Pencasting with a Wacom tablet: Time to revisit this option

Around the start of the Fall term in September 2014, I found myself in a bit of a bind: My level of frustration with Livescribe pencasting had peaked, and was I desperately seeking alternatives. To be clear, it was changes to the Livescribe platform that were the source of this frustration, rather than pencasting as a means for visual communication. In fact, if anything, a positive aspect of the Livescribe experience was that I was indeed SOLD on pencasting as an extremely effective means for communicating visually – an approach that delivered significant value in instructional settings such as the large classes I was teaching at the university level.

In an attempt to make use of an alternative to the Livescribe platform then, I discovered and acquired a small Wacom tablet. Whereas I rapidly became proficient in use of the Livescribe Echo smartpen, because it was truly like making use of a regular pen, my own learning curve with the Wacom solution was considerably steeper.

To be concrete, you can view on Youtube a relatively early attempt. As one viewer commented:

Probably should practice the lecture. Too many pauses um er ah.

Honestly, that was more a reflection of my grasp of the Wacom platform than my expertise with the content I was attempting to convey through this real-time screen capture. In other words, my comfort level with this technology was so low that I was distracted by it. Given that many, many thousands of visual (art) professionals make use of this or similar solutions from Wacom, I’m more that willing to admit that this one was ‘on me’ – I wasn’t ‘a natural’.

With the Wacom solution, you need to train your eyes to be fixed on your screen, while your hand writes/draws/etc. on the tablet. Not exactly known for my hand-eye coordination in general, it’s evident that I struggled with this technology. As I look at the results some four years later, I’m not quite as dismayed as I expected to be. My penmanship isn’t all that bad – even though I still find writing and drawing with this tablet to be a taxing exercise in humility. In hindsight, I’m also fairly pleased with the Wacom tablet’s ability to permit use of colour, as well as lines of different thicknesses. This flexibility, completely out of scope in the solution from Livescribe, introduces a whole next level of prospects for visual communication.

Knowing that others have mastered the Wacom platform, and having some personal indication of its potential to produce useful results, I’m left with the idea of giving this approach another try – soon. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Livescribe Pencasting: Seizing Uncertainty from Success

Echo’es of a Glorified Past

[Optional musical accompaniment: From their album Meddle, Pink Floyd’s Echoes (via their Youtube channel).]

I first learned about pencasting from an elementary-school teacher at a regional-networking summit in 2011.

It took me more than a year to acquire the technology and start experimenting. My initial experiences, in making use of this technology in a large, first-year course at the university level, were extremely encouraging; and after only a week’s worth of experimentation, my ‘findings’ were summarized as follows:

  • Decent-quality pencasts can be produced with minimal effort
  • Pencasts compliment other instructional media
  • Pencasts allow the teacher to address both content and skills-oriented objectives
  • Pencasts are learner-centric
  • I’m striving for authentic, not perfect pencasts

The details that support each of these findings are provided in my April 2012 blog post. With respect to test driving the pencasts in a large-lecture venue, I subsequently shared:

  • The visual aspects of the pencast are quite acceptable
  • The audio quality of the pencasts is very good to excellent
  • One-to-many live streaming of pencasts works well
  • Personal pencasting works well

Again, please refer to my original post in October 2012 for the details.

Over the next year or so, I must’ve developed of order 20 pencasts using the Livescribe Echo smartpen – please see below for a sample. Given that the shortest of these pencasts ran 15-20 minutes, my overall uptake and investment in the technology was significant. I unexpectedly became ‘an advocate for the medium’, as I shared my pencasts with students in the courses I was teaching, colleagues who were also instructing in universities and high schools, plus textbook publishers. At one point, I even had interest from both the publisher and an author of the textbook I was using in my weather and climate class to develop a few pencasts – pencasts that would subsequently be made available as instructional media to any other instructor who was making use of this same textbook.

[Sample pencast: Download a mathematical example – namely, Hydrostatic Equation – Usage Example – 2013-06-15T12-10-06-0. Then, use the Livescribe player, desktop, iOS or Android app to view/listen.]

