Meet the ScreenFlow-er: Dr. Frank Lowney

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My next subject in the Meet the ScreenFlow-er series is Dr. Frank Lowney.

Dr. Frank Lowney

As the Senior Director for External Projects in Web Enabled Resources, as well as a Professor in the School of Education at Georgia College & State University, Frank adds an interesting angle to this series in that he’s using screencasting in novel ways to aid in teaching and learning.

The way he uses ScreenFlow really sparked some new ideas for me about other ways I could be using screencasting. Read on, and hopefully, it will spark some ideas for you as well.

1) How long have you been screencasting and approximately how many screencasts have you made?

I’ve been screencasting since before 2000, starting with SnapzPro. I still use Snapz Pro X for screen shots but seldom use the movie option now that I have ScreenFlow. When QuickTime 3 introduced interactive “wired” sprites, several apps to make use of this capability sprang forth. The most powerful of these was LiveStage Pro (LSP c. 2001). This offered me a completely different approach to screencasting. LSP was a very powerful tool with a steep learning curve. Here’s an example of one of those early screencasts.

Note the CC toggle button (click on it and see what happens) and the green arrow that moves around. These interactive screencasts were all done with “wired sprites.” LiveStage Pro exposed this and much, much more with a scripting language called QScript. Something like Flash ActionScript or Silverlight scripting. For good or for ill, Apple is moving away from this model and toward HTML 5 so I don’t use LiveStage Pro anymore. QuickTime Player X will not play these movies but QuickTime 7.x or the QuickTime web plug-in will play them so use one of those instead.

Then I discovered ScreenFlow. What an epiphany after hand-wiring movies with QScript! An Apple engineer that I was working with on an obscure problem showed me one of his first screencasts to help me better understand the issue that we were discussing. It was done in ScreenFlow 1.0 and it knocked my socks off!

ScreenFlow was owned by Vara Software at the time and I immediately struck up a relationship with the developers. I was able to help them with a problem related to 30” Cinema Displays and they helped me learn the basics and patiently listened to all of my enhancement requests. The rest, as they say, is well known history.

Because I’m always trying to explain some concept in educational technology or trying convince someone that a project is worth funding, I am always working on a screencast. I think, therefore I screencast (with apologies to Descartes).

2) For what purposes and what audiences to do you make your screencasts?

In addition to my association with Georgia College & State University as a Professor of Education, I am also associated with the Georgia Digital Innovation Group which is housed on the GCSU campus. The DI Group sponsors the adoption and use of educational technologies throughout the 35 institutions that make up the University System of Georgia. Thus, I get to work with faculty, staff and others on a state-wide basis. We also seek external funding and partnerships for those efforts. One of our associates is Telestream.

Thus, I have many different audiences and many different stories to tell. So, here’s a little two column matrix with purpose on the left and audience(s) on the right:

Purpose of screencast

Audience(s)

Record webinars and other online events for further study, excerpting and reference

Myself and close associates

Visualize prototypes for proposals and development

Potential funders and implementers

Submit bug reports

Vendors and software engineers

Analyze workflows and explain them to others

Faculty and students who use the system being portrayed

Rehearse presentations, solicit feedback on some point or the whole thing

Experts and people representative of target audience

Record presentations “live” (my own and others)

Attendees (review) and interested others (time-shifting)

Tutorials for software that our university system supports

Faculty and student end users

Create instructional materials

Students (indirectly) and faculty who develop specs

Think through a lecture or presentation where screencast is only used internally

Myself (a tool to think with)

Create elements for interactive, rich media eTexts

Small test/focus groups to obtain feedback

3) What kind of studio or set up do you have?

Dr. Lowney’s Office
… and the home office

Some of my screencasts are done live so, for those, I rely on my MacBook Pro with built-in mic and camera and try to deal with whatever conditions I find on location. For these, I often feel the need to do much more post processing of audio. There are two other locations that I use, my university office and my home office. In these locations, I use a Mac Pro and a Samson CO1U USB mic.

