, but it’s not my favorite. I think screencasts would be best kept to short 10-12-minute videos at most, not a full 30-60-minute lecture. But if you need it, go for it. You could record yourself through your webcam or design a slideshow presentation that you narrate to deliver the information the way you might have done in the “live” classroom setting. You could also provide short lectures to mix up the delivery dynamic of the class as a whole.

  7. Provide feedback on an exam, problem set, or other student classwork: Instead of taking class time to review an exam (or not providing extensive feedback at all, as might be an option by default for online courses), record a screencast where you explain the reasoning or model the correct work behind the answers for a problem set, exam, etc.

  8. Comment on student writing: Instead of spending time writing marginal comments that students may glance at or have trouble parsing (I find I’m always too thorough and students can have difficulty triaging the key points I’m really getting at), give each student a screencast where you hit on the major takeways that you want them to understand about their paper. Highlight sticky areas and demonstrate possible alternatives, and show them the 2-3 things you most want them to focus on improving, with examples. I am sure students will appreciate the personal touch, and I look forward to using this approach with all of my classes, whether online or not.

  9. Students create screencasts. The possibilities here are endless, too, and obviously I have focused the above recommendations on ways that instructors can create screencasts for their educational spaces. Why not ask students to do the same? They could provide peer feedback using screencasts, present material for the class (especially for online courses where in-class presentations are now impossible), or explain material for one another. The list goes on.

If you’d like to see examples of screencasts I have created for my courses, you can check out this 10-minute introduction to navigating a course website. That video is intended to be a supplement to an overview delivered during our first synchronous meeting. A link to the video is housed on the website's FAQ page, as a reminder of where things are located on our course site and how to find key information.

Or watch this instructional video on creating annotations within electronic documents for note-taking purposes (forward to the 3-minute mark to skip over my intro mini-lecture about why we should take notes as we read):

So far this semester, I have also created short 3-5-minute videos within Canvas (using the internal Studio app) to help students navigate our asynchronous course site, understand weekly modules layouts, and learn how to post to discussion board forums. The applications are endless!

But wait, it gets better

And now this brings me to the #1 reason I have fallen completely head-over-heels for screencast technology:

10. Allow students to watch your thinking in action.

The screencast I am most delighted with—even though, like the others above, it is still messy and slightly unpolished and of course could have been scripted and edited to perfection—is a "how-to" on Close Reading.

Instead of telling students some rules or guidelines for close reading or using samples of student writing, I created a screencast that shows one small example of how I would close-read a passage from one of our course readings.

In the live, face-to-face classroom, some of this information would be communicated in the way we would work through a reading together. But honestly, I spend so much time drawing out students’ ideas that I rarely model for students in this precise of detail how I would go about doing it myself.

Giving students an opportunity to watch us in action is, I think, one of the priceless values that we each bring to teaching. It's the reason that education cannot be automated.

Show students how you think. Let them watch an expert—you!—work through an equation, write code, annotate a passage, review a scientific study. Allow them to see all the nuanced details of how you do what you do, so that they, too, might practice these skills. Do it more thoroughly than you would have an opportunity to do in the classroom. Use the screencast as a supplement to your in-class or online discussions. Expose your insights so that your learners can see how it might be done. Then try it out for themselves.

Are you sold yet?

“Are screencasts only good for online courses?”

I will now be using screencasts for all my classes moving forward, regardless of whether they’re pandemic-adjacent or not.

For asynchronous courses, where I will rarely, if ever, be speaking to the students in “real time,” screencast recordings can be a phenomenal way to convey my tone, personality, and teaching demeanor—not to mention my empathy, care, and desire for connection with students. Moreover, it allows me to vary my communication systems so that students are not overwhelmed with text upon text upon text.

For synchronous remote courses, and for future face-to-face courses, I plan to use screencasts to provide follow-ups to classroom discussions, to offer feedback on written assignments, and to deliver additional clarity on topics, tasks, or assignments.

Why not communicate in all the multi-dimensional ways that we can?

Bonus: students can rewind.

Just do it.

Don’t overthink. Don’t over-plan. Don’t let the allure of a perfectly scripted, paced, and organized screencast detract you from actually making one in the first place.

Let your screencasts be quick and off-the-cuff. Let them be minimally planned and decently organized without extensive legwork. Let them be just as “perfect” as a class conversation or guided discussion would be.

In other words, talk the way you would in the classroom.

Because you don’t get re-takes there, either.

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