The Slings and Arrows of Modernization

Unfortunately, all of this changed in the Summer of 2015. Anticipating the impending demise of Adobe Flash technology, in what was marketed as a ‘modernization’ effort, Livescribe rejected this one-time staple in favour of their own proprietary appropriation of the Adobe PDF. Along with the shift to the Livescribe-proprietary format for pencasts then, was an implicit requirement to make use of browser, desktop or mobile apps from this sole-source vendor. As if these changes weren’t enough, Livescribe then proceeded to close its online community – the vehicle through which many of us were sharing our pencasts with our students, colleagues, etc. My frustration was clearly evident in a comment posted to Livescribe’s blog in September 2014:

This may be the tipping point for me and Livescribe products – despite my investment in your products and in pencast development … I’ve been using virtual machines on my Linux systems to run Windows so that I can use your desktop app. The pay off for this inconvenience was being able to share pencasts via the platform-neutral Web. Your direction appears to introduce complexities that translate to diminishing returns from my increasingly marginalized Linux/Android perspective …

From the vantage point of hindsight in 2018, and owing to the ongoing realization of the demise of Flash, I fully appreciate that Livescribe had to do something about the format they employed to encode their pencasts; and, given that there aren’t any open standards available (are there?), they needed to develop their own, proprietary format. What remains unfortunate, however, is the implicit need to make use of their proprietary software to actually view and listen to the pencasts. As far as I can tell, their browser-based viewer still doesn’t work on popular Linux-based platforms (e.g., Ubuntu), while you’ll need to have a Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac OS X based platform to make use of their desktop application. Arguably, the most-positive outcome from ‘all of this’ is that their apps for iOS and Android devices are quite good. (Of course, it took them some time before the Android app followed the release of the iOS app.)

Formats aside, the company’s decision to close its community still, from the vantage point of 2018, strikes me as a strategic blunder of epic proportions. (Who turns their back on their community and expects to survive?) Perhaps they (Livescribe) didn’t want to be in the community-hosting business themselves. And while I can appreciate and respect that position, alternatives were available at the time, and abound today.

Pencasting Complexified

[Full disclosure: I neither own, nor have I used the Livescribe 3 smartpen alluded to in the following paragraph. In other words, this is my hands-off take on the smartpen. I will happily address factual errors.]

At one point, and in my opinion, the simplicity of the Livescribe Echo smartpen was its greatest attribute. As a content producer, all I needed was the pen and one of Livescribe’s proprietary notebooks, plus a quiet place in which to record my pencasts. Subsequent innovation from the company resulted in the Livescribe 3 smartpen. Though it may well be designed “… to work and write like a premium ballpoint pen …”, the complexity introduced now requires the content producer to have the pen, the notebook, a bluetooth headset plus an iOS or Android device to capture pencasts. In this case, there is a serious price to be paid for modernization – both figuratively and literally.

According to Wikipedia, the Livescribe 3 smartpen was introduced in November 2013. And despite the acquisition by Anoto about two-years later, innovation appears to have ceased. So much for first-mover advantage, and Jim Marggraff’s enviable track record of innovation.

My need to pencast remains strong – even in 2018. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’ll understand why I might be more than slightly reluctant to fork out the cash for a Livescribe 3 smartpen. There may be alternatives, however; and I do expect that future posts may share my findings, lessons learned, best practices, etc.

Feel free to weigh in on this post via the comments – especially if you have alternatives to suggest. Please note: Support for Linux highly desirable.

Pencasting During Lectures in Large Venues

In a recent post on pencasting as a way of teaching/learning weather and climate, I stated:

Monday (October 1, 2012), I intend to use a pencast during my lecture – to introduce aspects of the stability of Earth’s atmosphere. I’ll try to share here how it went. For this intended use of the pencast, I will use a landscape mode for presentation – as I expect that’ll work well in the large lecture hall I teach in. I am, however, a little concerned that the lines I’ll be drawing will be a little too thin/faint for the students at the back of the lecture theatre to see …

I followed through as advertized (above) earlier today.