4) What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of creating your screencasts?

Getting “the story” straight in my own mind. To meet this challenge, I often use screencasting as a “tool to think with.” There’s an old adage, “He learns best who prepares to teach,” which seems to work pretty well in my case. I learn all sorts of things I didn’t know before I start to prepare a screencast and sometimes I find a few bugs too. Since I work with emerging educational technologies, I don’t have a lot of precedent to build upon. Thus, it often happens that I feel the need to re-do a screencast several times before I am satisfied that I have the story straight. Then, I start agonizing over the pedagogy of presentation. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to carry this process out to its logical conclusion for every project so many of my screencasts are “works in progress” awaiting their next upgrade. I even have a long queue of screencasts yet to be done.

BTW, this idea of computer environments as “tools to think with” originates with Seymour Papert, MIT prof, creator of the LOGO computer language and author of “Mindstorms” where he articulated this notion so very clearly. He based his ideas on the theoretical work of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

5) What’s the process you use for creating your screencasts?

That all depends upon the objective and the audience (see matrix above). Thus, I have many different strategies. I have no one-size-fits-all approach.

So, let me pick one recent screencast and talk about that because it’s still fresh in memory. The objective was to prepare for an important upcoming presentation where I had only 45 minutes to talk about stuff that was still new to me, not to mention even newer to my audience. What to say and how to say it clearly to an audience savvy in distance education in 45 minutes or less. That was the challenge.

So I started out in Keynote to cover the topic. I often use many little screencasts in my presentations because they say so much in a short period of time. Doing those short screencasts helped me identify the things I didn’t really understand as well as I should. More research. More screencasts. More slides. This is an iterative process that goes on until I am satisfied that I understand the topics well enough to help someone else do likewise. The next step was to add slides to Keynote that introduce the key ideas and the screencasts. To this, I added annotations as speakers’ notes making them verbatim and very script like. This, too, is an iterative process and sometimes includes enlisting others for comment and criticism.

Next, I practice the presentation using two displays, one being captured by ScreenFlow and the other to display speakers notes and other Keynote presenters’ tools. For this objective, I do everything simultaneously because that best replicates the situation that I am training myself for. You might also call this “nested” screencasting because I am making one big screencast of the smaller screencasts in my presentation. This, too, is an iterative process. Not only am I cutting less important things out to meet the time limit, I am also continuing to discover or invent better ways to describe and illustrate the key ideas. It can even happen that I go back to square one on some aspect of the presentation or another. Keynote typography, shapes, builds, transitions and animations can add a lot to the impact of the final screencast.

Finally, I have the message and the delivery as right as I can make it and I can file that screencast and related assets away for repurposing later on or I can also make it available to attendees for review and others who didn’t have the opportunity to experience the presentation in person. Later on, I want to incorporate green screening so that I may really get into my screencasts.

6) Do you have a screencast that you’re especially proud of?

I don’t yet have a screencast that I’m proud of because of its technical excellence or innovation yet but I do have this one which was created to rehearse for a presentation that I recently delivered. This is the same screencast referenced in my response to the previous question. What I’m most happy with here is that I have been able to present and use this work in multiple ways as follows:

  • This web page was offered to conference attendees as a “companion site” for the presentation. It not only contains links to in-depth treatments of topics covered in the presentation but also includes the rehearsal screencast for review and wider sharing after and beyond the face-to-face version.
  • The companion site also illustrates multiple ways of sharing video, screencasts included. The iTunes view relies on a special server that we developed for the University System of Georgia but you can achieve a similar effect with any server that auto-generates an RSS feed or you can manually maintain an RSS feed on any standard web server with nothing more than a text editor. The iPhone web app presentation is also auto-generated by this specialized server.
  • I have been asked to give this presentation to other audiences so will try to use it as an experiment with the screencast as an “advance organizer.” In these cases, I will ask the audience to view the screencast prior to the face-to-face session to see if we can elevate the level of conversation from basic information gathering to something approaching analysis, synthesis and evaluation. We shall see.
  • I may continue to tweak this project so as to exemplify other things that I think are important to educational video. Adding toggle-able soft subtitles in English and other languages is one and adding chapter markers to review specific topics is another.