Image

My preliminary findings are as follows:

  • The visual aspects of the pencast are quite acceptable – This is true even in large lecture halls such as the 500-seat Price Family Cinema at York University (pictured above) in Toronto, Canada where I am currently teaching. I used landscape mode for today’s pencast, and zoomed it in a little. A slightly thicker pen option would be wonderful for such situations … as would different pen colours (the default is green).
  • The audio quality of the pencasts is very good to excellent – Although my Livescribe pen came with a headset/microphone, I don’t use it. I simply use the built-in microphone on the pen, and speak normally when I am developing pencasts. Of course, the audio capabilities of the lecture hall I teach in are most excellent for playback!
  • One-to-many live streaming of pencasts works well – I streamed live directly from myLivescibe today. I believe the application infrastructure is based largely on Adobe Flash and various Web services delivered by Web Objects. Regardless of the technical underpinnings, live streaming worked well. Of course, I could’ve developed a completely self-contained PDF file, downloaded this, and run the pencast locally using Adobe Reader.
  • Personal pencasting works well – I noticed that a number of students were streaming the pencast live for themselves during the lecture. In so doing, they could control interaction with the pencast.

Anecdotally, a few students mentioned that they appreciated the pencast during the break period – my class meets once per for a three-hour session.

Although I’ve yet to hear this feedback directly from the students, I believe I need to:

  • Decrease the duration of pencasts – Today’s lasts about 10 minutes
  • Employ a less-is-more approach/strategy – My pencasts are fairly involved when done …
  • Experiment with the right balance of speaking to penning (is that even a word!?) – Probably a less-is-more approach/strategy would work well here for both the penned and spoken word …

Finally, today’s pencast on the basics of atmospheric stability:

  • Previous approach – Project an illustration taken directly from the course’s text. This is a professionally produced, visually appealing, detailed, end-result, static diagram that I embedded in my presentation software (I use Google Docs for a number of reasons.) Using a laser pointer, my pedagogy called for a systematic deconstruction this diagram – hoping that the students would be engaged enough to actually follow me. Of course, in the captured versions of my lectures, the students don’t actually see where I’m directing the laser pointer. The students have access to the course text and my lecture slides. I have no idea if/how they attempt to ingest and learn from this approach.
  • Pencasting – As discussed elsewhere, the starting point is a blank slate. Using the pencasting technology, I sketch my own rendition of the illustration from the text. As I build up the details, I explain the concept of stability analyses. Because the sketch appears as I speak, the students have the potential to follow me quite closely – and if they miss anything, they can review the pencast after class at their own pace. The end result of a pencast is a sketch that doesn’t hold a candle to the professionally produced illustration provided in the text and my lecture notes. However, to evaluate the pencast as merely a final product, I believe, misses the point completely. Why? I believe the pencast is a far superior way to teach and to learn in situations such as this one. Why? I believe the pencast allows the teacher to focus on communication – communication that the learner can also choose to be highly receptive to, and engaged by.

I still regard myself as very much a neophyte in this arena. However, as the above final paragraphs indicate, pencasting is a disruptive innovation whose value in teaching/learning merits further investigation.

Teaching/Learning Weather and Climate via Pencasting

I first heard about it a few years ago, and thought it sounded interesting … and then, this past Summer, I did a little more research and decided to purchase a Livescribe 8 GB Echo(TM) Pro Pack. Over the Summer, I took notes with the pen from time-to-time and found it to be somewhat useful/interesting.

Just this week, however, I decided it was time to use the pen for the originally intended purpose: Making pencasts for the course I’m currently teaching in weather and climate at Toronto’s York University. Before I share some sample pencasts, please allow me to share my findings based on less than a week’s worth of `experience’:

  • Decent-quality pencasts can be produced with minimal effort – I figured out the basics (e.g., how to record my voice) in a few minutes, and started on my first pencast. Transferring the pencast from the pen to the desktop software to the Web (where it can be shared with my students) also requires minimal effort. “Decent quality” here refers to both the visual and audio elements. The fact that this is both a very natural (writing with a pen while speaking!) and speedy (efficient/effective) undertaking means that I am predisposed towards actually using the technology whenever it makes sense – more on that below. Net-net: This solution is teacher-friendly.
  • Pencasts compliment other instructional media – This is my current perspective … Pencasts compliment the textbook readings I assign, the lecture slides plus video/audio captures I provide, the Web sites we all share, the Moodle discussion forums we engage in, the Tweets I issue, etc. In the spirit of blended learning it is my hope that pencasts, in concert with these other instructional media, will allow my TAs and I to `reach’ most of the students in the course.
  • Pencasts allow the teacher to address both content and skills-oriented objectives – Up to this point, my pencasts have started from a blank page. This forces me to be focused, and systematically develop towards some desired content (e.g., conceptually introducing the phase diagram for H2O) and/or skills (e.g., how to calculate the slope of a line on a graph) oriented outcome. Because students can follow along, they have the opportunity to be fully engaged as the pencast progresses. Of course, what this also means is that this technology can be as effective in the first-year university level course I’m currently teaching, but also at the academic levels that precede (e.g., grade school, high school, etc.) and follow (senior undergraduate and graduate) this level.
  • Pencasts are learner-centric – In addition to be teacher-friendly, pencasts are learner-centric. Although a student could passively watch and listen to a pencast as it plays out in a linear, sequential fashion, the technology almost begs you to interact with it. As noted previously, this means a student can easily replay some aspect of the pencast that they missed. Even more interestingly, however, students can interact with pencasts in a random-access mode – a mode that would almost certainly be useful when they are attempting to apply the content/skills conveyed through the pencast to a tutorial or assignment they are working on, or a quiz or exam they are actively studying for. It is important to note that both the visual and audio elements of the pencast can be manipulated with impressive responsiveness to random-access input from the student.
  • I’m striving for authentic, not perfect pencasts – With a little more practice and some planning/scripting, I’d be willing to bet that I could produce an extremely polished pencast. Based on past experience teaching today’s first-year university students, I’m fairly convinced that this is something they couldn’t care less about. Let’s face it, my in-person lectures aren’t perfectly polished, and neither are my pencasts. Because I can easily go back to existing pencasts and add to them, I don’t need to fret too much about being perfect the first time. Too much time spent fussing here would diminish the natural and speedy aspects of the technology.

Findings aside, on to samples:

  • Calculating the lapse rate for Earth’s troposphere – This is a largely a skills-oriented example. It was my first pencast. I returned twice to the original pencast to make changes – once to correct a spelling mistake, and the second time to add in a bracket (“Run”) that I forgot. I communicated these changes to the students in the course via an updated link shared through a Moodle forum dedicated to pencasts. If you were to experience the updates, you’d almost be unaware of the lapse of time between the original pencast and the updates, as all of this is presented seamlessly as a single pencast to the students.
  • Introducing the pressure-temperature phase diagram for H2O – This is largely a content-oriented example. I got a little carried away in this one, and ended up packing in a little too much – the pencast is fairly long, and by the time I’m finished, the visual element is … a tad on the busy side. Experience gained.

Anecdotally, initial reaction from the students has been positive. Time will tell.

Next steps:

  • Monday (October 1, 2012), I intend to use a pencast during my lecture – to introduce aspects of the stability of Earth’s atmosphere. I’ll try to share here how it went. For this intended use of the pencast, I will use a landscape mode for presentation – as I expect that’ll work well in the large lecture hall I teach in. I am, however, a little concerned that the lines I’ll be drawing will be a little too thin/faint for the students at the back of the lecture theatre to see …
  • I have two sections of the NATS 1780 Weather and Climate course to teach this year. One section is taught the traditional way – almost 350 students in a large lecture theatre, 25-student tutorial groups, supported by Moodle, etc. In striking contrast to the approach taken in the meatspace section, is the second section where almost everything takes place online via Moodle. Although I have yet to support this hypothesis with any data, it is my belief that these pencasts are an excellent way to reach out to the students in the Internet-only section of the course. More on this over the fullness of time (i.e., the current academic session.)

Feel free to comment on this post or share your own experiences with pencasts.