7) What other programs/accessories do you use besides ScreenFlow to create your screencasts?

I don’t do a lot of camera work to produce talking heads or talking torsos because I want to make that kind of footage add to the message in important ways instead of using up a lot of precious pixels in simply branding it as mine. This is also why I’m so interested in seeing green screening come to ScreenFlow. However, when I do use a camera, I use the Apple iSight preferring the now discontinued external model because it is so much more versatile. Although green screening might change my mind, these video cameras are just fine for me right now. I do like to use the Internet Archive to get interesting and unencumbered video clips but sometimes break out my old Canon Optura 100 to capture original video where portability is necessary.

Microphones are a different story. Although I will use the built-in mic when I have to, I prefer getting better input than that. On the road with live screencasting, I can sometimes use the sound system provided by the venue to do direct input into a laptop. This is really great where they have a mixer and wireless mics so that audience questions can be picked up. TIP: If you can’t do that, always repeat the question so that folks who listen later can get both the Q and the A in Q&A.

For studio recording, I use a USB mic but would love to have amps, mixers, filters and so on. The Samson CO1U works fine for me but I’ve heard good things about the CO3U and the Blue Snowball. Being hearing impaired, I also find it useful to use headphones that cover my entire ear, including hearing aids. Getting competing sound out of the way is very helpful. I am currently using the Sennheiser headphone and like it very much.

Because I often don’t get to record audio in the best possible circumstances, I rely rather heavily on software that helps me clean it up. SoundSoap, from BIAS, works great as a standalone app but it’s also a VST Plug-in so can integrate with other audio software such as SoundStudio (Freeverse). Unfortunately, the current version of SoundStudio isn’t talking to SoundSoap so I have to use them separately for the time being. TIP: Always record several seconds without speaking so as to have a sample of whatever noise there is that will need to be filtered out. SoundSoap will “learn” this noise and get rid of it for you while preserving the human voice.

8) What advice would you give to someone just starting out screencasting?

The classic principles of communication are still operative and every bit as important as they have ever been, even in this digital age. Those principles are:

  1. Understand your message and
  2. Understand your audience.

I find both of these very challenging, especially since my audiences tend to be composed of some exceedingly sharp folks. Of course, that’s also a great opportunity. For example, one of the most important things to understand about your audience is what they already know. This will provide you with a list of metaphors that you can use to link your message to, conceptual “hooks” so to speak. It is very effective to be able to say “A is like B” where “A” is a part of your message and “B” is a concept that your audience is very familiar with.

9) What’s the stupidest mistake you’ve made when creating a screencast?

I did a presentation that I was also recording “live.” The presentation was well received and lots of people came up afterwards with questions and comments. The next speaker needed to set-up and so I tried to multi-task answering questions and clearing my speakers, laptop and associated wires from the podium. In all of that hubub, I shut my laptop down and clicked through all of the dialogs, including the one from ScreenFlow asking me whether I wanted to save my project or not. I learned a lot there such as “haste makes waste” and that multi-tasking is something that humans don’t do so well. I also learned that I could re-record the presentation later on and post the screencast as part of a podcast channel as I had promised. The delayed version was actually a little better.

10) Besides ScreenFlow what are your favorite programs for the mac?

I really like Keynote because I think in schematic, visual terms and it’s such a great outliner and visualizer. I like OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle for similar reasons. I use ScreenSplitr and DemoGod on the iPhone and iPod touch to visualize those environments and other emulators such as Einstein (Newton) to be better able to talk about those where necessary. Handbrake, Episode Pro and QuickTime Player Pro 7 and QuickTime Player X are also faves. For the exotic stuff where muxing MPEG-4 is required, I really like Subler (free) for installing multiple soft subtitle and alternate audio tracks. For creating properly timed soft subtitles, I find Jubler (free) to be just right.

Thanks Frank!

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